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NBA Western Conference Playoffs Preview: Round One

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Is it fair to say the Spurs are the most vulnerable No.1 seed in recent playoff memory? For all the early talk about them winning 70 games and steamrolling their way to a title, this is now a team full of question marks and doubters. The Lakers have fallen on hard times as well. LA recently came off a five-game skid and is in real trouble if Andrew Bynum isn’t healthy. In Oklahoma City, the Thunder feature the NBA’s two-time leading scorer in Kevin Durant and a bundle of young talent teeming with title thoughts. Denver meanwhile, has challenged all conventional wisdom and is dramatically improved since it dealt All-Star Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. But none of this matters because the Lakers, once again, are my pick to come out of the west.

San Antonio (1) vs. Memphis (8):

Key Matchup: Tony Allen vs. Manu Ginobili

Tim Duncan hasn’t taken more than nine shots in a game since April 1, and Manu Ginobili, out with an elbow injury, still needs to show he is healthy and ready to resume playing at an MVP type level if this team is to go anywhere in the playoffs. But, while Memphis is a great story, without Rudy Gay -- who experienced a season-ending injury in February -- they just don’t have the firepower to beat the Spurs. It is worth noting, though, that I’m predicting they will capture their first playoff win in franchise history.

For San Antonio, it's really not about Memphis at this point. It’s about getting healthy and back in sync for future rounds. The Spurs’ defense has been abysmal of late. They really don’t have any shot blocking threats. And it shows: teams aren’t afraid to go drive on them anymore.

Marc Gasol is not only a super physical presence, but also has a nice skill-set and barrage of interior moves as well. Gasol will have to wear Duncan down and get him into foul trouble if the Grizzlies want to extend this series. Tony Allen has been brilliant defensively and will be a constant thorn in the side of Ginobili. Look for Gregg Popovich to try and establish George Hill here as well. Hill is a wonderful talent who can aid Tony Parker by assuming point guard duties, but also gives a lift in the scoring department with his size and shooting ability. He is a deft playmaker and quality defender who will prove crucial for the Spurs down the road.

Prediction: Spurs in 5

Los Angeles (2) vs. New Orleans (7):

Key Matchup: Emeka Okafor vs. Pau Gasol

“Here we go again” had to be the thought on every Laker fan’s mind when Andrew Bynum went down with a hyperextended knee April 12 against the Spurs. Bynum significance to this team cannot be understated. Kobe Bryant is clearly the best player on the Lakers, but, at times, Bynum is the team’s most valuable.

On defense, the 7-footer has become the ultimate rim protector. On offense, his combination of length, scoring ability and passing ability is crucial for the balance of the Phil Jackson's triangle offense. His on-court presence alone helps Pau Gasol because teams can’t double-team the Spaniard, and he is a stellar pick-and-roll partner with Kobe. If he can’t play, the Lakers -- like the Spurs -- are instantly vulnerable.

Last season, this team lost 9 of 13 down the stretch (finishing 16-12 after the All-Star break) and won a title, so I don’t buy into the fact that they are in trouble, assuming Bynum is able to play. Then again, after an astounding 17-1 rumble out of the All-Star break, LA had dropped five in a row before Bynum’s injury. Turnovers have become more than an Achilles’ heel at this point; they’ve become a disaster. Lacking good point guard play, the Lakers committed 73 errors during the first four games of the slide, or over 18 a game. Their inability to get back on defense, in the process giving up transition buckets, has been alarming. In that four-game stretch, LA gave up 71 fast-break points.

With speed demon Chris Paul running the show, New Orleans can run. Paul is the ultimate transition playmaker: He can drive the lane and finish and find guys filling the lane or spotting up from three.

But the Hornets won’t be able to stop the Lakers. Trevor Ariza may be able to slow Kobe for a game or two, but not the whole series. But, it is the absence of power forward David West (ACL) that is the real series killer. Their best healthy big man, Emeka Okafor, struggles against length, which the Lakers have plenty of in Gasol and Bynum. Okafor, who usually gets buckets off of put-backs, will have trouble because both Gasol and Bynum have the size and rebounding prowess to limit him. The Hornets rank 24th in the NBA in rebounding and, without West -- a solid rebounder -- won't be able to create enough second chance opportunities against the league's premier frontline.

Prediction: Lakers in 5

Dallas (3) vs. Portland (6):

Key Matchup: Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Dallas isn’t necessarily limping into the playoffs, but the team isn’t galloping either. Caron Butler’s injury is huge -- he gives Dallas a relatively consistent wing scorer and reliable defensive option on the perimeter. Rodrigue Beaubois is a game-changer from the point guard spot and, although it’s not confirmed, he doesn’t appear healthy for this series.

While Dirk Nowitzki is coming off his most efficient shooting season of his career, I just don’t think he has enough around him to get out of the first round. Dallas is a team that, despite the addition of Tyson Chandler, is still a jump-shooting offense. The Mavs are 28th overall in points in the paint and rank 23rd in free throw points. With superb defenders like Marcus Camby, Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace, Portland ranks 3rd in the NBA in points per game allowed from 10-feet and out. Their ability to shut down the Mavericks’ perimeter game is the key to their upset bid.

Portland’s acquisition of the super versatile Wallace has become one of the best mid-season moves in recent memory. Wallace is a matchup nightmare for Dallas. He’s a terrific athlete who also has great offensive skills. But it’s his defense that could decide this series. With his length and size, he should be able to bother Dirk just enough to force him to shoot around 45 percent, as opposed to the 53 percent he shot in the regular season.

The other key factor for Portland is Brandon Roy, a former All-Star at shooting guard who, until this season’s knee troubles, was one of the premier wings in the league. If he can just be a threat on the offensive end, the Blazers have the edge. Roy certainly lacks the explosiveness and stop-and-pop ability he had pre-surgery, but he is still a playmaker at heart.

As a whole, Dallas is really undersized in the backcourt and the Blazers have a lot of size to force guys like J.J. Barea and Jason Terry shoot over the top. The Mavs still don’t guard anyone, and, aside from Dirk and Terry, don’t really have any offensive weapon that can take over a game. This is a perfect matchup for Portland, and one I fully expect them to capitalize on.

Prediction: Blazers in 6

Oklahoma City (4) vs. Denver (5):

Key Matchup: Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson vs. Russell Wesbrook

This may be the most intriguing of the first round matchups. Denver has shocked the NBA by rattling off an 18-6 record since the Carmelo deal. They’ve done it with a renewed sense of urgency on the defensive end and far more consistent offensive attack. The duo of Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson on the break has been unstoppable, and Nene is leading the league in field goal percentage.

Meanwhile, the Thunder feature two of the scariest dudes around. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are dynamic on the break and also excel in half-court. While Denver has been the third best team in the NBA since their deal, they simply do not have the defensive depth to defend these two and Kendrick Perkins in the paint. Aaron Afflalo is a good defender but lacks the size and length to bother Durant in a seven-game series, and neither Felton nor Lawson will be able to contain the powerful Westbrook.

Prediction: Thunder in 6

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