By Dennis Berry
The Western Conference semi-finals are set up with one glaring team missing. The top seeded San Antonio Spurs were knocked out by the Memphis Grizzlies. This is the fourth time that a one seed was knocked out by an eight seed. So now the Lakers are the highest seed in the West remaining.
For the first time in a playoff match up we get Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant squaring off. Two of the top scorers in the NBA have never faced each other and this appears to be a great match up. The Mavericks have a roster full of veteran players, but have not been in the Western Conference semis in a couple of seasons. The Lakers are the two time defending champs. The Lakers won the regular season series 2-1.
For the Mavericks, this year has been a season about defense, a change from the old high scoring teams that were knocked out of the first round four of the last five playoffs. During the regular season, Dallas only gave up an average of 96 points a game to their opponents. This was in thanks to a commitment to defense that only allowed teams to shot 45% from the field and 34% from the three point line. Both of which were good to land Dallas in the Top 10 of the NBA in both stats.
One thing that has not changed is Dirk Nowitzki. He once again lead the team in scoring at 23 points a game and has raised that to 27 points in the playoffs so far. He shot almost 52% from the floor and 39% from the three point line. Nowitzki is a nightmare match up for any team. The 7' power forward can shoot from anywhere on the floor, can dribble to attack the rim and can post up any player in the league. Against the Lakers, he averaged 22 points, but only shot 46% from the floor and 14% from three, but those numbers will have to improve for Dallas to advance.
Down in the post Tyson Chandler will have to improve on his regular season numbers. The Mavericks center only averaged 5.7 points and 8.7 rebounds against the Lakers in three games. He has not been much of a factor in these playoffs only averaging 6.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. His best game being 14 points and 20 rebounds in a game to win over Portland, the only time he has double figures in either category so far. He does not have to be a scoring machine, but he needs to average double figures in rebounds and keep Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol off the offensive glass.
The Mavericks will have to find a way to stop the Lakers offense. The Lakers averaged 102 points against them in the regular season. They shot almost 48% from the floor. The Mavericks have the personnel to match up with the Lakers. Can they find a way to slow them down on offense. The way to do that is to be a more physical team than the Lakers, something Dallas has not proven they can do yet.
The Lakers have been here before and know what it takes to win. They proved they still have that desire to win and showed it by handling the New Orleans Hornets on their home floor to close out the series. The game was not even close in the second half. The will to win is what sets the Lakers apart from the rest of the NBA.
That desire to win starts with Kobe Bryant. You see it with the way he plays the game. He just wants it more and will do what ever it takes to win. So far in these playoffs that has meant getting his teammates involved more. Bryant is only averaging 22.5 points in the series against the Hornets, but looks to get Bynum and Gasol involved more in the offense. Still you know if the game is on the line, the ball will be in Bryant's hands.
The Lakers have been able to control the paint with the play of Gasol and Bynum. The Lakers will expect the duo to do the same against the Mavericks. In three games Gasol averaged 20 points and 5.7 rebounds against Dallas. Bynum contributed 16.7 points and 11.7 rebounds during those games. Along with Ron Artest, who played some of his best basketball against the Hornets, they make up one of the toughest front lines in the NBA.
The only question will be who guards Nowitzki? Bynum cannot guard him out of the wing. Gasol might not be quick enough to keep up with him when he drives to the basket. Artest would give up height to him on the post and Nowitzki can shoot over him.
After a sluggish finish to the regular season, the Lakers appear to be back on track. Although the Mavericks have improved their defense this season, the Lakers were still able to put up over 100 against it. The Lakers should win this series in six games.
If this match up happened in the year 2000, this would be a match up of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Seattle Supersonics. In 2001 the Grizzles moved from Vancouver to Memphis. In 2008 the Seattle Supersonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. It took Grizzles three tries to win their first playoffs series. The Thunder did it in their second try. The Grizzlies won the season series 3-1.
For Memphis, they key to their win over San Antonio the play of Zach Randolph. The nine year veteran came up huge for Memphis averaging 21.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, while shooting 20% from the floor. When Memphis needed a big shot, it was Randolph who got the ball in those situations and he delivered.
Randolph did not beat the Spurs on his own. Point Mike Conley contributed 14.3 points, 6.2 assists, and 4.5 rebounds against San Antonio. Marc Gasol raised his game to averaged 14 points and 12 rebounds. Those three were the core of the Grizzlies' attack and role players Tony Allen, Sam Young, Darrell Arthur, Shane Battier, and O.J Mayo making key plays helped put the Spurs away.
Against the Thunder in the regular season the Grizzles had a lot of success. Randolph averaged 26.5 points and 13 rebounds. Tony Allen contributed 18.8 points. Memphis averaged 105.5 a game against Oklahoma City, shooting 48% from the floor.
The Thunder had a lot of offensive success against the Grizzlies as well. As a team they averaged 104 points in four games against them. Kevin Durant was the key to that success. He averaged 30.5 points a game against Memphis.
These playoffs Durant has only continued to show why he is one of the elite players in the NBA. He averaged 32.4 points against Denver. He had 41 points in the series clincher against the Nuggets, which included scoring 16 in the fourth quarter. Durant is a scoring machine and no one has found a way to slow him down yet.
Durant has help with one of the best point guards in the NBA. Russell Westbrook averaged 23.8 points and 6.2 assists against the Nuggets. Helping out the Thunder duo is James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins. Harden has been a spark off the bench contributing 10 points a game and Ibaka averaged a double-double in the first round.
The biggest addition for this team is Perkins. He may only be averaging 5.4 points and 6.6 rebounds, but he gives the Thunder a big man who is a physical force in the paint. Other teams' big men cannot push him around like they could the Thunder's centers. Plus, he has been a part of 2 NBA Finals teams in Boston, winning one title.
This will probably be the highest scoring series in the playoffs. Both teams are playing at high levels right now. With a quick turnaround following their series with the Spurs, how will the Grizzlies respond in the opener on the road?
Oklahoma City is more rested and has home court. Look for the Thunder to advance.