Separating the Real from the Fake: NBA Playoffs Preview, Round One, Part I
(Editor’s note: We’re splitting the First Round Preview into two parts. Below is Part I: The Western Conference. For Part II: The Eastern Conference, click here.
The guy in the cubicle next to yours was a real asshole come NCAA tournament time, wasn’t he? You’ve been at the job six months and he didn’t mention college hoops once. Then February bled into March and he was an expert, talking like “I don’t think ‘Cuse can effectively employ their 2-3 zone without Fab Melo” and “Harvard-Vanderbilt is going to be a first round classic.” How did he do it? He did a little reading. Now it’s time for you to turn the tables.
You’re in luck: the NBA Playoffs is a much, much better tournament. And I’m here to help you out with a preview of the first round. Not only that, but I’m going to give you the low down on the role players you should be keeping an eye on. Playoff success hinges on the ability of these guys to do their job. They’re fun to watch, likeable blue-collar types who show up with a hardhat and lunch pail and get right to work. And if you drop their names at the right time—not right at the beginning of your conversation about the playoffs but not at the very end either—you’ll come off like a true NBA junkie.
Here’s why you should care about the whole thing: This isn’t a tournament where six good games gets you a championship, dudes chuck threes from just over twenty feet away, and no one can shoot free throws. It’s not a tournament where the players are criminally underpaid in the name of “amateurism” and “academic integrity.” No, it’s a tournament where twelve guys at the top of their profession have to win four best-of-seven series. The fouls are hard, the gameplans carefully considered, and when it’s all over, you know the best team won it all.
(1) San Antonio Spurs (50-16) vs. (8) Utah Jazz (36-30)
- Regular Season Series: 3-0, San Antonio
- Role Player to Watch: Stephen Jackson
When I was a sophomore in high school, second-year star Tim Duncan led the Spurs to a championship, beating the Knicks in the Finals (oh god did that hurt). When I was a sophomore in college, second-year players Tony Parker and Stephen Jackson and rookie Manu Ginobili played key roles in the Spurs’ Finals win over the Nets. Now I’m close to thirty and these four are still at it. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker have won three championships together, and although he wasn’t around for all the winning and isn’t a future Hall-of-Famer like the others, Jackson’s been involved in a few championship-quality criminal incidents since then (the Malice at the Palace and shooting his gun off in the parking lot of a strip club among them). He’s back now, coming off the bench in a reserve role, and these four, along with rookie small forward Kawhi Leonard, three-point specialist Matt Bonner, shooting guard reclamation project Danny Green, unheralded backup point Gary Neal, centers DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter, and possibly the best coach in the league in Gregg Popovich, have turned back the clock. They’ve also flipped the script: where they used to be a plodding offense that ran through Duncan, now they’re the second highest scoring and most efficient offensive team in the league and Tony Parker (18.3 points and 7.7 assists a game) is their offensive engine.
Utah has some nice young players in Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, and Enes (pronounced like “penis” without the “p”) Kanter to go with two of the best undersized strong forwards in the league in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. But they aren’t ready for this grizzled bunch of champions.
This one probably won’t come down to the performance of role players, but I’m directing your attention to Stephen Jackson, because he’s insane and keeping an eye on him is fun.
- The Pick: Spurs in five. San Antonio is a team poised for a 2010-11 Mavericks-like run to the Finals. I’d say it’d be a sweep but Popovich will look to limit the minutes of his aging players as they get ready for round two.
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19) vs. (7) Dallas (36-30)
- Regular Season Series: 3-1, Thunder
- Role Player to Watch: Shawn Marion
Every season since Kevin Durant started with the Sonics in ’07-08, the franchise now known as the Thunder has won more games than it did the season prior. The Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka crew made its way into the playoffs for the first time two seasons ago and pushed the eventual champion Lakers to six games in the first round. Last season they went further, losing to the eventual champion Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. This team keeps building. They’ve got the purest scorer in the game in Durant (led the league by averaging 28 points a game on nearly 50% shooting), a dynamo point guard in Westbrook, the league’s best shot blocker in Ibaka, and a smooth, efficient, beautifully bearded scorer off the bench in Harden. Kendrick Perkins brings toughness, Thabo Sefalosha brings perimeter defense. The Thunder are a true contender. The Mavs are going in the other direction; they just aren’t the team they were last year when they rode Dirk Nowitzki to a championship. They let Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson and J.J. Barea go in the offseason, are a year older and just don’t seem to have the drive they did on the way to last year’s chip. Even Dirk showed up out of shape to start the season. Their offense, ranked eighth in the league last year, slid to nineteenth this season (OKC, on the other hand, is second). Their big offseason acquisitions were Lamar Odom and Vince Carter. That would have been totally awesome if it was 2002. Odom was such a disaster that they sent him home—with pay—instead of having him travel with the team. Vince Carter wasn’t a winner when he was good, and now he’s just an over-the-hill former star playing out the string. Rather than defend their title, they seem to have decided to put themselves in position to make a big splash in the coming offseason.
That said, Shawn Marion—one of his best generation’s best role players—could turn this series upside down. He’ll have the first crack at defending Kevin Durant. If he’s effective slowing him down, which is easier to do in the playoffs where defensive players are allowed to be a bit more physical than in the regular season, it will force Russell Westbrook to increase his shot attempts and could reignite last year’s rumored issues between Durant and Westbrook. That might allow Dallas to make this a series. If not, Dallas is going home to calculate its cap room without much of a fight.
- The Pick: Oklahoma City in six. Marion and DeShawn Stevenson “held” Kevin Durant to 28 points a game in the Western Conference Finals last season. That kind of production isn’t going to cause any problems in OKC. Still, Deron Williams will look good in Dallas next season. Sorry Nets fans (*crickets*).
(3) Los Angeles Lakers (41-25) vs. (6) Denver Nuggets (38-28)
- Regular Season Series: 3-1, Lakers
- Role Player to Watch: Arron Afflalo
Can the Los Angeles Lakers fly under the radar? This season they just may have, at least when it comes to talking championship. Coming off a disappointing playoffs where they were swept by the Mavs, they started the season in turmoil. Phil Jackson left and Mike Brown took over. Kobe was reportedly not enthused with the decision, preferring former teammate Brian Shaw for the job. Their big offseason additions were a guy with the nickname “McBob” (Josh McRoberts) and another who couldn’t get on the court for the Warriors or the Celtics last season (Troy Murphy). They agreed to a trade for Chris Paul that was rejected by the league, leading to Lamar Odom leaving for Dallas in exchange for next to nothing and Pau Gasol moping around like a tween who got grounded the weekend Hunger Games came out. They were a potential destination for Dwight Howard, which kept Bynum and Gasol on edge into February. Suddenly-sensitive Kobe was sorry to see Derek Fisher get traded. But somewhere around the trade deadline things changed. Andrew Bynum became the top center in the league. Gasol came back to life. Giving up on Derek Fisher and bringing in Ramon Sessions, a solid playmaking point guard, loosened up their offense. Kobe came within 38 points of winning the scoring title and shocked the world by making the mature decision and deciding to rest last night instead of making a push for it. Sure, they have questions—a lack of depth, Bynum’s petulance, Kobe’s lingering shin injury and Metta World “Ron Artest” Peace’s suspension for as many as six playoff games for nearly killing James Harden among them. But they’ve also got the closest thing we’ve seen to Jordan since Jordan and the best frontcourt in the game. Until they’re out, they’re contenders.
For its part, Denver has a bright future. They led the league in scoring this year, have all the pieces they got for Carmelo Anthony, chief among them Danilo Gallinari, a quality young point guard in Ty Lawson, and a rookie who is being compared to Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace “but with more offensive game” in Kenneth Faried. Javale McGee’s hilarity factor is unparalleled. They made the playoffs last season too, so they’ve got some experience. And although he hasn’t won a championship, George Karl is an excellent coach (I think it’s time we all forgave him for the Sonics losing to the Nuggets in the first round in 1994, which we probably would have already were it not for Dikembe Mutumbo rolling around the floor with joy). He’s shown an ability to go farther than he should (like he and Melo’s trip to the Western Conference Finals three years ago) and his recent string of first round exits have been to teams that went on deep playoff runs.
The role player to watch here is Arron Afflalo. He’s one of the top perimeter defenders in the league and will be asked to try and stop Kobe. In the three games Kobe played in against Denver this season, Afflalo held him to 17.7 points a game, or more than ten points below his average. He’s not a bad scorer either (15.2 points per game). If he can keep Kobe from averaging ten or so points a game more than he does, he can give the Nuggets a puncher’s chance (he could also go the Raja Bell route and go with more of a choke). In that case, Afflalo’s defense, the team’s young legs and the altitude in Denver just might be enough to keep them in this series.
- The Pick: Lakers in four. Even if Afflalo does slow down Kobe, Bynum and Gasol will be too much for the Nuggets’ front line.
(4) Memphis Grizzlies (41-25) vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers (40-26)
- Regular Season Series: 2-1, Clippers
- Role Player to Watch: Kenyon Martin
The Clippers are like the Mets, except only if 1969, 1973, 1986 and 2000 never happened. They’re like the Mets if the Saberhagen-Coleman-Bonilla era happened for thirty consecutive years. Oh, and if the Mets’ owner was a creepy racist no one wants to play for. But those days may be coming to an end. The Clips have the best point guard of the last ten years in Chris Paul and one of the most exciting young players in the league in Blake Griffin. Paul’s ability to orchestrate and Griffin’s athletic ability make them a dangerous team. Once you factor in Paul’s extra playoff gear (he averages 21.9 points per game and 11.1 assists in the playoffs for his career, compared with 18.8 and 9.8 in the regular season and has willed some shaky teams to overachieve), you’ve got a team that is capable of going places. But there’s less here than meets the eye. Griffin is a great athlete but the rest of his game lags far behind his leaping ability. He shoots just 52% from the line, making it so that the only real way of stopping him near the hoop—knocking him out of the sky—is very effective and they can’t give him the ball late in games. His field goal percentage is a tidy 54%, but he shoots just 35% outside the restricted area (that’s anywhere outside of four feet from the hoop). At this point he’s a one-trick pony. Chris Paul’s wonderful passing (9.1 assists a game) and ability to score (19.6 points per) can mask the Clippers’ lack of a talented half-court scorer in the regular season. But in the playoffs things slow down, and I’m not sure where the Clippers are going to get points when they have to grind it out. It won’t be Blake Griffin from the free throw line or anywhere further than four feet from the hoop and it probably won’t be more or less average offensive players like Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan, Randy Foye and Mo Williams.
Memphis, a team that shocked the Spurs in the first round last season before falling to Oklahoma City, is talented as hell. The combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (even though Randolph has been coming off the bench and hasn’t looked 100% since returning from a knee injury) gives them the most skilled frontcourt in the league after the Lakers. Rudy Gay is a scorer who can go get a basket on his own in a tight spot. Picture a more aggressive, more athletic Joe Johnson and you have yourself Rudy Gay. Tony Allen is, for my money, the best perimeter defender in the league. Point guard Mike Conley is a capable point guard, and sixth man OJ Mayo gives them scoring punch off the bench. Oh, and did I mention they have Gilbert Arenas playing backup point guard? Bonus freak show points!
Kenyon Martin is the role player to watch here because lately teams have been fouling the hell out of Blake Griffin in order to slow him down. The Clippers need to fight fire with fire when that happens. The Grizzlies are a tough team and if they sense they can push the Clippers around, this series will be over before it starts. Kenyon Martin, who comes off the bench for the Clippers, is just the guy to give back whatever Memphis tries to put on Griffin. He’s a badass, he’s big and he comes off the bench with fouls to give. He’s the guy to hit back.
- The Pick: Memphis in six. This will be the most compelling series in the West. Paul’s orchestration will keep the Clippers in it. If Blake Griffin dunks on Zach Randolph and stares him down, there will be blood. That alone will make staying up until one a.m. eastern time to watch worth it.