Western Conf. 1st Round Previews
LAKERS (1) vs. NUGGETS (8):
Denver is one of the best 8-seeds of all-time, and are not an easy out for the Lakers. But the Nugs have a tendency to be an erratic bunch from game to game. If Denver can find some way to find some consistency on the defensive end, they could possibly make this series interesting.
Camby looks to be a good matchup vs. Gasol--Pau likes to face-up a lot in the 12-15 area, and Camby's got the length & athleticism to follow Pau. But the bigger issue for the Nugs is who is guarding Kobe? And how do they plan to guard him as a team? You could be seeing more of Smith/Kleiza instead of Carter this series to give Denver more size in the backcourt. JR Smith, Kleiza, & Najera have to step up in this series--the Nugs' lack of bench scoring hurt them last year vs. the Spurs.
The Nugs are a fairly dangerous offensive team, but the Lakers are just downright potent on offense. They have every facet covered: depth, versatility, great size, multiple shooters, multiple passers, and Kobe. Denver might be able to extend this series to 6, but I feel LA's balance is too much to handle.
LAKERS IN 5
HORNETS (2) vs. MAVERICKS (7):
Some say Paul will torch Kidd, but it's not as simple as that. Paul is sprung free a lot of the time thanks to a high ball screen. So it's not really how well Kidd can presumably cover Paul, but how the Mavericks cover the high P/R as a team. Kidd will be looking to go underneath the screen. Make Paul a jump-shooter--I know he's improved, but make him prove he can drill shots every game, he's much less dangerous when he's out on the perimeter.
Have to be judicious with double-teams of Paul on the P/R. There's not a better guy in the NBA that can split/squirm/sneak around a double-team than Paul. And when he does it, you have two defenders left behind in his wake & Paul with a head of steam heading into the lane.
The Hornets' second option after the Paul P/R is David West getting the ball at the high post area either off of P/Rs with Paul or just iso-ing. He's always a danger to stick the mid-range jumper, but he's capable of driving the ball as well.
As much as Paul can presumably cause problems for Kidd, when Paul is guarding Kidd, the Mavs can run Kidd into the post, and force the Hornets to double-down. And the Mavs did this on Wed. nite with some success--the Kidd post-ups led to good looks on the perimeter.
Think Jason Terry could be the decisive factor in this series. He's done a great job all year providing instant offense off the pine. And needs to keep burying his perimeter looks, especially the shots coming from doubles on Dirk & Kidd's post-ups & isos. Look for Dirk-Terry P/R action, has been successful this year, and they will mix it up with Terry setting the screen for Dirk.
Mavs get much more movement in their offensive sets than a year ago (even before Kidd came over). They still like to iso Dirk & Josh Howard at the foul line area, but nowhere near as much as last year. Actually, Howard seems to get the majority of the iso calls up top.
The Hornets like to force turnovers and it's a important part of their defense. The only issue is the Mavs don't turn the ball over that much. Hornets should consider putting Chandler on Dirk for short stretches. Think Tyson can handle him away from the basket area for short doses, and will not need to double Dirk as much.
Think the Mavs matchup well with the Hornets--Mavs are just as good defensively & are somewhat better on the boards. Peja has a history of struggling in the playoffs, and the Mavs have a good antidote to Peja in Howard. Also, the Mavs have the better bench, and will see if that becomes a factor.
If Dallas can be smart on how they contain Paul off of the high screen & make him take perimeter shots, they look to be in good shape for a first-round win.
MAVS IN 6
SPURS (3) vs. SUNS (6):
This shapes up to be a doozy. Safe to say this is the premier 1st round series, and the one 1st round series with two legit title contenders. Phoenix's overall defense is still mediocre, but they seem to be tuned in & highly motivated when they face the Spurs. Though, the Spurs do have a little more room for error in this series because of the extra home game.
Spurs' offense is not as good as its been in the past. And it's not just their aging supporting cast, but it's the Big 3 that could effectively be neutralized in this series.
Shaq has always guarded Tim well going back to his Laker days. Timmy needs to starting spinning baseline more when Shaq is checking him. Most of his moves see him heading into the middle of the painted area. Shaq seems to handle these moves well. But I think if Timmy would countermove to the baseline more Shaq will be off-balance more, and maybe lead to more fouls.
And the way he sits back in the lane defensively could deter the most dangerous aspects of Parker's & Manu's game. Spurs have to be looking to take jumpers off the P/R, because there is sure to be wide open looks for either guard or roll guy if Shaq is involved. The pull-jumper for the guard (16ft-20ft area) should be wide-open when Shaq's involved with the P/R. Shaq refuses to come out, just lays back in the lane. I think the advantage for the Suns in this series, is the Spurs might not take advantage of the open looks off the P/R. Manu & Parker prefer to get into the lane, any team will accept Parker shooting jumpers.
This is why I think Kurt Thomas could be an X-factor. Pop needs to get him in involved in pick-n-pop action when Shaq is guarding him & even when Amare's guarding him. I think he will consistently have wide open looks, & can hopefully spread the floor better than Oberto can. Bowen, Barry, & Finley need to drill their open looks.
Suns still run a fair amount of their patented high screen/roll with Amare & Nash, but they look to move it to the side more when Shaq is in the game. Suns are running some more double high-post action with Amare & Shaq, Nash will choose which big to go off. It's seems Phoenix's main focus on offense is to get Amare the ball starting around the high post & letting him attack the rim. Obviously, he attacks the rim rolling off the P/R as well.
Spurs should still be trying to get the Suns off the 3pt. line as much as possible, especially when the Suns go to their smaller lineup. But it's not as straightforward as in the past because Shaq causes unique issues for the Spurs. They will need to double-team him often, and this could affect their coverage of the Suns' shooters.
Think the Spurs are ripe to be beat, especially with Manu's groin an issue. Suns were always competitive with the Spurs but could never get over the hump in large part because of their poor rebounding & shoddy interior defense. But now with Shaq around, the Suns can neutralize the Spurs on the boards, and have someone who is capable of giving Duncan issues & clogging up the lane. Spurs might have to wish for constant foul trouble for Amare & Shaq, both prone to piling up stupid fouls.
SUNS IN 7
JAZZ (4) vs. ROCKETS (5):
Even if Alston was healthy, thought the Jazz had the upper hand in the series, but with him out for at least the first two games, the Rockets' chances are even slimmer.
I guess Houston will start Head, though I would rather have McGrady handling most of the PG duties now. Battier & Head have to bury their looks, because I imagine Utah will send help often onto T-Mac.
Look for Scola relentlessly trying to set the high screen for T-Mac. Scola is constantly moving around, and the Jazz need to track him. Also, the other Houston PFs have a knack for sneaking around & carving out space near the basket for off. rebounds or garbage buckets.
Dikembe could be a non-entity in this series since he can't sit on the backline with Okur floating on the perimeter. Hurts the Rockets because their PFs lack size to protect the rim. Though, it would be nice if Okur & AK47 would show some more urgency in this year's playoffs.
Not really sure anyone on Houston can handle Boozer, who caused major matchup problems last year. And with Alston out, Deron doesn't really have to worry as much getting run thru screens as much, which should help his offense. Jazz also have good matchups for McGrady with both Brewer & AK47 capable of checking him without double-team help for stretches.
Utah's propensity for fouling should be less damaging this series since Houston does not draw a ton of fouls & are a poor free throw shooting club.
Just don't think the Rockets have the requisite offensive firepower to hang with Utah, who are deadly exacting & efficient on the offensive end.
JAZZ IN 6
M. Haubs' picks for the West:
First Round: Lakers in 5, Mavs in 6, Suns in 6, Jazz in 5
Conf Semis: Lakers over Jazz in 5, Suns over Mavs in 7
Conf Finals: Lakers over Suns in 7