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Picking the Wacky West's First Round

A Daily Babble Production

Sure, we rolled out some alliteration.  But as promised, nothing of the "Awarding awards" or "Predictable predictions" absurdity of the last few days appears in the headline above.  Let's talk shop about the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

[Note: As mentioned at the end of Saturday's East preview, these picks were made before each series opened this past weekend.  Friday's emergency Babble regarding reaction to the Kevin Garnett injury news delayed our schedule for announcing the picks.  Thanks for understanding.]

The match-up: (1) Los Angeles Lakers versus (8) Utah Jazz

The figures

LA: 65-17, plus-7.7, 112.8 OE (3rd), 104.7 DE (6th)

Utah: 48-34, plus-2.6, 110.1 OE (8th), 107.2 DE (10th)

The word: The Jazz have one major advantage here: Not only is Deron Williams one of the league's top few point guards, he is worlds better than Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar (who among other issues posted a downright putrid 46.6 percent true shooting figure this season).  Fisher has shown signs of aging all season and risked some burnout when he logged nearly 37 minutes per game in January while Farmar sat with an injury.  Williams is stronger than both Laker point guards and won't have trouble getting in the lane against them, both to score and dish the ball out to Memo Okur, Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap, among others.

That might help the Jazz to take all of one game in this series.  Because the Lakers have them aced in just about every other regard.  Even Jerry Sloan's top-tier coaching meets a match in nine-time champion Phil Jackson.

This team is just too good and too deep.  Kobe Bryant needs no introduction.  For all the complaints about supposed softness, Pau Gasol is really good.  He has touch from mid-range, he makes his foul shots, he can post on the low block, he rebounds, and he is a fantastic passer for a big man.  He's averaging nearly a 20-10 since the All-Star break.  Andrew Bynum makes the interior defense and boardwork even stronger, and he allows Lamar Odom to become a reserve, a role in which the noted lover of shrinking in big spots becomes more valuable to his team.  A healthy Trevor Ariza makes a difference at the defensive end as well.  And on and on.  We'll cut the purple-and-gold gushing now, except to say that the Lakers are a top-six team at both ends of the floor, and they are very much for real as the prohibitive favorites in the West.

The pick: Lakers in five

The match-up: (2) Denver Nuggets vs. (7) New Orleans Hornets

The figures

Denver: 54-28, plus-3.4, 110.4 OE (7th), 106.4 DE (8th)

New Orleans: 49-33, plus-1.5, 108.7 (12th), 107.0 (9th)

The word: It's amazing what a difference substituting one level-headed, team-oriented player for one of the Nuggets' several certifiable nut-jobs has made.  Chauncey Billups' arrival turned a group of confused talents into a team.  With the exception of one brief midseason flap, Carmelo Anthony avoided off-court distractions.  Kenyon Martin provided stout defense when healthy.  Nene turned in a fine comeback season in the pivot, going for nearly 15 points and eight boards per game on a mega-efficient 64.5 percent true shooting.  J.R. Smith ranks right up there with Jason Terry in this league so far as providing firepower off the bench is concerned.  And now, for the first time in the Melo era, the Nuggets head to the playoffs with a legitimate floor leader who makes smart decisions while being the type of big-shot threat to take late-game pressure off of Anthony.

On the other hand, remember when the Hornets were supposed to be a James Posey signing away from being a serious championship contender?  While Pose did a fine job through much of the season, the bigger issue is that this team isn't as good as it thought it was.  Tyson Chandler came back to Earth this season with his scoring, efficiency and rebound rate declining significantly alongside his health.  Same went for Peja Stojakovic (rebounding aside). 

The Hornets have the series' best player in Chris Paul, and it seems reasonable to expect Paul to do what he's been doing all season: putting up monster performances no matter how little help he gets from his teammates.  But the Hornets will have trouble defending Denver, especially when the Nuggets run Smith out there alongside Anthony.  Martin's physical defense will frustrate David West.

The Nuggets will use homecourt advantage and a team finally on the same wavelength to get out of the first round for the first time in Melo's career.

The pick: Nuggets in six

The match-up: (3) San Antonio Spurs vs. (6) Dallas Mavericks

The figures

San Antonio: 54-28, plus-3.8, 108.5 OE (13th), 104.3 DE (5th)

Dallas: 50-32, plus-2.0, 110.5 OE (5th), 108.4 DE (17th)

The word: The Mavs recovered nicely from a 2-7 start and got another fine season from Dirk Nowitzki, firepower off the bench from Jason Terry, a classic little-bit-of-everything year (with much-improved shooting) from Jason Kidd and an odd slip in defensive efficiency despite Rick Carlisle taking over as coach.  They finished the season on a nice 16-9 run, and unlike their opponents, they won't be missing one of their top three players.

But all that will be rendered virtually irrelevant to my pick given my refusal to do what did me in a season ago:

I almost feel dirty writing this.  Never did I fathom that I would even feel the slightest sensation pushing me to pick against a Tim Duncan-led Spurs team to lose in the first round.  But not only is that sensation present now, it's too much to resist.

Yeah, that was stupid, and I'm not doing that again.  Though the Spurs are without Manu Ginobili, they have a healthy-enough Duncan and a brilliant coach in Gregg Popovich to go with a point guard in Tony Parker whose quickness should give the Mavs' backcourt fits.  The Spurs will continue to do Spurs things - playing smart basketball, not beating themselves and not causing unneeded distractions.

Down but not out, I'm not betting against the black-and-silver, despite an opening game slip-up.

The pick: Spurs in six

The match-up: (4) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (5) Houston Rockets

The figures

Portland: 54-28, plus-5.3, 113.9 OE (1st), 107.8 DE (13th)

Houston: 53-29, plus-4.0, 108.4 OE (14th), 104.0 DE (4th)

The word: Defense, defense, defense.  For the second year in a row under high-octane offensive coach Rick Adelman, the Rockets' scoring has sputtered, but the team has played elite-level defense.  Shane Battier and Ron Artest both enter the playoffs healthy, and the two of them should continue to wreak havoc on the perimeter against a young Blazers core making its first trip to the postseason as a unit.

The Rockets sprinted to a 22-8 finish after the injured and inefficient Tracy McGrady was finally shut down for the season (and point guard fiasco Rafer Alston was traded two weeks later)  The Aaron Brooks-Kyle Lowry tandem has done a decent job filling that role since the trade deadline, and the Rockets got a nice draw in an opponent without a dominant point guard.  While Steve Blake plays smart basketball and shoots the three very well (nearly 43 percent for the season), he isn't an explosive penetrator or shutdown defender, and several of the other point guards out West would have created bigger match-up problems in those areas.

The Blazers have shown impressive poise all season, led by young captain and master closer Brandon Roy, who seems to function only in kill mode late in games.  But with Roy working against the clamps of Artest and Battier, it will be up to LaMarcus Aldridge to make the Rockets' contingent of undersized power forwards pay by utilizing his size to make shots over the likes of Luis Scola, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes.  Joel Przybilla did a fine job on the glass for the Blazers this season, but the Blazers may have to put even more reliance than usual on him as it wouldn't be a shock to see Yao Ming cause Greg Oden foul trouble issues galore in his inaugural postseason voyage.

The Blazers' willingness to share the ball and play at Nate McMillan's pace has helped them to the league's top offensive ranking.  But the Rockets have the individuals at the swing spots and the team speed to continue to cause all sorts of trouble with their defense.

At the end of the day, there's something too oddly fitting about Houston finally making it out of the first round without Tracy McGrady.

The pick: Rockets in seven

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