By Dennis Berry
The Western Conference has been the dominate conference since the 1998-99 season. They have won 9 of the last 12 titles. Of course, those nine titles have been split between the Lakers and the Spurs.
Will the Lakers be able to complete their three-peat? Will the Spurs win their fifth title since 1999? Let's take a look at some first round match-ups.
The Spurs were the best team in the NAB throughout most of the regular season. At the All-Star break they were at a league best 46-10. They did struggle after the break, going 15-11, that includes closing with a 4-8 record at the end of the season. This was mainly due to injuries and sitting plays towards the end of the season.
The Grizzles return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. This is a young team that has a lot of talent. They may not have been expected to make it to the playoffs this year after losing Rudy Gay in late February to a left shoulder injury. Yet here they are, thanks in part to the play of Zach Randolph, who has been the Grizzlies best player this year.
The Spurs know about injuries this year. At some point during the season they were without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. Then the injury bug hit again in the final game of the season against the Spurs when Ginobili went down with an elbow injury. He could miss the start of the playoffs.
This appears to be a good match up, even if it is a 1 vs. 8 series. The teams split the season series 2-2. The Grizzlies have proven they can win against the Spurs and averaged 103 points a game against them, which was better than the 99 they averaged the rest of the season. How will Memphis' young talent react to their first trip to the playoffs? Can the Spurs get back to playing at the level they were at during the regular season?
Some think this series will end with a Memphis upset, but look for the Spurs to win a hard fought seven game series.
The two defending NBA Champions will be looking for their third straight title. There is some concern about the Lakers as they head into the playoffs this season. After going 17-1 following the All-Star break, they then went through a five game losing streak. They rebounded to finish up the season on a two game winning streak, but struggled to win at home against the San Antonio team of reserves and then needed over time to beat Sacramento.
The Hornets will be entering the Playoffs without one of their best players, David West, who has a torn ACL. West went down with the injury in an overtime win at Utah on Match 24, the Hornets are 5-5 since that injury. Not having West takes away the Hornets' best inside scoring threat. Now the Hornets will have to try to fill the void with Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor. They still have Chris Paul, that is one advantage for the Hornets. He will have to be at his best for New Orleans to have a chance.
Some say the Lakers coasted towards the end to be prepared for the playoffs, others think the Lakers should be concerned with the way they ended the season. Against the Hornets, it won't matter. New Orleans may steal a game at home, but Lakers should move on.
The Dallas window is getting smaller. The Mavericks have been one of the best teams in over the last decade in the NBA. The problem is, they are getting older. Jason Kidd is 38. Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry are 33. Shawn Marion and Dirk Nowitzki are 32. That give Dallas a limited time to win a title.
The Trail Blazers only have two players over the age of 30, Andre Miller and Marcus Camby. Portland's only problem is they have yet to prove they can win in the playoffs. This might prove to be a good chance for them. They have been playing great basketball coming into the playoffs. The addition of Gerald Wallace has proven to be a great pick up for Portland. He adds a versatile wing player to go along with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint. If Portland wants to advance, those players will be key.
For Dallas, their veteran players will be the key. Nowitizki figures to be the focus of the Mavericks' attack. Who else will step up for Dallas? Jason Kidd struggled against the Blazers, only averaging 5 points in 4 games this season. Plus the Mavericks do not expect to have Caron Butler back for the first round and that takes away another scorer. So look for Marion or Terry to step up. If Tyson Chandler can improve on his 12.3 points and 8 rebounds average against Portland, that would be a big boost for Dallas.
The Mavericks have lost in the first round, three out of the last four playoffs. They have a tough task with a young Portland team. This series should go at least six games, and look for Portland to pull the upset.
This is an match up of two teams that seemed to have made themselves even better at the trade deadline. For Denver it was trading Carmelo Anthony. For Oklahoma City, it was adding depth with big men Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed.
Since the trade of Anthony, it has been about team basketball for the Nuggets. They were 32-25 at the All-Star break, they went 18-7 after trading Anthony. They have eight players averaging 10 points or better going into the Playoffs. Danilo Gallinari has been the leading scorer since becoming a Nugget, averaging 14.7 points a game. The Nuggets a have turned into a outside team, with only Kenyon Martin and Chris Anderson as their main forces in the paint. If they want to advance, they will have to move the basketball and hit their open jump shots.
With the Thunder, it is all about Kevin Durant who once again led the NBA in scoring at 27.7 points a game. Durant has not done it alone though. Russell Westbrook continues to be one of the best young point guards in the league. Adding Mohammed and Perkins gave the Thunder some proven low post players who know how to work in the paint.
The Nuggets will be hard pressed to stop Durant. He averaged 31.5 points a game against Denver, shooting 48% from the field. Denver has had a good run since the All-Star break, but it will end against Oklahoma City. This series could go seven games, but look for the Thunder to close it out in six.
The Western Conference is much more balanced than the East. Any of the top four teams could reach the Finals. A Thunder-Lakers Conference Finals would be a good beat, but one should not be surprised if either the Spurs or Mavericks get there too.
It looks like the NBA's Eastern Conference has surpassed the West for the first time since the Michael Jordan era. Here's our 2011 NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Preview.