Who will advance in competitive West?
Five writers tackle five questions on the first round of the Western Conference playoffs
With the Grizzlies outplaying the Spurs, the Thunder steamrolling the Nuggets, the Blazers shocking the Mavs and the Hornets giving the Lakers more than they want, the West seems more wide open than ever.
Here's a fresh look by five writers as we go into Monday night's three Western Conference showdowns:
1. Are the Spurs done?
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: I actually think the Spurs are OK. They barely lost Game 1 without Manu, and had an uncharacteristically bad shooting night both behind the arc and by Tony Parker on the break in Game 3. San Antonio needs to get better looks on its corner 3s, but it should have enough to get by a formidable Memphis squad.
J.M. Poulard, WarriorsWorld: As dominant as the Grizzlies have looked in this series, their wins have come by a combined six points. One would expect the Spurs to play relatively better and eventually put some pressure on a Memphis team that is in unchartered territory. I expect the Spurs' experience to get them back to their winning ways going forward.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Count the Spurs out at your own peril. They're down right now, but they're far from out of this series. Win Game 4 and they have the home-court advantage again, Ginobili getting healthier and still the experience of a champion. Their interior defense is an issue, but better shot-making will compensate, at least against Memphis.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: As long as 3s are worth more than 2s, San Antonio should be favored. If this series was played back when illegal defense existed, the Spurs would not keep pace with Zach Randolph's isolation scoring. But the small-market Grizz can't afford time machines. Like a dark blue bear, Memphis has no place in the playoff ecosystem.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: Not at all. But the Spurs aren't without their worries. Being down 2-1 is one thing. The most problematic aspect of this series for San Antonio is that they're being outplayed physically and mentally. Their failure to execute in the final seconds of Game 3 was the least Spursian thing we've seen in the Popovich/Duncan era.
2. Are the Mavs done?
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: While the heroics of Brandon Roy have kept the Blazers-Mavs series competitive, it's ultimately right where I thought it would be, with both teams holding serve at home. I still think Dallas is slightly better, and that home court will make the difference. Mavs in 7, assuming they get the ball to Dirk again, of course.
J.M. Poulard, WarriorsWorld: At the start of the series, I picked Portland because of LaMarcus Aldridge's play and also because it had the athletes to frustrate Dirk. But if Brandon Roy can give the Blazers even half of what he gave them in Game 4 for the remainder of this series, I would say the Mavs are just about done.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: I still expect this series to go seven games and for the Mavs to win it. While it was done in dramatic fashion, the Blazers merely held serve. With two of the next three games in Dallas, the momentum is up for grabs and I expect Dirk to be better utilized to help his team seize it.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: No, this Blazers offense is still a concern -- as is Brandon Roy's knee. He was great these last two times, but games like that are few and far between enough that they're still capable of producing riots on Twitter Street. If Portland keeps bricking, I can't bank on the triumph of Brandon's ligature.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: No. But one feels like we've seen this movie before. Someone strike up the Mavericks Meltdown theme music. Their loss in Game 4 threw the mind back to the Mavericks' previous first-round loss to the Warriors and their Finals loss to the Heat. For whatever reason, the Mavs tend to unravel.
3. Are the Nuggets done?
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: Yes, the Nuggets are done, but that is primarily because they drew the one Western team which finished the season hotter. I still believe in this Nuggets group going forward, and think they'd have taken at least one game from any of the top three seeds by now.
J.M. Poulard, WarriorsWorld: As much as people said that the Nuggets were better after the Melo trade, they sure could have used him against the Thunder in crunch time. That said, I still think Denver will recover to win Game 4 at home -- but ultimately OKC is just too much for them.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: I expect them to fall in either four or five games to the Thunder. Denver, for all its depth, still hasn't found a way to get either of its point guards going, and the wing-by-committee approach hasn't been able to keep up with the greatness that Kevin Durant has brought on his own.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Yes, Denver is done. Oklahoma's defense has them in quicksand -- and a 3-0 hole. The Nuggets deserved better than this wood chipper of a 4-seed, and should go fishing while cursing Danny Ainge.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: Yes. The Nuggets are simply without answers for the Thunder. The Thunder came into the postseason playing championship basketball and they've only improved their play during the first round. This season serves as a feather in George Karl's coaching hat. But Karl, his hat and his feather leave for vacation Tuesday morning.
4. Are the Lakers playing with fire?
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: Not really. I still can't imagine the Lakers losing to an undermanned Hornets team twice more. I do think the Lakers are playing worse than the Spurs, and are fortunate they didn't draw a tougher opponent. With or without Kobe healthy, L.A.'s bigs should be too much for New Orleans to handle -- but they'd better start reaching for the "on" switch soon.
J.M. Poulard, WarriorsWorld: Chris Paul has been lights out and has given his team hope that it can compete with the mighty Lakers. The champs, on the other hand, have been unable to consistently take advantage of their size (only plus-8 in points in the paint in the series), and Kobe injured his foot or ankle in Game 4. Sounds like playing with fire.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: Before this series started, I had it going at least five games, so the fact that it will now go at least six games isn't a shock. But with Kobe's injury, Pau's up-and-down play, and the general lack of consistency from game to game, it's fair to say that they've made things harder than they needed to be in this series.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: The Lakers aren't playing with fire so much as fire is playing devilish tricks. The inferno wears No. 3 for the Hornets -- Chris Paul attacks L.A.'s defensive weakness at point guard and tortures its bigs. This is about him, not about them. The Lakers will win this series, but I wouldn't dismiss their temporary troubles as procrastination.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: The Lakers have not played with a consistent sense of urgency the entire season. I'm not sure if they forget who they are or, perhaps, if they simply like to remind us who they are by punctuating a string of lousy games with brilliant play. They're not playing with fire; the Lakers are playing with us.
5. It's Postseason Day 10: Who should be favored to win the West?
Mark Haubner, The Painted Area: I know that Oklahoma City is knocking on the door with increasing vigor, but I'm sticking with the incumbent Lakers in the big picture. The Thunder will dominate the West in the 2010s, but they still have enough issues organizing late-game offense that I'm not yet ready to say their era starts in 2011. Sure is getting closer, though.
J.M. Poulard, WarriorsWorld: The defending champions are still the team to beat in the West. No team can match their combination of size and perimeter play, although Oklahoma City might have something to say about that in May.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: The Lakers should still be the favorite. While they're not playing with great consistency, their role players are contributing and their defense has been solid. Kobe's foot/ankle injury is a question mark, but every Western team has questions. The Lakers may look vulnerable, but I'd still take them above the field.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Oklahoma City should be favored, as I can't find a glaring roster flaw. The departure of Krstic and Green was addition by subtraction. Then, OKC got a massive addition in the post defense of Kendrick Perkins. This team is more talented than the Lakers, especially at L.A.'s weakest spots (PG, SF).
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: In the West, the Thunder have been the cream of the crop. I think it's fair to characterize them as the most dangerous team in the Western Conference. But the Lakers still give every indication that they're on autopilot. They're that good, and they know it. The West is still L.A.'s to lose.
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