NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Update

We’re two games into the first round  of the NBA playoffs. Max Ornstein takes a look at the status of each series in the Western Conference.

Check out Max’s Eastern Conference update here.

Dallas 2-0 Portland

Even more “Huh?” conventional wisdom: “No way Dallas wins this series. The Mavs have been terrible in the playoffs the past few years. Jason Kidd’s done, Caron Butler’s hurt, and Dirk hasn’t been the same since Miami in ’06. Portland is too deep: they’ve got size, and rebounders! Marcus Camby! And they’re so athletic! Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum will shut Dirk down! LaMarcus Aldridge is about to become a superstar! He’s a monster! And if Brandon Roy can give them fifteen good minutes a night …”

A majority of people I’ve read that are paid to pick these sort of things picked Portland over Dallas in this series, as though it was obvious, which seemed totally insane to me.

If you picked Portland over Dallas in this series it means the following. It means that you forgot how badly the Suns massacred the Trailblazers last year. It means you’re banking on a team with no shooters anywhere in their starting lineup. It means you’re banking on a team that switched its philosophy in the middle of the season, while forgetting that Dallas lost last year because they switched 60 percent of their starting lineup in the middle of the season. It means that you’re mistaking a valiant effort in the face of adversity for dominant season. It means that, in a game seven—if we get there—you’re going with LaMarcus Aldridge on the road over Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas.

Dallas tied the Heat for the best road record this season at 28-13, so don’t be surprised when they steal a game at the Rose Garden in Portland.

Lakers 1-1 Hornets

Metaphorical conventional wisdom: Chris Paul, the league’s best pure point guard, leads the plucky underdog Hornets against the Lakers, the league’s juggernaut, a monstrous assemblage of basketball talent that uses a proprietary perpetual motion system of genius design to coast through the season with minimal effort, but claims to have many internal gears and mechanisms in case dire circumstances arise. We know these gears exist because we’ve seen their effects before. We know what happens when they “turn it on” like they did after the All-Star break. When that internal machinery begins humming, it’s a fearsome thing to see. But we haven’t seen it in a while …

Chris Paul was magnificent in game one. He looked better than he has in who-knows-how-long and ran the pick-and-roll to perfection. He scored at will, opened up the paint for the rest of his team, got his shooters shots where they wanted them, and dug in on defense. Kobe was great in his own right, but the rest of the Lakers machine sputtered and never totally got rolling, and the Hornets were nearly perfect with only three turnovers. The Hornets got the jump on the Lakers, and we all attached an implicit question to game two: After losing at home, how would the champs respond?

The Lakers took every advantage the Hornets had in game one back in game two. They won easily and dictated the terms of a chippy game that played to the Lakers’ physicality. Paul was simply great, not extraordinary, and it wasn’t enough to overcome the Lakers’ defense, rebounding, and efficiency in the triangle, even as Pau Gasol continued to struggle to assert himself on the offensive end.

It’s going back to New Orleans, but the question remains: what happens when Pau gets going, those gears begin to move, and the Lakers do start to roll?

Oklahoma City 2-0 Denver

Conventional wisdom of the moment: “Statement game!”

Slightly stale conventional wisdom: “Who’s scoring besides Westbrook and Durant?”

Stale conventional wisdom: “Oklahoma City is too young.”

Game one lived up to expectations for “most exciting playoff series.” Both teams brought their A-game, and the first half of basketball was the most exciting I’ve seen in the playoffs so far by a country mile.

Oklahoma City looked both “young” and “old” in game one. They rallied back from an early 13-point deficit. However, on offense, everyone but Durant and Westbrook had the jitters, so the two of them showed why the team with two top-15 superstars is going to beat the team with 10 good role players in a close game. There were still hiccups down the stretch, especially as Westbrook settled for jumpers—many of which, to be fair, he made—early in the shot clock without Durant getting a touch during the possession.

In game two, the Thunder didn’t have any such issues. They dropped the hammer on the Nuggets—up 26 points with eight minutes left in the second quarter—and then rode that cushion to an easy win, while looking like the best, most complete, and most hungry team to step on the floor in the playoffs thus far.

Oklahoma City still hasn’t won a playoff game on the road, but they should get over that hump when they go to Denver.

San Antonio 1-1 Memphis

Time-honored conventional wisdom: “The Spurs are old, but when the Spurs are healthy, they’re still the Spurs. Though the pieces have changed, they’ll still out-execute you and take away what you do best. But Manu Ginobili is the key now, and if he’s hurt, the Spurs aren’t the Spurs.”

This Memphis team—largely because of Zach Randolph’s herky-jerky post game, Tony Allen and Shane Battier’s vicious perimeter defense, and Tony Allen’s hair—is a lot of fun to watch. In game one, without Ginobili, the Spurs were timid and lost on offense. The old Spurs were Duncan’s, working slow and methodical through the post, but the new, fast-paced, creative Spurs rely on Manu Ginobili to direct their traffic. Memphis’ perimeter defense and hustle made life hell for the Spurs, and Z-BO and Marc Gasol got whatever they wanted inside. Even as out of sorts as the Spurs looked without Ginobili, they still almost pulled out the win.

With Manu Ginobili back for game two—wearing elbow armor from the set of Game of Thrones—the Spurs got their rhythm back and deployed their own brand of backcourt chaos, while frustrating Z-Bo to an 11-point, five-rebound night inside. Ginobili was everywhere. He lead the team in scoring, pushed the pace, created deflections, was diving for loose balls, taking charges, and generally doing the “most talented and athletic rec-league player ever” things that make him so valuable to the Spurs.

This has the makings of one of the best series in the first round, if not the best. It could be because I was at the FedExForum to experience how loud the crowd got as the Grizzlies came from behind to beat the Spurs in March, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Spurs go back to San Antonio in a 3-1 hole.

—Photo AP/Tony Gutierrez

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About Max Ornstein

Max O is a writer from New York. He posts things he thinks are funny, great, and terrible at www.maxoblog.com. You can follow him on Twitter @somaxo.

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