What a crazy season out west this year. Much has already been written about it, but the mere fact that we came into the last two games of the year with six teams having a shot at the #1 seed is remarkable. And every Varsity Conference playoff team won fifty games for the first time since the playoffs expanded to eight teams from each conference. Think about that. The Golden State Warriors won 48 games (good enough for 4th in the east), and they finished two games OUT of the playoffs this year. Insane.
Since this year’s Varsity Conference playoff matchups are so juicy, delicious, wonderful and otherwise enchanting, we asked our buddy MO-Sack to draft a couple of these previews. Since he’s usually spot on with his picks and can sniff out a lock from a light year away, (“it’s a LOCK“), pay particular attention to his drops of wisdom.
#1 LA Lakers vs. #8 Denver (h/t MO-Sack)
Is Denver this year’s Golden State Warriors? The photo-finish for the eighth and final seed in the West represents all that is right about the Varsity Conference and all that is wrong about the JV. Both Denver and Golden State are playoff-caliber teams, or were until geography intervened against Golden State. But we give Denver a lot of credit for entering hostile Oracle arena on April 10 and dominating the home team throughout the entirety of the game. Denver earned it, and Baron Davis could learn much from AI’s ability to carouse late into the night and still perform at the highest level the following evening. In this respect, Baron’s no AI.
Overcoming Golden State was the first challenge, but what approaches is an almost impossible task. The Lakers are the best team in the Western Conference and have proved it all year, especially after stealing Pau Gasol from Memphis. Don’t believe the orgy of pejorative anti-Lakers blather currently spewing forth from ESPN; in our view, only San Antonio and Boston have a realistic chance of beating the Lakers.
Denver does not. The more difficult question is: how many games in the series will the Nuggets win? One? Two? Zero? Let’s just say that if the o/u on Denver wins against the Lakers in this series was 0.5, we’d take the under. This has nothing to do with Carmelo’s intoxication; he and Iverson will put up big numbers in this series, and AI could do so even with a hangover and one hand tied behind his back. Our reasoning focuses on the rest of the team: Denver lacks size underneath, Kenyon Martin is over-rated, Anthony Carter is Denver’s starting point-guard, and Marcus Camby takes as long to shoot the ball as it takes NASA to launch a shuttle into space. Initiate countdown now… in seven, six, five, four… Houston, we have lift-off into the next round. Lakers in 4.
Disclaimer: LA is a cesspool of narcissism, so please don’t confuse us with Lakers fans.
#2 New Orleans vs. #7 Dallas
Old vs. New. One of the better stories of the year has been the transcendent play of Chris Paul for the Hornets, who statistically had one of the best seasons by a point guard in the history of the league, leading NO to the third-best record (56-26) merely one year after finishing 39-43. This will be CP3′s first year of playoff basketball, however, and there are serious questions as to how the Hornets will handle their first taste in his regime, especially when playing as the favorites.
A story that hasn’t been discussed nearly as much this year has been the confounding drop of the Mavs from last year’s 67-15 record to monumental first-round losers and a subsequent 51-31 year. It’s apparent to us that the Mavs never really recovered from the embarrassing smackdown that the Warriors laid on them in last season’s playoffs, but this is still a very good team. Dirk Nowitzki has been playing lately like he did in his MVP year, and there is a surplus of playoff experience on this squad between J-Ho, Jason Terry, Stack and Kidd.
We think this will be a very competitive series, but Dallas tends to play better when the bullseye isn’t on their backs. We have no idea how New Orleans will respond to playoff intensity, although we’re certain that Paul will be superb. Still, the NBA playoffs come down to the equation talent+experience, and we actually believe that Dallas has New Orleans on both counts here, although their window is closing fast. Mavs in 6.
#3 San Antonio vs. #6 Phoenix
Champs Slipping? Believe it or not, but the Spurs were the #3 seed as well last year, when they pretty much steamrolled through the playoffs (with a little help from Stern’s suspensions) en route to their 4th title in the last 9 years. Still, we have a sense that people are sleeping on them a little bit this year (perhaps it has something to do with five of the six ESPN experts picking Phoenix). This first-round matchup doesn’t help. In fact, it’s probably the worst matchup that SA could face in the entire bracket of the Varsity Conference. Not only did Phoenix enjoy a 3-1 advantage in the season series, but the last two games (w/ Shaq in the lineup) were Suns blowouts. Then there’s that whole residual resentment that the Suns are surely feeling based on last year’s debacle with Nash’s bloody nose and the bench suspensions. So Phoenix is the obvoius pick, right?
Not necessarily. Like the Pats in the NFL, the Spurs are the boring team that people are sick of seeing win, but veterans like Duncan, Ginobili (Mr. Clutch) and Parker know that the regular season is just for staying healthy and treading water. When serious, there still is no more efficient team in the league (witness the thrashing Utah took on Wed. night when the Spurs could have lost home court in the first round). It’s true that the team is getting older and the role players (Horry, Barry, Vaughn) especially are showing their age, but they still have one weapon nobody else has, and he’s historically been pretty darn effective in April through June.
Tim Duncan has never lost in the first round of the playoffs – it won’t start this year. Spurs in 7.
#4 Utah vs. #5 Houston (h/t MO-Sack)
Sweet Jazz Tune or a Rocket Blast? Whatever happens in this series will not detract from the story of the year in the Association: the Rockets’ 22-game win streak during all of February and most of March. And remember, these were Varsity Conference teams that the Rockets were defeating, not their inferior JV counterparts.
But this is the playoffs. And in recent history, the playoffs have not been kind to Houston. At least this time they have home court advantage, and the best player on the court at any time in Tracy McGrady. And they would have had the two best players were it not for the loss of the big fella, Yao Ming. When the Rockets fall in this series, it won’t be because of McGrady. We expect great things from T-Mac – his superstar status is unquestionable – but his surrounding cast leaves us with some doubts. Can Shane “Mr. Ruffles” Battier continue to shine in the playoff spotlight? Is Skip 2 My Lou for real? Luis Scola is less consistent, but can Mutumbo shoulder the playoff load?
In the end it will be difficult for the Rockets to overcome that sweet Jazz tune. It’s hard enough beating those guys at sea level, but forget it at 4000 feet. Although Utah lacks home court advantage, they can and probably will beat Houston on the road. But Houston won’t beat Utah at home – their diminished lung capacity won’t allow it. Utah advances for the same reason that high-altitude Kenyan athletes dominate marathons, and because they have Jerry Sloan, one of the best coaches in the business. Jazz in 6.