Monday, May 14, 2012

NBA Western Conference Semifinals Preview

     The Western Conference Quarterfinals were for the most part, very interesting. Both Los Angeles teams (Lakers and Clippers) were on the brink of elimination and faced tough tests in their respective Games 7s, but they both prevailed victorious. The defending champion Dallas Mavericks faced a stern, daunting challenge when they faced the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. It was a rematch of last year's Western Conference Finals, but with much different results. In my first NBA Playoff Preview, I had that series going to seven games. Although the Thunder had swept the Mavericks, it was extremely close. The matchup could have lasted seven games, but Kevin Durant, James Harden, and the rest of the Thunder showed why this year they are favorites to win it all. The San Antonio Spurs have arguably been the quietest team in the playoffs, but they have been the most effective too. They absolutely pummeled the Utah Jazz in the first round and made quick work of them. Now onto the second round, where in each matchup we have an older, but more experienced team against a younger up-and-coming squad.

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers

Overview: The Clippers are coming off a huge Game 7 victory on the road at Memphis which propeled them to the second round to face the Spurs. Meanwhile, the Spurs swept and embarassed the Utah Jazz, and have been off for an entire week. I believe the Spurs will be able to slow it down against the fast-moving Clippers and take control of each game, and make the Clippers play a style of offense that they don't want to play. This series will have less of the flash and finesse that people expect when they see the Clippers, but instead it will be more about toughness and grit.

Los Angeles's advantage: DeAndre Jordan. Jordan has a special ability and can block shots like nobody else. He's also a solid rebounder, averaging over eight per contest, and a decent post player. The Spurs don't have anybody with the same size and defensive prowess as Jordan. He will most likely cover Tim Duncan, because Blake Griffin still has an ailing knee. If Jordan can neutralize Duncan and limit his effectiveness, the Clippers can make this series interesting.

DeAndre Jordan is an integral part of the Clippers. But does he
have enough intensity to shut down many of the Spurs' big men?

San Antonio's advantage: Playoff experience and rest. Led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs will use their knowledge and prior experiences to guide them past the Clippers. The Spurs always seem to be in this stage every year, and the Clippers are in uncharted territory. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will play his cards right again and outsmart Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. Another key factor is rest. Popovich sat his star players every now and then during the season to prep them for the playoffs, and it has paid off. With a week of relaxation, the Spurs are healthy and fresh while the Clippers come in fatigued and battle-tested. Health could become a serious issue this series for the Clippers.

X-Factor: Nick Young. Young had a great Game 7 performance for the Clippers, and helped them advance to the next round. Young is a flat-out scorer, and has to produce like he did in Game 7 each game in this series so that his team could move on. He will most likely be covered by Kawhi Leonard, a tough defensive-oriented rookie for the Spurs. If Young can score productively against Leonard and other small forwards on the team including Stephen Jackson, then the Clippers chances of winning are a little bit better, but not drastically much.

Prediction: Spurs over Clippers, 4-1.

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #3 Los Angeles Lakers

Overview: This will probably be the most intriguing matchup of all the semifinals, because of the young gun Oklahoma City Thunder taking on the veteran Los Angeles Lakers. With the return of Metta World Peace, the Lakers got the Game 7 victory at home against the Denver Nuggets. The Thunder, on the other hand, suprised some people and swept the Mavericks. Most people, myself included, thought the Mavericks could at least win a couple games. The Thunder impressed in the first round, and won the season series over the Lakers, so I expect them to do good again this time around.

Los Angeles's advantage: Defense. Mike Brown has been criticized as coach all year, but one thing he has made the Lakers better at is defense. Andrew Bynum has become a better shot blocker, and so has Pau Gasol. Metta World Peace is a tight, aggressive on-ball defender who can guard the best forwards and guards in the game. This team is going to have to find ways to minimize Kevin Durant's effectiveness if they want to win this series.

Oklahoma City's advantage: Rest and young playmakers. This is honestly the Thunder's series to lose. They've had a week of rest, and they've performed well against the Lakers all season. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (who is dealing with a hip injury but will play) can shut down Gasol and Bynum. They are just as athletic and even tougher than the big man duo of the Lakers. Thabo Sefolosha, whose game is predicated on defense, will cover Kobe Bryant for most of the series. They have all the ingredients to demolish and handle the Lakers, but can they fully execute their plans to do so?

Many analysts expect Westbrook to dominate this series
because much focus will be placed on Durant. Can he step up
to the challenge and possibly become a superstar in his own right?
X-Factor: Russell Westbrook. He's got everything in the palm of his hands. Denver's Ty Lawson dominated against the Lakers, and a lot of people expect Westbrook to go off like never before. I know that Durant will be contained by World Peace and others in double teams and traps, but Westbrook sometimes gets really "shot happy." He'll make shots and will definitely create, but I think that James Harden, the newest Sixth Man of the Year award recipient, is a better facilitator. Westbrook is a point guard, but plays like more of a combo guard. If Westbrook can distribute and score effectively like Lawson, the Thunder will surely advance to the Conference Finals.

Prediction: Thunder over Lakers, 4-1.

     That wraps up all my analysis of this year's NBA Playoffs semifinals. Stay checked in for other stories and after this round, I'll write a story on the Conference Finals matchups, and eventually the NBA Finals. Hope you enjoyed this entry!

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