Since the NBA All-Star break, the heaviest talk revolved around what was wrong with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Is this Phil Jackson’s last dance in L.A.? Does Kobe Bryant have dead legs? Is Kobe’s finger injury hindering his shooting? Is Derek Fisher on his last legs? Is Pau Gasol still too soft? Can Andrew Bynum return from another injury?
Though all those questions are legit and can be concerning for Laker Nation, the defending champs still finished with the best record in the Western Conference and are still the class of the Western Conference despite all their health problems.
Can the Lakers repeat? Yes, but it is not going to be easy. All eight West playoff teams won 50 games and just seven games separated No. 1 and No. 8. OneManFastBreak.net predicts the winners of each round in the Western Conference playoffs:
(1) L.A. Lakers vs. (8) Oklahoma City Thunder: Phil Jackson recently got fined $35,000 for comments he made about how the refs give 21-year-old scoring champ Kevin Durant of the Thunder the benefit of the doubt on a lot of foul calls. Durant fired back and said he was disappointed with Jackson’s claim. Nothing like some trash talk to get the playoffs started. Score one for the Zen Master. The Thunder may have youth on their side, but the Lakers’ experience and size will prevail. Lakers in 5.
(4) Denver Nuggets vs. (5) Utah Jazz: Despite not having their head coach and their starting power forward still hobbled, the Nuggets still have enough firepower to knock off the Jazz, who may or may not have a healthy Carlos Boozer, center Mehmet Okur has a strain Achilles’ injury and Andrei Kirilenko is nursing a strained calf muscle. The return of Kenyon Martin to the starting lineup allows Nene to save all his energy on offense, and K-Mart also fortifies Denver’s defense. Utah will have troubling matching up with Carmelo Anthony, who could average 30 points in this series. Nuggets in 6.
(2) Dallas Mavericks vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs: This could be the best matchup in the first round in the West. The Mavs seems to always draw the Spurs in the playoffs, but they don’t seem to mind. Gregg Popovich is running out of defensive schemes to stop Dirk Nowitzki, and this year Dirk won’t have to worry about dealing with Bruce Bowen and his dirty tactics. Dallas eliminated San Antonio last season, but the Spurs didn’t have a healthy Manu Ginobili, who has turned back the clock and is playing his best ball. Ginobili, 32, could single-handedly make this a seven-game series, but watch for the burnout factor. The Mavs know how to attack the Spurs defense, which hasn’t been the same all season. Mavericks in 7.
(3) Phoenix Suns vs. (6) Portland Trail Blazers: I would give the Blazers the nod if Brandon Roy were healthy. But he’s not. Phoenix led the league in scoring (again!) and Amare Stoudemire seems to be in a happy place right now and should be able to counter Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Blazers’ defense is good enough to keep this a competitive series but not enough to advance. Suns in 7.
(1) L.A. Lakers vs. (4) Denver Nuggets: This matchup should have been the conference finals, but the Nuggets lost their mojo down the stretch when K-Mart went down and George Karl was hospitalized. The Nuggets won the season series 3-1 from the Lakers and don’t fear the defending champs. Chauncey Billups is the key. Through four games in last year’s playoff series against the Lakers, Billups controlled the tempo and absolutely killed the Laker guards. But then his legs went dead the final two games and the Nuggets were eliminated. If he can sustain a high level of play for an entire series, the Nuggets could clip L.A. At 33 years old, with the added responsibility of being the player/coach of the Nuggets, I don’t think Billups has enough left in the tank. Lakers in 7.
(2) Dallas Mavericks vs. (3) Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash gets to play against his BFF Dirk Nowitzki, which bodes well for Phoenix because Nash loves to show Mark Cuban that he made a mistake in trading him to Phoenix. Shawn Marion should also be motivated to play against his former team, and he knows what Nash and Stoudemire love to run on offense. This is the series the Mavs get their money’s worth out of Caron Butler. He should be able to score at will against Grant Hill or Jason Richardson. Dallas could potentially have a finishing lineup of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion and Nowitzki late in the fourth quarter. Mavericks in 6.
(1) L.A. Lakers vs. (2) Dallas Mavericks: It’s hard to get a complete scouting report on this matchup because the Mavericks retooled their team after the All-Star break. Lamar Odom can match up with Nowitzki, but I’m not sure if the Lakers can rely on LO for an entire series. The health of Andrew Bynum becomes a big story here. If Bynum is healthy, the Lakers should be able to roll in 5 or 6 games because the Mavs can’t handle both Bynum and Pau Gasol in the paint. The Mavs don’t have an answer for Gasol if he plays power forward. However, if Bynum struggles, Gasol then moves into the center position where he, at times, gets pushed around. This is the series where we find out if Kobe still has that fifth gear. The Mavs have Butler, Marion and Jason Kidd to throw at him defensively and Bryant will have to find a way to score despite the injured finger. I think he will, but the Mavs will push the Lakers to the max. Lakers in 7.