Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
Regular Season Series: OKC Leads 3 - 1
One of the league's most exciting young teams faces off with the defending NBA champions in what is destined to be a dramatic playoff series. If you're the champions, this is the last team you want to face in the opening round. The Oklahoma City Thunder are entering the playoffs with the regular season's third best record, built on the MVP-caliber play of Kevin Durant, the superstar-caliber play of James Harden and the All Star level performances of Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. On the other side of the court, the Mavericks have taken a giant leap back from the team they were last season, with Dirk Nowitzki putting up the worst numbers he's had in many, many years.
Speaking of numbers, the Thunder dominate the Mavericks in just about every statistical category. Dallas has a slight edge in defense, and if they can commit their full focus to that side of the court, they might be able to snatch a win or two. Part of the problem is that Dallas can't defend the Thunder at the free throw line, and OKC's big three average 20 tosses a contest alone. Dallas' starters, on the other hand, only account for 12. It's going to be a difficult margin to work against, especially if Dallas' only real hope of making some noise is on the defensive end.
Key Player for the Thunder:
Kevin Durant, of course. The NBA's 2012 scoring champion (28 ppg) is having the most efficient season of his career. The question in the past is just as pertinent now-- can he maintain his regular season efficiency in the playoffs? His 42% shooting average in the playoffs might be a thing of the past, should Durant extend the career-high 50% shooting he established in 2011-12. If Kevin Durant can even split the difference, it'll be hard to imagine how the Mavericks can even hope to stay in this series beyond five games.
Key Player for the Mavericks:
Dirk Nowitzki. The 33-year-old Nowitzki has had a challenging season, one of his worst in many years. However, it's hard to call what Dirk does "bad", given that he still averaged 22 points on 46% shooting. Given what little scoring help Nowitzki has around him, he's going to need to step it up in the playoffs or the Mavericks will go home early. If the Thunder can contain Dirk, this might be a quick contest. If Dirk can channel his strength of old, he might be able to carry the Mavs on his back for a win or two.
The Verdict: It's a battle of the old guard vs. the new, and the young guys finally have the experience and cohesion to neutralize any veteran savvy the Mavericks hope to bring to this contest. Thunder in 5.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Utah Jazz (8)
Regular Season Series: SAS Leads 3 - 1
It must be awesome to have the best GM in the league and the best coach in the league. When you have those things, you get to keep on winning, and winning, and winning and winning despite the age of your core players. The Spurs tied the Bulls for the best record in 2011-12, but led the league in field goal percentage (and 3-point shooting percentage) while coming up a close second to Denver in points per game. Tony Parker is playing like a dark horse MVP candidate, Tim Duncan is still beasting at 35, Manu Ginobili is shooting 53% from the field (!) and pretty much every other player in a Spurs uniform is blasting it far above average. The Jazz, meanwhile, have a bunch of good big men and pretty much nobody on the wings.
The Spurs lead the Jazz 3-1 in the regular season series, but that one loss to Utah came while resting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Otherwise, the average margin of victory for the Spurs was 10 points per contest.
Key Player for the Spurs:
Manu Ginobili. This was a toss-up between he and Tony Parker, but Ginobili gets the edge for his unreal shooting performance in 2011-12. Given that the Jazz have so little scoring punch in their backcourt, and not much defense to boot, the Spurs backcourt can pace this game so long as San Antonio's bigs can at least hold the Jazz steady.
Key Player for the Jazz:
Al Jefferson. Big Al leads the Jazz in points, rebounds and blocks, and the only way the Jazz will be able to keep this series even remotely competitive is if he can play at his best and avoid foul trouble. Behind him, Kanter and Favors are nice young players, but they don't have the experience to handle the Spurs' savvy front line.
The Verdict: May an army of red pandas stand firmly on the flanks of our brothers in arms at PoundingTheRock. Spurs in 4.
LA Lakers (3) vs. Denver Nuggets (6)
Regular Season Series: LAL Leads 3 - 1
This could be one hell of a series to watch. The Nuggets lead the league in scoring and assists on the second fastest pace in the game. They accomplish such offensive feats without a superstar or a go-to scorer, just a collection of cast-offs that the rest of the league overlooked. This might sound a bit familiar to you. The opposition is the LA Lakers, a team slowing down as Kobe Bryant ages by day, buoyed by the dominant frontcourt of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
If the Nuggets can find some way to neutralize one of these two frontcourt studs, they have a real shot at a competitive series that might turn out in the Nuggets favor. The funny thing is, the statistical rookie of the year Kenneth Faried only logged 19 minutes (and in only one game) vs. the Lakers this season, and he might just be the neutralizer the Nuggets need to turn the tables in their favor. That aside, I don't think the countless sportswriters that have counted out the Nuggets have taken into consideration that the Lakers only won the regular season series by 1 point on average. If the Lakers don't bring their A-game, there could be one hell of an upset in Tinseltown.
Key Player for the Lakers:
Andrew Bynum: While the Nuggets might be able to slow down Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, Bynum is going to be a very tough match. The Nuggets can try to stop him with their collection of rather rag tag centers, but Bynum might find it easy to generate the team fouls that will put the rest of his teammates on the line in closing minutes.
Key Player for the Nuggets:
Kenneth Faried: In doing my best to take my personal feelings on Faried aside, I still have to name him the difference maker in this contest. Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari are all important, but even if they can shut down Kobe the Nuggets will still need to handle either Gasol or Bynum. Kenneth Faried has the gifts to potentially neutralize one or the other especially on the glass. If Denver can win this thing, it'll be from owning the boards and protecting the paint up front.
The Verdict: I'm going to go out on a ledge here and stake what little reputation I don't have. This could be an upset, and I haven't seen any sports writers saying as such. So I will. Nuggets in 7.
Memphis Grizzlies (4) vs. LA Clippers (5)
Regular Season Series: LAC Leads 2 - 1
This has the potential to be a long, drawn-out series. It's outcome likely hinges on the health of Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies forward who averaged 22 and 11 in a long playoff run in 2011. Without a healthy Randolph, the Grizzlies are roughly even with the Clippers who were one game behind Memphis in the standings. While the backcourt matchup clearly goes to the team who has Chris Paul, the Grizzlies will have the edge if Randolph and Marc Gasol can enter the series at full strength. The one clear point of advantage that Memphis will have is at small forward, where Rudy Gay is big step up over Caron Butler in LA.
Oh, and then there's Blake Griffin, who I'm wary of mentioning because he might fall down and then I'll get whistled.
Key Player for the Grizzlies:
Zach Randolph. As mentioned above, if he's at full strength, the Grizzlies might have the advantage. He and Gasol might have an advantage on the glass against Griffin and Jordan, and Randolph can draw double teams to open up the other scorers in blue and, uh, light blue.
Key Player for the Clippers:
Chris Paul. While it's kind of a toss-up between he and Griffin, this team wouldn't be here without Chris Paul. While CP3 usually has a tougher time against taller defenders, he won't have to worry about Mike Conley. If there is an even frontcourt match between these teams, Paul will need to look for his own opportunities on offense in order to win this series.
The Verdict: This is going to be a tight toss-up, with an evenly matched frontcourt, especially since Zach Randolph isn't the player he was last year. Chris Paul's offensive game will be more important to LA than Rudy Gay's contribution to Memphis, and there is the slight edge. Clippers in 7.