Does the Lakers' now-chronic mediocrity (12-10 since March 1) stem from bored veterans or a more serious dysfunction furthered by injuries and a thin bench? Even if Kobe Bryant and company can flip the intensity switch, Andrew Bynum (who hopes to return from an Achilles tendon injury) is not fit enough to exploit OKC's lack of a low-post anchor. And with the Thunder's fearless tandem of nascent star Russell Westbrook and superstar Kevin Durant reveling in their first postseason with much less to lose than the defending champs, it's not outlandish to contemplate a more free-wheeling, competitive series than your typical 1-vs.-8 pairing.
Durant vs. Lakers defense. It will take a village to guard Durant, a silky-smooth 6-foot-9 swingman who abets his high release point and quick trigger on his deadly jumper with a keen sense of how and when to draw the contact. Aside from double teams and other schemes, length and grace are the best antidote, which is why 6-10 Lamar Odom should draw primary coverage ahead of Ron Artest (6-7), Kobe (6-6) or Luke Walton (6-8). But can Odom (curiously left out of the Sixth Man Award discussions) maintain his focus?
Lakers: Ron Artest. The pressure's on Artest to justify management's decision to sign him instead of last year's starter at small forward, Trevor Ariza. Artest's upper-body strength makes him a uniquely effective defender, but not the best fit on a smart, lanky gunner like Durant. More important, Artest has to stop clanking open jumpers and make opponents pay for leaving him to double-team Kobe and Pau Gasol. (Ditto Derek Fisher.)
Thunder: Balancing poise and enthusiasm. All year long, coach Scott Brooks has done a great job keeping his team on an even keel. That poise began to slip in April -- bad timing or a sign of inexperience in the pressure cooker? If the Thunder can ignore the aura of invincibility Kobe and the Lakers will seek to impose and play with disciplined but youthful enthusiasm, they magnify their chance for a huge upset.
Tim Duncan's Spurs couldn't have given anymore this season, which is why 50 wins and the seventh seed -- their worst showing of the Duncan-Gregg Popovich era -- is so troublesome. Hope lingers that San Antonio's big three of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker will hoard enough health and muscle memory for one last hurrah, but the Mavs are grizzled and deep enough to be a formidable deterrent. Ironically, San Antonio posted better performances than Dallas in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, and according to basketball-reference.com, the Spurs should be 55-27 and the Mavs 49-33 -- almost the opposite of their actual record. Does that mean their fortunes are due for a reversal, or that the Mavs are simply better at pulling out close games?
The frontcourts. Dallas can put a pair of 7-footers -- Brendan Haywood and Dirk Nowitzki -- at center and power forward and still go big (6-11 Erick Dampier) or small (6-7 Shawn Marion) with quality replacements. San Antonio must supplement the 6-11 Duncan with a bevy of undersized options, including 6-9 Antonio McDyess, 6-7 rookie Dejuan Blair and 6-10 three-point specialist Matt Bonner. The Spurs must either spread the floor for small-ball or saddle Duncan with the burden of being both the low-post bulwark on D and the finesse scorer in the paint.
Mavericks: Bench stars. In addition to their ability to supersize their frontcourt, the Mavs can install one or two of their pocket jet-packs -- Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Rodrigue Beaubois -- off the bench into the backcourt and try to run the Spurs out of the building, especially since Parker suffers from plantar fasciitis and Hill has a bum ankle.
Spurs: Ginobili. Anyone who watched Ginobili become an elite playmaker when Tony Parker and then George Hill went down with injuries understands why the Spurs rewarded him with a three-year deal -- a deal that's probably one season too long. Letting Manu walk in free agency is throwing in the towel on this roster; and with the erosion of Duncan's endurance and Parker's quickness, he remains the most likely catalyst for a Spurs upset in this series.
The Spurs are proud and valiant, but the Mavs are versatile and deep. Nowitzki was the league's third-most prolific crunch-time scorer this season, behind only LeBron and Kobe. Bringing in three former Wizards at the trade deadline helped to lengthen the pecking order and improve team chemistry in one fell swoop. A Spurs triumph over the best roster Mark Cuban can buy would be a beautiful coda and grace note on San Antonio's fading quasi-dynasty. Dallas in six.
This could be a classic, even if Blazers star Brandon Roy is sidelined or limited by a knee injury. Since March 1, Phoenix is 17-4 while Portland is 15-5. Given the significant injuries that have hit both teams, they have probably maximized their existing talent better than any two teams in the West. It will be a battle of tempo: The Suns play at the league's fourth-fastest pace (95.4 possessions per game), the Blazers at the slowest (87.6 possessions). Their three regular-season matchups averaged 89.4 possessions, with Portland winning twice. But Phoenix prevailed in their final meeting and it was the slowest-paced contest of the bunch.
Amar'e Stoudemire vs. Portland's defense. Stoudemire became an unstoppable force in the paint this season. Among the 16 players averaging at least 20 points, he had the fewest minutes and field-goal attempts per game, but the highest field-goal and "true shooting" percentage (which factors in the added value of three-pointers and free throws). And he did all that while only going 1-for-6 from beyond the arc. He's a brutal matchup for Blazers center Marcus Camby (an angle defender who is less adept when someone as big and strong as Amar'e goes right at him), forwards LaMarcus Aldridge (too slow), Juwan Howard (ditto) and Nicolas Batum (too small). Plus, double teams open up Phoenix's deep complement of three-point shooters.
Suns: The bench. Pushing the tempo on offense, dogging the deliberate Blazers on defense and retaining optimal efficiency from Steve Nash (who's 36) and Grant Hill (37) requires depth. With the emergence of subs, such as point guard Goran Dragic, banger Louis Amundson and defensive specialist and long-range gunner Jared Dudley (the second coming of Raja Bell), Phoenix can run, gun and yet still defend for 48 minutes.
Trail Blazers: Offensive patience. It is not just the slow pace that distinguishes the Blazers' offense; it's their willingness to tax the energy and commitment of defenses with constant ball movement and careful probing for a quality shot. With leading-scorer Roy dealing a knee injury, Portland's chances are undoubtedly damaged. But Andre Miller is a capable replacement to run the floor and the Blazers have enough quality personnel to flourish with coach Nate McMillan's half-court sets.
Both teams are peaking for the playoffs. The masterful trade for Camby and the return of Batum from injury have added new dimensions to Portland's defense. The extraordinary commitment to defense shown by Stoudemire since center Robin Lopez went down with a back injury makes him an MVP-caliber player and has the Suns realistically thinking about the Conference Finals. With Roy hobbled and the Suns at home (where they are 32-9) for as many as four games, the edge -- barely -- goes to Phoenix. Suns in seven.
Fans of offensive fireworks, step right up, because a torrent of points is headed your way in this series. Denver finished third and Utah was eighth in offensive efficiency, and both play at a rapid pace. Both have offensive virtues that are poised to exploit their opponents' defensive flaws: Denver's lackluster interior defense will be challenged by a Utah team that ranked second only to Memphis at generating points in the paint. Utah committed more personal fouls than any team but Golden State, while Denver led the NBA in free-throw attempts. Both teams won 53 games, and are led by especially smart and physical point guards. Both are dominant at home and ordinary on the road -- advantage Denver, which gets an extra game in its building. The Nuggets, however, will not have coach George Karl, who is undergoing cancer treatment.
Chauncey Billups vs. Deron Williams. Aside from Jason Kidd in Dallas, Billups and Williams are probably the NBA's two most parental point guards, in the sense that they nurture their teammates with an unflappable demeanor and self-assured penchant for troubleshooting that breeds confidence in everyone from the superstar to the garbage-time scrub. Which ever reliable tactician clanks the do-or-die jumper, gets poached on the crossover dribble, doesn't fight through the screen in time or commits some other uncharacteristic gaffes will put his team at an unfamiliar disadvantage.
Nuggets: 'Melo. Denver's success in last year's playoffs was due in large measure to Carmelo Anthony's newfound commitment to staunch defense and team leadership, and his better grasp of the dynamics of the postseason. But this year, perhaps because he has endured a raft of minor injuries and coped with the temporary loss of his coach and defensive anchor Kenyon Martin, Anthony's imprint on the team isn't as dominant (like LeBron's or Kobe's) as was anticipated back in October. The Nuggets need him to reemerge, especially on defense, if they are to match last season's playoff run.
Jazz: The health of AK-47. Utah's best stretch this season coincided with the vintage return to form of forward Andrei Kirilenko in January and February. A calf injury waylaid Kirilenko for all but two of the Jazz's last 16 games. His whirlwind energy and defensive versatility would be vital if, as likely, Utah lands in foul trouble during the course of the series.
Neither team is playing its best at the moment. Injuries not only to Kirilenko and Martin, but also most recently to Utah's low-post scorer, Carlos Boozer, and Denver's dynamic sixth man, J.R. Smith, further complicate the scenario. Road wins will be precious, and perhaps nonexistent. On that basis, we'll call it for Denver. Nuggets in seven.