8. Oklahoma City vs. 1. LA Lakers
Season Series, Lakers, 3-1
The Thunder deserve a better fate, but they lost two of their final three games, at Golden State and at Portland, so they get the prohibitive favorites in the West. It will be fun to see Kevin Durant take his prowess to the playoffs along with his young buddies, who are deep and unafraid on the road. The Thunder won as many road games as the Lakers this season and won’t be intimidated by Staples Center. Kobe Bryant comes into the postseason with extra rest, as the Lakers finally figured out that the regular season doesn’t mean so much. Bryant will be the difference in this series (not a shocker), but Oklahoma City will make a statement with a win in Los Angeles. Look for Thunder guard James Harden to have a breakout series. The Lakers will win this series, but they will need more from their bench in later rounds. They depend too much on Kobe.
Prediction: Lakers in six.
7. San Antonio vs. 2. Dallas
Season series: Dallas, 3-1
These longtime rivals meet again in a series that is considered even. The Spurs played inspired ball in the last month, and Manu Ginobili was impressive enough to earn a three-year contract extension. With him, a well-rested Tim Duncan, and an improving Richard Jefferson, the Spurs have enough to push the retooled Mavericks. The question with Dallas is whether it can win in San Antonio, but reinforcements Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood provide depth that the Spurs just don’t have. San Antonio waited too long to find its groove and runs into an opponent it just can’t beat four times. Duncan won’t match the production of Dirk Nowitzki, and Tony Parker is not healthy, making his matchup with Jason Kidd closer than expected. The series will be rugged because these teams historically don’t like each other. The lack of home-court advantage is too much for San Antonio to overcome.
Prediction: Mavericks in seven.
6. Portland vs 3. Phoenix
Season series: Portland, 2-1
The Trail Blazers just completed an amazing season, considering the serious injuries to Greg Oden, Joel Pryzbilla, and Brandon Roy, who is out for this series with a torn meniscus. Portland has to rely on the defense of Marcus Camby, the shooting of Martell Webster, and the playmaking of Andre Miller against the Suns, who will be a difficult team to beat because they have started playing defense. Phoenix may be the favorite to reach the conference finals against the Lakers because of Steve Nash and the dominant play of Amar’e Stoudemire. The Blazers beat Phoenix twice this season, once without Roy, but they don’t have enough weapons to run with the Suns. But the coaching of Nate McMillan against Alvin Gentry will be worth at least two games.
Prediction: Suns in six.
5. Jazz vs. 4. Nuggets
Season series: Denver, 3-1
This series matches teams with conference-title aspirations but also their share of issues. Denver coach George Karl (battling cancer) won’t be on the sideline, leaving Adrian Dantley to lead the team with a one-legged Kenyon Martin and a banged-up Chris Andersen. Carmelo Anthony played in just two of the regular-season matchups, and the Jazz have no one to contain him unless Andrei Kirilenko becomes the effective defender of years past. This series will have the most interesting point guard matchup in Deron Williams vs. Chauncey Billups; the winner of this faceoff should win the series. The Nuggets just don’t seem right, and it’s hard to believe Utah will be out in the first round, but this will be a thriller. The wild card is Denver rookie guard Ty Lawson, who averaged 19 points in the four regular-season meetings and could be a spark plug along with J.R. Smith off the bench.
Prediction: Jazz in seven.