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Western Conference capsules

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 28, 2012
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1. San Antonio vs. 8. Utah

After last year’s embarrassing upset at the hands of the Grizzlies, the Spurs won’t take the Jazz lightly. But this series will be a challenge for the West’s top seed. After playing in last year’s first round without Manu Ginobili, the Spurs are healthy and Tony Parker may have earned MVP votes with his career season. Utah is young and big, and this may be the first step in a return to being among the Western Conference elite. Former Celtic Al Jefferson will struggle with Tim Duncan, but the key for the Spurs is not allowing Utah’s secondary players, such as Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, to get confidence. The Spurs don’t need this to become an extended series, which would wear out their veterans. A key player for the Spurs is Most Improved Player candidate Danny Green, who has flourished in Gregg Popovich’s system.

Prediction: Spurs in 5.

2. Oklahoma City vs. 7. Dallas

It was bizarre that the Mavericks basically laid down for the Hawks on Thursday because winning would have meant a playoff rematch with the World Peace-less and inconsistent Lakers instead of the athletic and hungry Thunder. But the Mavericks seemingly asked for this series and Oklahoma City has revenge on its mind after losing last year’s Western Conference finals. The question for Dallas: Who guards Kevin Durant? Meanwhile, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook is much too athletic for Jason Kidd. The Mavericks’ best chance is for Dirk Nowitzki to take over the scoring load, while Jason Terry returns to form. But it seems unlikely because the Mavericks’ lack the athleticism to compete for 48 minutes with the Thunder. The dangers for Oklahoma City are being lackadaisical and selfish offensively, allowing for the on-court issues between Durant and Westbrook to rise again. That is Dallas’s lone chance to advance.

Prediction: Thunder in 6.

3. LA Lakers vs. 6. Denver

The Nuggets are the most mysterious team of this postseason because they lack a true superstar. They made out so well with rotation players after the Carmelo Anthony trade, that they may be the NBA’s most balanced team. Yet, the question is whether they are skilled and poised enough to beat the Lakers four times. Denver’s Danilo Gallinari is the key player. He can score and has toughness, but this is his time to shine among the game’s great. Kobe Bryant has to prove he can carry the Lakers through the postseason, because, without Metta World Peace, they are essentially a three-man team with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Lakers have to limit Denver’s running game and 3-point shooting. Denver’s Andre Miller remains one of the league’s more crafty point guards and Al Harrington is a sixth-man award candidate. The Nuggets have enough weapons to scare the Lakers, but it will only be a scare.

Prediction: Lakers in 6.

4. Memphis vs. 5. LA Clippers

Given that they knocked off the Spurs as the eighth seed last year, the Grizzlies are the vogue pick to reach the conference finals. But the Clippers are one of the league’s most talented teams and will be motivated to make a splash in Blake Griffin’s first playoff series. The Clippers’ Chris Paul is the critical player. If he can dominate his matchup with Mike Conley, get Griffin and DeAndre Jordan involved on the pick and roll, and if Caron Butler and Randy Foye can knock down perimeter shots, the Clippers should win. The question for Memphis is whether it is ready to handle the favorite tag, as well as the first home-court advantage in franchise history. How Zach Randolph plays off the bench and whether the inclusion of Rudy Gay has truly elevated Memphis to a title contender are interesting questions. This is a matchup for those who love physical basketball.

Prediction: Clippers in 6.

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