Tag:Road to the Finals
Posted on: April 12, 2011 4:12 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 6:25 pm

Road to the Finals: Orlando Magic

The Magic's window seems closed. What do they have to do to pry it back open?
Posted by Matt Moore

It's been a season of dramatics in the NBA. The Lakers aspiring for a second three-peat under Phil Jackson to send him off in style. The Celtics trying to make one more run to the championship to get the elusive multiple titles while dealing with a reformation of the core after a trade of Kendrick Perkins. The Heat. Just, the Heat. The Bulls' rise behind Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau. The Spurs making one last great charge with their core. 

But lost in all this is Orlando. 

Set with a backdrop of fantasy (it's Disney World for crying out loud - how much more symbolic do you want to get?), this season has become a crushing work of disillusionment illustrating the crash of reality on a franchise that was a Courtney-Lee-blown alley-oop from really putting the boots back to the Lakers in the Finals two years ago. The Magic aren't just a team that thought it had the championship window firmly propped open for years. They are an illustration of the have-not nature in the NBA, despite their making what can only be considered the best effort possible. 

Orlando poneyed up for the new arena critics of small-markets allege the non-top cities never approve. Ownership elected to go above and beyond the cap, deep into the luxury tax. They were smart enough to draft, and develop, a franchise player, acquire a competitive and arguably brilliant head coach, surround the team with competent role players. When the 2009 team failed to get past the last challenge, management did not get complacent, and instead opted for the home-run move you're supposed to make, according to many. Vince Carter, for all his Vince-Carter-ness, was still a legit star in the summer of 2009. They went for the big move. When that didn't work out, they once again swung for the fences. You can't say Otis Smith didn't try. 

But here they are. Entering the playoffs as the worst seed they've been since 2008, with little to no momentum, and considered nothing more than after-thought in the playoffs. They are a speedbump in the road to the Finals for teams from Miami, Chicago, Boston. They gambled. They lost. And the worst part of all is this season may turn out to be the one that gives Dwight Howard an excuse to leave Orlando; it may be the one reflected on as what turns Howard away; it may be the year Orlando lost their franchise center, again. 

And then, very dimly, way in the back there, behind the headlines about "DWIGHT TO NY 2012" and "HOWARD THINKS L.A. WEATHER IS AWESOME, COULD HEAD THERE IN 2012?" is this simple formula. The Magic have an elite defense, an array of shooter who have yet to really show how good they can be if they do start clicking, a solid-to-good point guard, and have we mentioned their defense is pretty awesome? In 2009, I talked myself into picking Orlando against both Boston and Cleveland based on their ability to trample any team if they get hot. Offense never wins a championship, but great shooting and elite defense does. And Orlando still has that, at its systemic level. 

Road To The Finals
" target="_blank">Miami Heat The problem is when you get beyond the system. The idea isn't wrong. Stan Van Gundy's structure of building shooters with a driver mixed in to swarm around Howard, create specing, force the double, kick, kick, and find the open shot is a sound one. Play great defense around the best defensive player, create and knock down open threes around the biggest, baddest center in the land. Win. That works. What doesn't work are the elements wrapped around Howard specifically. Hedo Turkoglu, who had a nice start to his time in Orlando but in reality doesn't have the first-step necessary to get the edge on penetration. Brandon Bass, who doesn't have the sheer muscle to fill Howard's role when the big guy sits or gets in foul trouble. Gilbert Arenas.

Oh, Gilbert. 

Arenas is the big missing piece. As in, where he stands, there's an empty shell of a guard that can't shoot, drive, or create. The Magic wasted a huge contract in Rashard Lewis to get Arenas. Lewis wasn't of considerable usefulness at this point, but he was more useful than Arenas has been. 

But then, is there anyone in the league more unpreditable than Gilbert Arenas?

A first-round series against the Hawks shouldn't be too much trouble, but there are pitfalls hidden there. The Magic don't have a forward to match Josh Smith's explosiveness. Al Horford does surprisgingly well against centers bigger than him. He'll lose to Howard, but if he can even hold his own, the onus shifts elsewhere. Kirk Hinrich is a stellar perimeter defender, if a bit overrated at this point, but Nelson has shown to step up in the playoffs against less athletic point guards (prior to being detonated against Rajon Rondo, of course). Jason Richardson should have a huge impact. 

That's where it gets tough. The Bulls are a hard team for anyone to beat, and while the Magic pushing the Bulls to the wire without Howard last weekend has to give them a measure of confidence, trying to stop Rose is going to be a challenge that Dwight Howard can only do so much against. Joakim Noah, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, the Bulls have fouls upon fouls to throw at Howard. That's what makes Howard such a big x-factor. He's reliable for 20-12. If he could get to that next level? If he could hit his free throws, land a few and-ones on a fadeaway, take over games on both ends like he does on defense? The Magic become an entirely different creature. But that's the issue. Howard hasn't shown that ability on any consistent basis. He'll have one, maybe two games that are out of this world. The question is if they'll come at a time when it makes a difference. 

Dwight Howard won't win the MVP because everyone questions his ability to take over a game, even though no one has an equal impact on the floor consistently minute-per-minute on both ends of the floor. And voters are probably correct in that assessment. Maybe that's the most bizarre twist in all this. The failures of the Magic may provide an out for Howard to leave in pursuit of a championship, and he's capable of being the very thing that pushes Orlando to a championship. 

The Magic aren't out of this. If they get hot from the perimeter, they're incredibly difficult to stop. Jason Richardson steps up in huge ways in the playoffs. They have weapons, they have defense, they have strategy. 

But the narrative still holds. The confidence is gone. It wouldn't take a miracle for the Magic to reach the Finals. 

But it would definitely seem like it.
Posted on: April 12, 2011 2:44 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:15 pm

Road to the Finals: Miami Heat

Posted by Royce Young

After LeBron James spoke those now famous seven words in July, most felt like the Miami Heat's road to the NBA Finals would be a cruise. The road to the finals would be a red carpet lined with a few minor obstacles like the Celtics, Bulls and Magic.

There was a rap song crowning them champs. Everyone was picking them, some even wondering about the 72-win barrier. Even the organization was celebrating in July. It was almost as if we didn't even need to play the NBA season.

Then the Heat started 9-8.

It was panic at the beach. What was wrong? Why aren't these guys great? Already they have eight losses just 17 games in -- how are they going to just lose two more and win 72?

There were obvious issues from the opening tip of the season for the Heat. LeBron and Dwyane Wade had a lot of trouble figuring out how to co-exist on the floor together as dominant ball-handlers. Early on, each did their best work when they other went to the bench. Figuring out how to actually play together was a major challenge.

Then the Heat had to figure out how to work in Chris Bosh. He settled in as mainly a pick-and-pop option, available for a kickout jumper if Wade or LeBron's drive was shut down.

Still though, there were problems. Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller were hurt and the rest of Miami's role players were adding very little. It was almost turning into a bit of a mess. Erik Spoelstra had his work cut out for him.

Road To The Finals

After the eighth loss, a pretty good whipping in Dallas, the team held a players only meeting that last almost an hour. It was a good sign -- they were committed to figuring this out. They weren't going to just assume that their overwhelming talent alone would win games. They knew they had to work.

A good thing happened next. The Heat's schedule got easy. And they won 21 of 22. They shut people up for a little while. Of course that is, until a stretch in late February and early March where they lost five straight, cried in the locker room and prompted about 200,000 columns about them.

They couldn't close. They couldn't play in crunch time. They couldn't execute. On and on and on.

It was an interesting two weeks though. The Heat had struggled a lot against teams with winning records and especially against top level teams. And here they were playing 11 straight playoff teams. When they started 0-5, most saw it as a sign that they weren't ready. But there were still six games left, meaning they had six chances to turn things around.

It started with a big win over the Lakers. Then they blew out the Spurs. The Thunder took the Heat down, but Miami then beat the Hawks and Nuggets. They ended up 5-6 in that stretch with a couple very close losses and came out smelling relatively clean. They survived and managed to shut some of us up in the meantime.

After the loss to the Thunder, Miami is 11-2 with a horrible loss in Cleveland that LeBron will never live down and a weird loss in Milwaukee. Since the five-game losing streak where everyone wanted to preemptively write off the Heat entirely in early March, Miami is 14-3 with five wins over playoff teams, including a beatdown of the Celtics last week.

Are the Heat really, truly contenders this season? Absolutely. Here's the thing: They have LeBron Freaking James and Dwyane Freaking Wade on their team (note: Freaking may not actually be their middle names). Those guys are good. We're all curious to see how they handle a seven-game series. How will they handle games against ONLY good teams? No more Wizards or Pistons to beat up on anymore.

It's been a weird season because we've all gone through about 70 stages with the Heat. First, they were crowned. Then in November, they were written off. Then they were crowned against after winning 21 of 22. Then we wrote them off following CryGate. Now people are coming back around.

Miami has what it takes to win. The Heat defend. They are fifth in defensive efficiency and are actually third in offensive efficiency. They are tied with the Bulls for the largest point differential this season (7.3). All signs point to them as a dominant team.

So what are they? Are they actually good? Can they win the title? I say yes, but with some caution. As the two-seed in the East, they get the 76ers to open, a team they match up well against. After that, it's most likely the Celtics, a team they've struggled with but that was the pre-Perk trade Celtics. Boston doesn't look quite so invincible to them anymore, especially after last week's confidence boost.

What's a little scary is that you know someone will have to step up in the postseason if the Heat are going to push toward The Finals. Someone like James Jones will have to hit a big 3. Someone like Mario Chalmers will have to handle the ball in big spots. Someone like Erick Dampier will have to shut down his man late. Can they rely on those guys to get it done? Spoelstra always talks about trust. Well, they're going to really have to trust some guys that aren't exactly trustworthy.

The Heat would have to put all their chemistry issues behind them in order to even advance past Boston, but if they were to beat Chicago in the Eastern Finals, they'd have to play pretty much perfect. But they're capable of that because, you know, they have LeBron and Wade. No matter what, the Heat are dangerous. They can win now. It's going to have to come in a role they didn't expect back in July though -- underdog.
Posted on: April 11, 2011 6:11 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 2:43 pm

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

What does the unlikely road to the Finals look like for those teams who aren't considered contenders?
Posted by Matt Moore

If you're in love with Cinderella, this isn't the league for you. The NBA is not a fantasy landscape where the ugly duckling becomes a prince. It's a post-apocalyptic wasteland where only the strong, and well-armed (or well-financed) survive. Sure, there are first-round upsets. Denver knocking off Seattle, with Mutumbo laying on the floor clutching the ball in a paroxysm of joy. The "We Believe" Warriors of 2007 forcing the Maverick hordes back into the sea. But most often, if you're not elite, you're trampled underfoot in the first round and if you do manage to escape in a glorious moment of surprise, the curtain quickly slams shut, throwing you back into the cellar with nothing but the "we had a season to build on" mantra to keep you through the offseason. 

And so we bring you the Road to the Finals for the pretenders. Here is the last, longing hope for those who are about to be swept from the playoff board. 

Eastern Conference Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are the lowest form of life in the NBA at the moment: The 8th seed in the East. Lottery teams are at least hidden from view once the playoff start. But being matched up in a seven game series against the team many feel is the best in the league leads to you becoming a joke. That's what the Pacers face. The Pacers have been one of the most up and down teams in the league this season. But there is something that should be noted here. They have strong point guard play from Darren Collison. They have a well-sized center with actual offense in Roy Hibbert. They have a combo-forward capable of stretching the defense. There are some things to like about the Pacers versus the Bulls. But then, you factor in the Bulls' defense and things don't feel so good.  Indiana has the worst offense in the playoffs , going up against the best defense. Even if they were to end Derrick Rode's Magical Mystery Tour, they'd then face the Magic in the second round, who boast a superior center, and more size and versatility at every position. Get past that, and yeah, you know the rest. It's been a good season for the Pacers. A win against the Bulls would be great. Two is gravy. Pushing them to seven games would create some real excitement for the team. But a sweep is what you should count on.

Road To The Finals
Philadelphia 76ers: Philadelphia's not a bad team. They're really not. They've got some versatility at the forward spot, a nice speedy young point guard, a veteran big in Elton Brand producing, and some solid coaching. Philadelphia's problems mostly revolve around the inexperience of its players in advancing past the first-round and that they lack a star player they can turn to in times of trouble. There's no go-to guy for Philly, though there are candidates. Andre Iguodala fills this hole. It makes sense since he's such a great all-around player. But creating on his own is not his best gig, and Iguodala won't take over the game offensively. Still, the Sixers might have enough to push around a Boston team still finding its legs and who historically has some trouble with the first-round. If they run up against the Heat, that's a bit more of a problem. Iguodala's neutralized by James, and the Sixers' help defense isn't quite good enough to contain the pick and roll. Philadelphia winning two games would be a good start going forward, but you still don't feel like this team would be necessarily building towards something in that instance. 

New York Knicks: Knicks fans are going to talk themselves into a playoff run. You can already hear it. Once they lose, they'll revert back to how the Melo trade was about the future and it wasn't about this year (which is true). But of all the teams on this list, the Knicks are the ones that probably have the most optimistic fanbase. After all, they just beat the Heat a few weeks ago after the Melo trade. And they came "this" close to beating the Celtics on that Stoudemire buzzer-beater early in the season. The first round matchup will undeniably be exciting. The issue for their opponents will be that they do have two of those players you want in the playoffs. Elite-level guys. Unfortunately, they're going to be playing either the Celtics who have four of those guys, or the Heat who have 2.5 of those guys. Knicks fans shouldn't get their hopes up too much. But they're also more than capable of pushing a team to seven games, setting themselves up with momentum for next season. This is a no-lose playoffs for the Knicks. They're going places. Just probably not very far in the next month.

Atlanta Hawks: Oh, how the... well, not mighty, but moderately adequate have fallen. The Hawks are a playoff afterthought in the afterthought first-round matchup. People want to see how the Heat perform in their first playoff series together, to see the Bulls react as favorites, to see if the Celtics can put the pieces back together. But the Magic-Hawks series is the "lost potential" series. The Hawks were putting themselves on the map with a gutsy first-round performance against Boston three years ago. Then they probably "peaked" by making the second-round by winning an unwatchable series against the Heat in 2009. Last year, they limped in, and were nearly knocked off by a Bucks team without Andrew Bogut. Now they've lost homecourt advantage and are pretty much just going through the motions. They can't blow it up, they have too much money invested. Their matchup with the Magic is actually really interesting. Horford is an elite center, and actually plays Howard marginally well. Smith has all sorts of advantages against Bass or Anderson. But the Magic as a whole have too much strength. It wouldn't surprise anyone to see the Hawks topple the Magic, it just wouldn't change anyone's opinion of them. The Bulls have too many advantages and while the Hawks always have that promise of being able to hit another level, it's impossible for anyone to think they have a chance of taking more than six games in the playoffs. 

Western Conference: 

Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies are a scary team. Versatile, talented defensively, tough, with shooters, a great low-post player, and youth. The Spurs are not an ideal matchup for them, but if the Grizzlies are ever going to win a playoff game in Memphis, this is a pretty good year for it. They can challenge any of the top three teams they might face. But they're still an incomplete team, an inconsistent team. And those are teams that can get overrun when things don't go their way against contenders. Tony Parker can attack Mike Conley, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom can overwhelm the Grizzlies inside, and the Grizzlies would have trouble matching the Dallas offensive sets. If the Grizzlies were to pull off one of the more unlikely playoff wins in history, they would likely face the 4-5 winner, who would not be a bad matchup. It sounds bizarre to say, but the Grizzlies may have the easiest track to the Western Conference of any upset-minded lower seed. But experience matters, and Memphis simply doesn't have it. The goal needs to be to win a game. Just one. You've got to start somewhere if you're Memphis. 

New Orleans Hornets: This team is sunk. They've been sunk since David West went down. Carl Landry is a good player. But he doesn't have the range West does, nor the rebounding prowess. The Hornets are poorly matched for the playoffs, even with Chris Paul at the helm. Their shooters haven't been in the playoffs before, they're undersized and inconsistent. Winning a game to avoid a sweep would be solid. New Orleans has had a surprising, rollercoaster year. Making any run at all would be a fitting end. It would also make me fearful that the end was near. 

Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers won't die. They just simply refuse to. And if they can hold on to the third seed and face Dallas, they feel like they have a shot at taking the series. To say Portland shouldn't expect to get out of the first round is to try and put rational expectations on them. If they're supposed to contend, things fall apart due to injury. If they're supposed to be also-rans, they go on rampages through opponents. The truth is, we dont' know what to expect from Portland, outside of this. Andre Miller is a good player, but not the answer. Same with Wesley Matthews. This team has a collective ceiling. But the best way to find them break it is to say it out loud. And just when you think they're down, they come roaring back. Zombies. 

Denver Nuggets: Want to know how weird the Western Conference is? The Thunder have a great shot at challenging the Lakers, but don't want to run into Denver in the first round. Oklahoma City will probably win, they're a great team. But the Nuggets just play like they don't care right now. They have no expectations, and nothing to lose. That creates an environment of reckless bravery, which is how the Nuggets play. The Nuggets are the team everyone will be roooting for, to overcome the lack of a superstar. The problems are the same they've been for years. Defense, consistency, and now a new element of relative inexperience. Neither Ty Lawson or Raymond Felton know how to play well in the playoffs. Galinari has never seen the postseason. But there are enough veterans to keep the road. It'll be interesting to see who steps up for the Nuggets as a leader. A first-round surprise wouldn't shock anyone, but the thought is that they only have so many bullets in the gun, and in the second round they'll wear down. But they remain the team you don't want to run into in a dark first-round alley. 
Category: NBA
Posted on: April 11, 2011 2:12 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:21 pm

Road to the Finals: Los Angeles Lakers

Can the Los Angeles Lakers survive the Western Conference for their chance at a three-peat? Posted by Ben Golliver.

The last thing that the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans are thinking about on Monday is the NBA Finals. The team has lost five straight for the first time in years, getting outrun by the slowest team in the NBA (the Portland Trail Blazers) on Friday night and out-executed down the stretch by a bunch of youngsters (the Oklahoma City Thunder) on Sunday. It’s never panic time when you’re the most talented and most tested team in the NBA, but things feel a lot different in mid-April than they did as recently as March, when the Lakers looked unbeatable, running off nine straight wins and briefly making a push for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.

To his credit, Lakers coach Phil Jackson is saying all the right things, calling out his players’ professionalism in Portland, saying that any talk of the Finals is “ludicrous” and stating very simply according to ESPNLA.com : “We're not concerned with anything in the Eastern Conference at all. Nothing.” Jackson didn’t win any of his 11 NBA titles as a coach by looking ahead, and he certainly isn’t going to jeopardize his run at a fourth three-peat by allowing his players to skip a step.

While it’s Jackson’s job to keep the focus tight, it’s our job to break out the wide angle lens. And the panoramic view of the Western Conference still looks much like it has for the three seasons: It’s the Lakers, and then everybody else. Whether you prefer a more subjective approach or a numbers-based outlook, the Lakers make dominant arguments.

LA sports the league’s fiercest competitor, Kobe Bryant, who at 32 years old is still cranking out 25 points per game and maintaining his 45% percent or better shooting percentage for the sixth straight season. He’s the best one-on-one offensive player in the Western Conference and he lives for the moment. His resume says it all: five rings, two Finals MVPs, countless game-winners. The Lakers’ story starts and ends with his ability to impose his will on both ends of the court, extract maximum effort from his teammates and make the key plays down the stretch.

Inside, the Lakers have the best trio of bigs in the game: Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Each has his weaknesses: Bynum is slow in transition, Gasol gets knocked for being soft and floating and Odom has dealt with questions about his consistency and focus for years. But together they are an overwhelming force, particularly when L.A.’s ball movement is humming. Gasol, who averaged 18.8 points and 10.1 rebounds, is a multi-dimensional threat, a skilled, fluid, long big man who is a nightmare match-up for all of the other top Western Conference teams. Bynum fills the space-eating and finish-at-the-rim roles well, while Odom can attack off the dribble, make effort plays defensively and gives L.A. some versatility in defending combo forwards.

The Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Odom core is supplemented by Ron Artest – a physical wing who excels at playoff head games and making stars uncomfortable – and veteran guards Derek Fisher and Steve Blake – a heady, tested floor general and a knockdown shooter. Toss in Shannon Brown for some backcourt athleticism off the bench and Matt Barnes for more bullying hijinks and that’s the squad.

Road To The Finals

This group is the West’s favorite because they can beat you in every way. The Lakers are the No. 7 offense in the league through Sunday, a number that’s a little misleading because they’ve slipped a bit during this recent slide. Make no mistake: they can carve you up or pound it down your throat on any given night. Defensively, the Lakers are No. 6 in the league and currently rank as the Western Conference’s top unit. They excel at controlling the backboards – the No. 4 overall rebounding team – and protecting the basketball – the No. 2 team in terms of limiting turnovers. Despite all the harping on Bryant for breaking out of the team’s offense and doing his own thing, the Lakers are even a top 10 team when it comes to assist rate, a measure of what percentage of a team’s baskets come via assist. To boil it down: other than staying motivated late in the season, the Lakers simply don’t have a true weakness.

For this reason, they are the nightmare match-up for each of the West’s other contenders.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Lakers would have their dream first round match-up: they would be the No. 2 seed facing the No. 7 seed New Orleans Hornets. The Hornets have had a great run under first year coach Monty Williams, but they’ve essentially played .500 basketball over the last few months and lost starting power forward and go-to inside option David West. To make matters worse, franchise point guard Chris Paul is dealing with knee issues, as he had fluid drained last week and failed to score against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night, the first time that’s happened during his NBA career. If that series goes five games, consider New Orleans lucky.

The Lakers are most likely to face the Dallas Mavericks, another team that’s stumbled in recent weeks, in the second round. Any way you slice that one, and regardless of who has home court advantage, the match-ups come up in LA’s favor. The Lakers have plenty of guys to harass Dirk Nowitzki, while Bryant is fully capable of making life miserable for any of Dallas’s perimeter defenders. The only tough cover for LA is Jason Terry, but that’s a secondary concern. A recent Lakers blowout of the Mavericks, in which Dallas lost its cool, felt like a fairly accurate playoff preview. This series wouldn’t be a landslide, but the Lakers are simply too skilled, top-to-bottom, to trip up.

Things get more interesting, though, when we get to the Western Conference Finals discussion.

Against the Spurs, the Lakers clearly have an overwhelming frontcourt advantage, with Tim Duncan unable to compete single-handedly with LA’s trees. His colleagues either too small or too old to provide an adequate counterbalance to the Gasol/Bynum/Odom triad. San Antonio will turn to its new-look, super-efficient offense to make up for their lack of size, but it’s unclear whether they will be able to consistently generate the pace necessary to make it work. The Spurs will also be seriously out-manned by the size, length and strength of LA’s wings with no good match-up for Lamar Odom. As long as Tony Parker doesn’t completely dissect LA’s perimeter defense, LA should be able to survive what is always a serious test.

The most intriguing Western Conference Finals match-ups, though, would come if either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Denver Nuggets are able to slip through that side of the bracket. As the Thunder showed on Sunday, they’re not afraid of the Lakers and they are talented enough and boast enough star power, in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, to make life really, really difficult for anyone they face, including the defending champions. In Denver, it’s a new-model approach to success in the NBA: a star-free, all-quality rotation that never lets up and executes extremely well. Both the Thunder and the Nuggets are riding high coming into the playoffs – both are 8-2 in their last 10 – and both are very well coached teams that play very well at home.    

But even with the Thunder and the Nuggets, the arguments for the Lakers advancing are easier to make than the arguments against. This group of Lakers has beaten a super-efficient offense: the 2009 Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. This group of Lakers has beaten a hard-working, team-centric group with great balance: the 2010 Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. This group of Lakers beat the Thunder last year and beat a good approximation of the Nuggets when they downed the high-octane, hard-charging Phoenix Suns in last season’s Western Conference Finals.

LA has everything you need to be a true contender: good health at the moment, experience, top-end talent, solid coaching, a go-to scoring option a recent track record of success against their biggest threats and, of course, the rings. The Lakers certainly can’t take anything for granted, not with the quality of competition in the West this season, but they take our title as “Finals Favorite” with ease. 

Posted on: April 7, 2011 5:38 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:21 pm

Road to the Finals: Chicago Bulls

We continue our Road to the Finals series with the Chicago Bulls as they get set to face the Boston Celtics Thursday night.
Posted by Matt Moore

No one likes to admit they were wrong. In the long list of people who are willing to admit they're wrong, sports writers are just above politicians and below artists. It's a product of the kind of currency that operates among sports editors and a result of the kind of comments you'll see litter most posts about sports across the internet. So this isn't exactly easy. 

I was wrong

Way wrong. 

Monumentally stupid would be another way to put it, but we're going to roll with just wrong. Back in July, before we'd seen a lick of basketball, we ran our offseason grades. In appraising the Bulls, I looked at Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans and didn't see it. I initially gave them a C+, then considering their total positioning of their current roster, upgraded them to a B-. Sure, they'd be better than the 8th seed they were in 2010. But were they really going to be that much better? Were they really going to compete for a title? Were they really going to be great?

Yes. Yes they were. 

The Bulls are a great team. And they enter the playoffs at their absolute zenith. They are led by the all-but-elected MVP Derrick Rose, who we'll get to. Their coach is the near-lock Coach of the Year. We'll get to him, too. They defend, can run, can play in the half-court, they rebound, and they have that rare ability to find the way to win. Their being at the top of the Eastern Conference should not be a surprise if you've been watching this season. They've been great. The playoffs will give them the chance to prove it. 

For Chicago, everything starts with the defense. Everything. Tom Thibodeau has crafted the Bulls in his own image, the same image that the Celtics have taken on over the course of his tenure there. The principles are simple. Communicate, demonstrate, suffocate. You watch the Bulls defend the pick and roll, and it's no wonder that they're the second best pick and roll defense team in the league according to Synergy Sports. They lead the league in field goal percentage allowed in the pick and roll, thanks to their system. When the ball handler initiates the set, there will be three players geared towards it for the Bulls. The ball-handler's defender, who fights through the screen, the roll-man's defender, who peels back, playing between the roll man and the ball-handler, and a third help-defender, either from the corner or wing.  The roll-defender will call out which way the ball handler is coming off, while the other players indicate if they need further help from the off-ball defenders. Communicate. If the ball-handler goes wide around the pick, the roll-man or weak-side help shows hard, cutting off the lane to discourage the drive. Demonstrate. And if the ball-handler stops his dribble to consider a shot, pass, or if he passes the roll-man, whose man inevitably is recovering fast on him, help defense immediately closes, chokes off passing lanes, attacks the ball, and aims for the turnover. Suffocate. 

More impressive for the Bulls than their defense when they know what the opponent is going to do is how they react when they don't. Get loose on the baseline off an excellent pass, past your man, and you'll find Joakim Noah stepping into the take the charge from the weak-side, his hands straight up to close off the passing lane for the dump-off to his man he just left. Stutter-step inside, and you'll find wave after wave of swiping hands, disrupting the dribble just enough to either force the turnover, a back-out, or rush the shot. No matter what you do, the Bulls have an answer. And if you somehow manage to create a driving lane, fill it, and then kick out to the open shooter whose man has come in and that pass does find its mark? They run off the three ball as well as any team in the league. You can beat them. You just have to be consistently on-target in every phase of execution. 

Road To The Finals
And that kind of coherency is the result of the biggest acquisition I overlooked. Tom Thibodeau. It's one thing to design a near-perfect system, another to translate it into terms your players recognize and respond to, and another entirely to motivate them to execute that plan night after night after night. The Bulls have consistently come out with the same effort and intensity, and if they don't, they hear about it. Thibodeau's a screamer, the hoarse sound of his voice like Tom Waits through a megaphone, but his team has responded. Professionals usually don't this way. Especially not with veterans like Carlos Boozer on the team. But they have. They want to play for Thibodeau, to execute what he preaches, and they've found the success therein.

A lot has been made of the Bulls' success despite the massive injuries they've suffered through, but in reality, you have to wonder if those games without Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah actually helped the Bulls. Down a man, it meant there could be no deflection of responsibility by the Bulls' front line, no question of where the buck stopped. Each player had to step up. Noah had to step up for Boozer's absence, Boozer for Noah's, the bench for both. Having to answer to your team is a lost element in most NBA environments, but the Bulls have bred one. It's that attitude that may be the biggest advantage they have in the playoffs. 

So how do the Bulls get to the Finals? If they think it will be like the regular season, they're mistaken. But there are playoff veterans on these teams. Luol Deng was around when the Bulls were Eastern Conference contenders in the mid-00's. Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver have seen the Western Conference Finals. Thibodeau has seen the best and worst the Finals can provide. They're not lacking in experience. How they adjust to matchups will be a considerable challenge for Thibodeau, who for the most part has abandoned control of the offense to Rose, and who has seen what can happen if a team has the perimeter abilities to best his help defense. 

That's right, the Magic. 

The Magic are overlooked as contenders on the whole. Their biggest strength, three-point shooting, isn't what it used to be. Dwight Howard is a beast, but one you can live with most nights. Their defense is exceptionally strong, but suffers when it faces a superior point guard. Their ability to get hot, however, is going to be a concern if things play out as expected and the Bulls run into them in the second round. Thibodeau is 1-1 against the Magic. His loss came against them when he was without Kevin Garnett. He will be without Garnett this time. Carlos Boozer is a fine post player, but far from a defensive stalwart, and nothing like KG. The challenge will be managing to challenge the Magic on the pick and roll if the kickout to the Magic's shooter start working. Start dropping 3-pointers like their hot, and the brilliant Thibodeau defense is held largely neutralized. It can't keep defenders on the perimeter without sacrificing help on the driving lanes, and it can't focus on the driving lanes without surrendering long, uncontested 3-pointers. The Magic will likely unravel due to their subpar talent. But if there's a matchup issue in the playoff, that's the one. 

Which is not to see the rest would be easy. Sure, the Pacers are too young, too inexperienced and too composite to form a stiff challenge, even if Roy Hibbert can do some damage. But in general, there's little chance of the Pacers making a significant push, barring an unforeseen light-year distance jump by Darren Collison or Danny Granger

So already, we've got the Bulls penciled in for the Conference Finals. That's how far they've come. Once there, that's the colossal games, the big ones, the legendary ones, a preview of which will be played Thursday night against the Celtics. If you'd asked anyone who the Bulls would rather see in the Conference Finals, the Heat or the Celtics, the answer would have been the Celtics back in preseason. That's not a knock on the defending East champs, that's because on the surface, the Heat should have the versatility at position by the Big 3 and the kind of size and muscle combined with ability to overwhelm the Bulls defensively, and the defense to hold them in check. Hasn't been the case. The big difference in a series against the Heat is Luol Deng. Deng's defensive abilities have long been underrated, but under Thibodeau, they've reached a new level. His versatility helps him hang with both James' size and speed, and if need be, he can switch to Wade and use his length to force long contested jumpers. It sounds strange to say, but the Heat are largely overmatched by the Bulls. 

The Celtics are a different ballgame altogether. The two teams have met three times this season, with each team missing a key starter at one point or another in all three. Thursday marks the first time we've seen them at full strength, and the last until a possible Eastern Conference Finals matchup. The Celtics know about Thibs' defense, and Thibs knows about the Celtics. He has their scouting report, knows their tendencies, knows what the weaknesses are. But the Celtics are stronger offensively with the same defensive prowess and better personnel. This is, quite simply, the biggest clash of powerhouses until the Finals, and while neither team will pull out all the stops, it will be a bloodbath.

The swing vote in all this for the Bulls is one man: Rose. 

The Bulls' offense is largely a product of innovation. Thibodeau has a playbook, a set of elements to run, and works with the Bulls to accent their strengths. But the Bulls are not a top offensive team. They're still finding their way, don't hit a lot of shots, despite adding shooters in Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver. Carlos Boozer is doing his Carlos Boozer thing, but he won't be mistaken for Amar'e Stoudemire (though his defense is clearly better than STAT's, which says a lot about Stoudemire's). Joakim Noah has an okay jumper and a few moves. Deng's 3-point shooting has been a boon as has his mid-range game this season, but overall, the Bulls are just not an offensive powerhouse. 

Until Rose kicks it into gear. Rose really is a one-man dervish. The knock on him at the beginning of the season was he couldn't create contact, didn't get to the line enough. If he fixed that, and now regularly finishes after contact. His first-step on the drive is all speed. His second is all explosion. The rest is a highlight reel. He gets from perimeter to bucket faster and with more power than any player in the league, and that's including LeBron James. He can single-handedly change games for the Bulls. And he's going to need to. The team will probably struggle at times in the playoffs, maybe in surprising ways. They will go only as far as Rose can take them. It's an awfully lot on his shoulders at such a young age, but then, this is how sports legends are made. 

The Bulls look every bit ready to challenge the Eastern Conference at every turn. They are committed, they are well-practiced, and they are effective. They have written the perfect story of a regular season for such a new team. Now we'll have to see what they do for an ending. 
Posted on: April 7, 2011 2:19 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:20 pm

Road to the Finals: Boston Celtics

Posted by Royce Young

If I were writing this piece a month and half ago, things might be a bit more optimistic. If I were writing this piece a month and a half ago, I think I'd likely be skipping all talk about the first and second rounds and going straight to possible Eastern and even NBA Finals opponents.

But a lot happened over the past 45 days or so. A lot happened that drastically changed the outlook of the 2010-11 season for the Boston Celtics.

You know the story. Danny Ainge decided to trade ubuntu cornerstone and family member Kendrick Perkins away for Jeff Green and a balding 27-year-old. The team was now relying on Shaquille O'Neal's 39-year-old body to heal up and be ready for the grind of the playoffs. The team was banking on Green -- a notoriously inconsistent player -- to consistently provide a scoring punch off the bench and stabilize things on the wing. The team was trying to keep an eye toward the future while still focusing on the now.

Except the now might've been badly damaged.

Since the Perkins trade, the Celtics are 13-9. They're giving up more points per possession, scoring less and losing to teams they almost always handle. Now my personality is anti-panic, so I'm definitely not doing anything of the sort for Boston. But let's face the music here: The team is much different without Perkins. Differently in personality, different in personnel, different in ability. Boston is really missing not just that one-on-one post defender they had in Perk, but what his attitude and intensity brought as well. 

Road To The Finals
I really agree with Bill Simmons, who knows that team better than anyone. They really believed in their group. They believed in the fact nobody had ever beat them when they were at full strength. They walked with a serious swagger, they believed in each other. I'm not exactly sure what message was sent to the team when Ainge traded Perkins, but I don't think it was a positive one. You can spin that deal any way you want -- it was for the future, the Celtics needed a wing, it helps the bench -- the players didn't respond well to it. And the actual team is the most important factor in all of this.

As it stands going into tonight's matchup with the Bulls, Boston sits second in the East, tied with the Heat and three back of the Bulls. Gone is the possibility of the top seed and it'll be a tussle to place second too. The Celtics are headed for an opening round series with either Philadelphia or New York. Fifty days ago, Boston looks superior in every way against both those teams. Now, things look a bit more iffy.

But here's where we pump the brakes.

The Celtics are, in fact, still 54-23. (Know what they were last year when they stormed to The Finals? 50-32 and fourth in the East.) They Celtics are, in fact, still good. They still have Ray Allen. They still have Kevin Garnett, They still have Paul Pierce. They still have Rajon Rondo. Maybe they're missing a big, mean-looking piece in the middle, but it can be overcome.

They defend. They score in crunch time. They're playoff tested. These guys know how to win. They know what it takes. Nobody has quite the same motivation as the Celtics, because nobody else suffered a painful Game 7 defeat in The Finals last June. Doc Rivers talked about how the team has that same excitement for the game and each other that it had in training camp in 2007 when they went on to win it all. This team is still very, very good.

Keep in mind, Perkins had only played in 11 games with Boston this season. The Celtics have experienced most of their success this season without him. But again, that's just without him on the floor. People tend to underestimate things like chemistry. Though Perk might not have been playing, the rest of the team knew he was coming soon, and really just in time for when they really needed him.

Is this Boston group a true Finals contender? Of course. Absolutely they are. The Celtics could trade Ray Allen and Paul Pierce and they'd still have Miami's number just because they're in the Heat's head completely. But no longer can this group take things for granted. They aren't going to cruise past the 76ers or Knicks. And despite having the Heat by the tail, they aren't going to just skip past them either.

Then it's about the Bulls. Doc Rivers and Ainge can tell themselves that getting Shaq back will be an answer in matching up inside with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. That might be true. But things are different now for the Celtics. They've lost a little something. An edge, a mentality, a swagger -- whatever. And they may have lost their chance at it all this year too.
Posted on: April 2, 2011 3:20 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:19 pm

Road to the Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder are poised to make a playoff run, at least until they run into the Los Angeles Lakers. Posted by Ben Golliver.

If you’re overlooking the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year’s playoff picture, you're making a mistake.

No less a kingmaker than Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant recently said that the Thunder, along with the Chicago Bulls, were the team playing the best basketball in the league other than the defending champs. "Right now Chicago is obviously playing at an extremely high level," Bryant said. "For some reason, the Thunder go below the radar in the public opinion, but they’re not under the radar in our mind’s eye by any stretch of the imagination."

Nobody truly worries the Lakers, but there are plenty of good reasons the Thunder are on L.A.’s radar, and you can bet the Western Conference’s other top seeds are just as concerned with what’s developed in Oklahoma. The Thunder have gone from upstart to contender in the last 12 months, a tag they’ll wear as long as their two All-Stars, forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook, remain healthy.

It all starts for OKC on the offensive end, where the Thunder are a top five team from an efficency standpoint. At 27.8 points per game, Durant sits atop of the league’s scoring table for the second straight season, but it’s his ability to score night in and night out – detailed here -- that sets him apart from the rest of the league. Durant’s consistency, which is leads and bounds better than any of the league's other top scorers, stems from his versatility, his range and his ability to get to the free throw line. He, not LeBron James or Derrick Rose, is the league's most potent offensive weapon. 

It’s not just Durant that powers Oklahoma City’s offensive engine. Westbrook has made the giant leap from above average to uber-elite, a player whose efficiency stats rival Chris Paul's and Rose's and put him among the league’s best floor generals. That this improvement – which should land him the NBA’s Most Improved Player award – hasn’t come at the expense of Durant’s game makes the 2011 Thunder so much more dangerous than the 2010 version. Indeed, while Westbrook has increased his scoring from 16.1 points to 22 points per game, he's also bumped his assist numbers up slightly, to 8.3 per game. Few teams in recent NBA history, let alone this season, have a combination that has proven it can score as efficiently and consistently as Durant and Westbrook. That they both present one-on-one match-up problems for everyone – Westbrook because of his quickness, strength and rebounding ability; Durant because of his length, ball-handling and range – makes them that much more deadly.

To underscore this point, consider that there are just three teams with a pair of stars in the top 10 of player efficiency. The Miami Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Los Angeles Lakers with Bryant and Paul Gasol, and the Thunder with Durant and Westbrook. That's as elite as it gets.

Around those two cornerstone pieces, Thunder GM Sam Presti has assembled the rest of the roster, as one opposing scout recently put it, “the right way.” Building through the draft and making careful, timely trades, Presti has assembled an eight man rotation that rivals everyone but the Lakers in terms of talent and cohesion. Center Kendrick Perkins, acquired from the Boston Celtics in a trade deadline move, brings it all together, filling space in the paint, providing defensive toughness, rebounding and experience. Next to Perkins the Thunder have Serge Ibaka, who is now free to roam and patrol the lane on defense and has ramped up his scoring and rebounding production in a greater role this year. Glue guy Nick Collison rounds out the frontcourt, shooter James Harden (who has really come on since the Perkins trade) provides the bench scoring, Thabo Sefalosha fills the perimeter defensive stopper role and backup point guard Eric Maynor is capable of spelling Westbrook.

Taken together, the group has no obvious holes or weaknesses: there’s size, strength, length, versatility, low-post defense, perimeter defense, leadership, experience, top-end scoring ability, and play-making. Best of all, there are overlapping attributes without redundancy. Each of the players is needed, at least for this season, and none is extraneous.  It’s no accident that this group is headed for the most wins the Thunder/Sonics franchise has seen in 14 years.

The strong regular season performance has the Thunder in line for a Northwest Division crown and the West's No. 4 seed. That will almost certainly mean a first round match-up with the new-look Denver Nuggets, another dangerous, well-balanced team that has made a strong post-deadline push after dealing franchise forward Carmelo Anthony. Team defense has been Oklahoma City’s bugaboo this year, as they are merely average from an efficiency standpoint. That will pose a problem in a series with the Nuggets, who currently possess the league’s best offense and who get scoring contributions from up and down their roster.

Road To The Finals

In the playoffs, star power has a way of winning out, and the Thunder will enter a playoff series, for the first time, with the biggest stars, guys who know how to get to the free throw line and dictate the course of a game. Thanks to Perkins’ addition, they’ve now got sufficient bodies to bang with the Nuggets bigs, they have more than enough athleticism to match-up with new Nuggets Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and they have Harden to help keep the bench scoring from being totally one-sided. The only person who could stop Durant in this series would be himself, either by getting frustrated and forcing the issue or by settling for three-pointers in lieu of better, more aggressive looks.

Should the Thunder advance past the Nuggets, as I expect they will, the current race for the No. 1 spot between the faltering San Antonio Spurs and the surging Los Angeles Lakers makes all the difference in the world. The Thunder are a nightmare match-up for San Antonio, as they possess the game-changing athleticism to play above and past San Antonio’s role players while also being able to keep pace offensively with the Spurs' halfcourt machine. Other than the requisites -- home court advantage, big-game experience and Tim Duncan down low -- the Spurs don’t have any obvious match-up advantages. Westbrook is Tony Parker’s equal, the Thunder have multiple guys to throw at Manu Ginobili and they possess the best shot-maker in the series in Durant.

The Spurs are limping into the playoffs, dealing with a rash of injuries. A young, hungry, focused Thunder team is not a squad you want to try to get healthy against. Oklahoma City wouldn’t be favored in a series against the Spurs but it would be really close, and the Spurs would be sweating bullets.

Catching the Lakers in the second round, however, would be trouble for OKC. The Lakers not only have the experience factor and head-to-head result from last year’s playoffs in their favor, their frontline is significantly better than the Thunder’s and they’ve got the one Western Conference player who is as dynamic offensively as Durant, in Bryant. They would have homecourt advantage, a more experienced coach, multiple looks to throw at Westbrook, a Durant-stopper in Ron Artest, an offensive system that is as good as any in the league and more efficient than Oklahoma City’s, and a deeper, bigger, more physical roster. The Lakers have taken notice of the Thunder, as Bryant said, but there’s no fear factor there. All the key match-ups are either even or in L.A.’s favor.

It’s abundantly clear that the Thunder are the West’s ascendant team in the face of aging giants like the Lakers, Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. They’re poised to win a series, and maybe two if San Antonio maintains the top seed.

But, eventually, the Lakers loom. The Thunder aren’t ready for all that, at least not this year. Soon it will be a different story.

Posted on: March 27, 2011 4:32 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:18 pm

Road to the Finals: San Antonio Spurs

Assuming they get Tim Duncan back healthy, the Spurs are eying a Western Conference Finals date with the Los Angeles Lakers. Posted by Ben Golliver.


When the San Antonio Spurs contingent descended upon All-Star Weekend back in February, their message was unanimous: Our luck avoiding injuries has been incredible, and we just hope it lasts. “Honest to God, you look over your shoulder thinking something’s got to happen,” coach Gregg Popovich joked to reporters in Los Angeles.

Well, something did happen. Franchise big man Tim Duncan, the engine of more than a decade of Spurs dominance, severely sprained his ankle last week. For the team with the league’s best record, Duncan’s absence has prompted a total reevaluation. Point guard Tony Parker summed it up recently, telling the San Antonio News Express that San Antonio is “not going anywhere in the playoffs without him.” That, evaluation, of course, is representative of the perputally high standards in San Antonio, one of the rare NBA cities where advancing to the second round of the playoffs isn't a triumph. 

Parker’s statement made it clear, if it wasn't already, that San Antonio has sky-high internal expectations this season. As they should. Despite a two-game losing streak, the Spurs possess a league-best 57-15 record, a stunning figure given the lack of name players complementing the longtime core trio of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili

The Spurs have succeeded by owning the fundamentals and mastering the basics with a consistency that’s unrivaled in today’s pro game. They move the ball brilliantly and unselfishly, confidently and purposefully. They move without the ball aggressively and always with the team concept in mind. Their perimeter players are extremely disciplined, feasting on the clean looks created by the ball movement and Parker’s ability to probe defenses off the dribble (17.4 points and 6.6 assists a game). The Spurs can still dump it in to Duncan (13.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game) and expect him to deliver when it matters and Ginobili remains one of the game's best late-game decision-makers (18.0 points and 5.0 assists). Together, it’s made for the league’s second most efficient offense through Sunday, a unit that scores more points per possession than both the star-laden Miami Heat and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. This is "fives fingers equals a fist" offense at its best.

Road To The Finals

Defensively, San Antonio is the king of getting your hopes up on paper: Duncan’s lost a half-step, power forward DeJuan Blair is undersized, wing Richard Jefferson is past his prime, and Matt Bonner is Matt Bonner. And yet their commitment to team defense, their uncanny ability to take away their opponents’ first option, and their opportunistic ability to push out in transition off turnovers have combined to make this a nearly elite defensive unit that's earned respect around the league, even in Duncan's absence. “They do a good job of rotating. Just that experience that they have, they have won a lot of championships, they know how to adjust in-game really well," Trail Blazers guard Brandon Roy said before Friday night's game against San Antonio in Portland.

The juggernaut has just one real weakness: interior depth. A big man rotation of Duncan (28 minutes per game), Blair (21.8 minutes per game), Bonner (21.6 minutes per game), veteran forward Antonio McDyess (18.5 minutes per game) and promising but minimally used center Tiago Splitter (12.0 minutes per game) is solid but not superb. The Spurs are only slightly above average at clearing the defensive boards and they ask their wings and guards to rebound more than they would probably like. It's worth noting that Duncan will almost certainly see his minutes ramp up significantly in the post-season, which could change things a bit.

Regardless, the surest way for a team to send San Antonio home is to pound the paint, crash the boards and limit turnovers, extracting the maximum efficiency from each offensive possession by forcing San Antonio’s starting bigs to play with fouls and work tirelessly on the defensive glass. Surveying San Antonio’s most likely first round opponents – the New Orleans Hornets, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies – none figures to have the ability to do that, at least on paper.

The Hornets lost their star forward and leading scorer David West to a season-ending ACL injury this week, leaving recently backup forward Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor, never a true go-to scoring option, to pick up the interior slack. Given San Antonio’s ability to throw multiple defensive looks at Chris Paul and New Orleans’ lack of a bench, a series between the two teams very well could end in a sweep.

The hard-charging Houston Rockets, winners of five straight, are looking to salvage their season by making a nice post-deadline run. Guard Kyle Lowry is leading the way with his strong recent play, but the Rockets would almost certainly be exposed as fool’s gold if they do manage to sneak into the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed. Houston is really an off-brand version of the Spurs, a cut below San Antonio in every way, even their strengths. They have very efficient guard play, but not as good as San Antonio’s. They can put up points, but not with the same efficiency as San Antonio. They are hurting on the inside even more than the Spurs and their overall team defense suffers for it. This would likely be another cakewalk for the favorite.

San Antonio’s least favorable first round matchup on paper is the team that they are most likely to face: their Sunday night opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies.   Memphis sports an excellent scoring, offensive rebounding and foul-drawing duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and the pair will do damage against the Spurs, the only question is how much. But Popovich has made a career out of chewing up and spitting out teams that aren’t ready for the big stage. I already feel sorry for Mike Conley, a talented point guard but one with no playoff experience. He has no idea – he simply can’t know – what’s about to hit him when the post-season begins. The Grizzlies, a slightly below average offense thsi season, are also entering the playoffs without star wing Rudy Gay, a versatile scorer who would be critical to freeing up Randolph and Gasol inside. Without Gay, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to envision the Grizzlies keeping up.

As Parked noted, though, clocking one of the West’s weaker sisters is not going to be enough for the Spurs. Their road to the Finals will go through whichever team emerges from a first round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets. Those are two talented, motivated, athletic, balanced teams, and the winner of that series will be riding a wave of confidence into Texas. San Antonio is 33-3 at home on the season, another league-best figure, a fact that will weigh heavily in the second round, as both the Thunder and Nuggets are solid at home in front of their excited crowds. Oklahoma City, newly balanced with the addition of Kendrick Perkins, figures to be the tougher match-up because their elite skill level and athleticism will stress and stretch San Antonio’s older players. Denver, though, possesses the one offense in the league that is more efficient than San Antonio’s and George Karl is as good a match for Popovich as there is in the NBA. Neither will be an easy draw and both series have a solid chance of going six, if not seven games.

Should the Spurs weather that tough second round they will almost certainly have to go through the team that presents the greatest set of challenges: the Los Angeles Lakers. With an interior trio of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, the Lakers are versatile, long, athletic and immensely talented, a nightmare group that will require San Antonio to regularly provide interior help, scrambling their defense. Both Parker and George Hill are tough match-ups for the Lakers, and would likely have a field day, but L.A.’s wing defenders are experienced and physical enough to make life significantly more difficult for San Antonio’s tertiary perimeter players. Stripping away the hype, not much separates Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili these days, and both have the ability to take and make game-winners in front of a hostile crowd on the road, a rare commodity in the NBA.

If the Lakers played with San Antonio’s discipline and consistency, a series between the two teams would be no contest. As it stands, though, the West’s top two teams are on a crash course for an entertaining, drag-out Western Conference Finals. Assuming San Antonio gets Duncan back healthy -- and they do expect him back in time for the start of the playoffs -- they’ve got a legit shot at dethroning the reigning champs.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com