Onto how the West will be won ...
1. Los Angeles vs. 8. Denver
- It would seem that with Camby and Kenyon on the low blocks Denver would have that type of '04 Pistons mystique on the defensive end with 'Sheed and Big Ben. Not the case. Most of that has to do with the fact that this Nuggets outfit is most abysmal defensive team in transition I have seen in recent memory. Somehow, they're in the playoffs. Somehow, they'll manage to win one game in this series, and it'll probably be a fun one. But Kobe is too good and Pau Gasol will make the Nuggets frontcourt look foolish.
- The Pick: Lakers in five.
- I love how Skip Bayless has incited controversy once again, stating that he would consider it an upset if the Hornets won this series. Give me some of what he's smoking -- I'd like to be that detached from reality. The Hornets are a far -- yes, far -- superior team to the Mavericks. They have the best player on the floor (CP3), the better 1-2 punch (yes, CP3-West is better than the aging Kidd and the still unproven Dirk), better rebounders, better athletes, and better almost everything. The world is about to meet Chris Paul, who has the moxie of Steve Nash, the craftiness of Tiny Archibald, and skills as good as any point guard to have ever played the game. Premature? No. He's special. Really special.
- The Pick: N'Awlins in five.
- If anything, Game 1 of this series showed me that Phoenix can and will win this thing. The amount of breaks San Antonio had to get down the stretch to pull this thing out (Duncan's three certainly not being the least among them) numbered many. Regardless of the fact that the Spurs were fortunate to win the game, it was an absolute blast to watch. There is very, very, very little between these teams, if anything. But the Shaq trade will not go for naught, as the Suns will wear the Spurs down as the series progresses. An epic Game 7 could loom, and if it comes to that, I look for a repeat of Game 1 to go Phoenix's way.
- The Pick: Suns in seven.
- This one ought to be enjoyable: the brutally efficient Jazz vs. the team with The Winning Streak. Interesting stuff from John Hollinger regarding Utah's place among the greatest offensive teams of all-time. But the Rockets are literally tough as nails, and their power forward rotation of Scola-Hayes-Landry could prove a huge factor in this series to offset Boozer's production. If those three can match Boozer's 21 and 10 per (not unreasonable at all), Houston could give Utah a run for their money. In the end, though, the Kyle Korver era of Jazz basketball marches forward and the Jazz take a nitty-gritty series that goes to the wire in front of a euphoric crowd in Salt Lake.
- The Pick: Jazz in six.
1. Los Angeles vs. 5. Utah
- Well, well, well ... this one ought to be fun, eh? The Jazz don't have the names, but hey have the character and the toughness to make this a fun series. The experience they garnered last year could prove invaluable against a team as difficult as the Lakers. But Kobe is on a mission and this is one series in which he will not disappoint. The Jazz will lob a barrage of offensive (like, literally offensive) attacks at The Dude of L.A. (apologies to Mr. Lebowski), but he is one of the four, among LeBron, Nash, and Duncan -- who can fire back at will. This ought to be a coming out party for Kobe, who in an up-tempo series, averages upwards of 35 per game, makes his teammates into stars, and reminds us all why he is so often compared to His Airness.
- The Pick: Lakers in six.
- While it was chalk out East, I'm not so sure about the West. I didn't love the Shaq trade at first, but it has grown on me with each progressive game. It could end up being one of the most clutch and slow-developing deals ever made, in that the Suns should reap the benefits for at least this postseason and next, and it took much of the post-All-Star break for the benefits to manifest themselves. Paul vs. Nash is the obvious matchup, and quite frankly, one CP3 should win, but the Suns' experience and depth should pan out in this classic. I see Grant Hill being a deciding factor in this series, negating the perimeter effects of Peja and becoming an offensive force. He is the "fourth guy," if you will, that will push the Suns over the top. The Hornets can counter with a threesome of Paul-West-Wells at times, but it won't be quite enough. A valuable learning experience for the Hornets and a moment of vindication for Steve Kerr.
- The Pick: Suns in six.
1. Los Angeles vs. 6. Phoenix
- Shaq vs. Kobe: the story of a lifetime. But oh, there's so much more. Los Angeles has bonded into a cohesive unit that is almost impenetrable, while Phoenix has added the additional winner in O'Neal that could give the Suns an edge. Will Bynum be a key in this series? Maybe. If Shaquille were a bigger threat than he once was, Bynum's presence would be crucial. As it stands, however, O'Neal is a thirty minute per game guy at this point in the playoffs, and although his place in this series looms large, his statistical effect will be rather nominal. Kobe will come up huge, but without the presence and youthful legs of Shawn Marion in the lineup, look for Lamar Odom to be the game-changer, going up against a physically and chronologically outmatched Grant Hill.
- The Pick: Lakers in seven.