Warriors Headline Wacky WestWhile there have been several close games in the East, it appears that there will only be one competitive series--New Jersey-Toronto--and there may be as many as three sweeps. Meanwhile, there will be no first round sweeps out West and there are several intriguing upset possibilities. The big story is of course the 2-1 lead that the 42-40 Golden State Warriors enjoy over the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks. I have mentioned more than once that the proverbial "team nobody wants to face" usually submits fairly meekly in the first round but this series, regardless of the eventual outcome, is clearly an exception. Golden State peaked down the stretch after the multiple player trade with Indiana and once key players returned to health but I really did not think that the Warriors would pose this many problems for the Mavericks. Yes, Golden State swept the season series, but Dallas was so dominant for so long that I could not believe that a barely .500 team could pose a legitimate threat to the defending Western Conference champion. Watching game one changed my mind somewhat--I still thought that the Mavericks would ultimately prevail but conceded that the series might go the distance.
Golden State's game three win on Friday night made it clear that the Mavericks are facing some serious problems: (1) their players seem to be very tight, which is understandable considering that an underdog is giving them everything they can handle; (2) the Mavericks are having great difficultly dealing with Golden State's armada of fast, athletic players; (3) Golden State has rattled likely MVP Dirk Nowitzki by swarming him when he has the ball and by going right at him when he is on defense. I think that the biggest adjustment that the Mavericks must make is to change their mentality: instead of trying to defend their great record and defend their Western Conference title they must go into attack mode, focusing on their strengths. Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris are all highly skilled players and they must play aggressively and decisively. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson made a big mistake--pun intended--by benching his centers in game one and trying to play "small ball." Dallas must continue to use the starting lineup that rampaged to one of the best records in league history. I still think that Dallas will win this series--don't forget that this Mavericks team beat the Spurs in a game seven in San Antonio last year--but I have been surprised and impressed by how well the Warriors have implemented Coach Don Nelson's game plan.
Like Golden State, Denver pulled off a game one upset, beating the San Antonio Spurs 95-89. The Spurs won the next two, though, including a 96-91 victory in Denver on Saturday night that regained home court advantage. As I wrote in the previously referenced post, I expect the Spurs to win this series and I don't think that it will last seven games--and I said that before the Spurs bounced back to win two in a row. Still, Carmelo Anthony is having the best series of his playoff career, so it would not be surprising if the Nuggets manage one more win, particularly if he and Iverson both get hot in the same game, like they did in the series opener.
The Phoenix Suns-L.A. Lakers matchup is the toughest one to figure out so far. Before the playoffs began, this looked like one of the biggest mismatches--the Lakers have been fading for months, while the Suns are one of the top teams in the NBA. Obviously, if the Lakers did not have Kobe Bryant they would not be anywhere near the playoffs and certainly would not pose a threat to the Suns--but the Lakers do have Bryant, the game's best player, and he scored 28 points in the first half of game one to stake L.A. to a nine point halftime lead. Then he went cold in the fourth quarter and the Lakers collapsed. Phoenix' game two rout made a sweep seem to be a very realistic possibility--but then in game three Bryant played even better than he did in game one and he finally got some help from his teammates. Amazingly, the Lakers are one home win away from turning this into a three game series--and the shorter the series becomes, the more impact Bryant can have (Coach Phil Jackson's dream is to compress the battle to one quarter, with the Lakers in striking distance and Bryant well rested). The key thing right now is whether the Lakers are satisfied with avoiding a sweep or if they really want to fight, scratch and claw to try to beat Phoenix. You know that Bryant will be ready to battle on Sunday; if he can convince his teammates to have that same mentality then things could get very interesting.
The one Western Conference series that everyone expected to be a dogfight is now living up to its billing after a slow start. Utah fell into an 0-2 hole versus Houston but the Jazz won two games at home to even the series, including a 98-85 win on Saturday. Barring an injury to a key player, this matchup really looks like one that will be decided by home court advantage--game seven will be played in Houston and the Rockets will probably need that edge to knock off the resilient Jazz.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:16 AM