Category Archives: Playoffs

The Top 5 Individual Matchups Prevented by Injuries

I feel your pain, Chris. I would have loved to see you match up against the likes of Kevin Garnett and Roy Hibbert.

There have been amazing games, incredible performances, and dramatic storylines throughout these playoffs, but when it’s all said and done the one thing we will all remember is the first thing we will want to forget: the injuries. Beginning with Derrick Rose in the first round and spanning until now with Chris Bosh, some of the best players in this league have had to sit out multiple games because of a litany of bumps and bruises. Not only have fans missed out on some memorable games, but audiences have also been deprived of great individual matchups, some of which certainly would have affected the outcomes of their respective series. Here are the top five one-on-one matchups that could have been, but injuries prevented from happening in this year’s playoffs:

5. Al Horford vs. Kevin Garnett
This matchup of two of the best centers in the Eastern Conference (and no, I cannot believe I just called KG one of the best centers out East) was ruined very early on in the season, January 9th to be exact. The only reason this matchup is so low on our list is that Horford was able to make it back for Game 4 of these teams’ first round series, salvaging one of the best one-on-one matchups in the first round. During those three games, Horford went for 15.33 points a game along with 8.33 boards a game. Garnett, on the other hand, posted averages of 19 points and 8.67 rebounds over the same span. It surely would have been a treat to see these two go at it for the first three games of the series.

4. Roy Hibbert vs. Chris Bosh
Hibbert is just about as frustrating as it comes in terms of inconsistency, as shown by his point totals of 17, 8, 19, 10, 8, and 12 in Round 2. From game to game, from minute to minute even, Hibbert can go from looking like the All-Star he was this season to giving off the vibe that he is an unfinished project, which he may always be. But the great thing about Hibbert is that for every head-scratching play he makes, there’s at least one that is just as jaw-dropping. That’s why I would have loved to see Hibbert challenged over a seven game series by a player like Chris Bosh. With Bosh in the lineup, Hibbert would have been forced to extend out and defend his jumper while also attempting to maintain a defensive presence in the lane. It would have been quite the task for Hibbert to hold up over an entire series, but it at least could have given us a better idea where this big man realistically falls on his ever-changing spectrum of talent.

3. Derrick Rose vs. Jrue Holliday
We got to see these two duke it out for almost an entire game. Somehow, after only putting up 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists compared to Rose’s 23 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds, Holliday came out on top simply because he was still standing by the end of the game. Without Rose around to wear him down over the final five games of the series, Holliday posted averages of 18.6 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.8 rebounds. Those stats nowhere approach Rose’s regular output, but Holliday was able to establish himself as Philadelphia’s most consistent offensive threat. The 76ers have to feel pretty good about their point guard heading into his third season, but you have to wonder if the franchise would be as confident about their lead guard of the future if Rose had been able to contain him in the first round and prevent an appearance in the conference semifinals.

2. Kevin Garnett vs. Chris Bosh
We were almost lucky enough to see these two forwards-playing-center go at it in Game 5, but instead Bosh only played 14 minutes. That now makes four games we’ve missed out on seeing these two match up when they’re both one hundred percent. Granted, Garnett rarely ever matches up on the opposing team’s best big man because his strong suit lies in his help side defense, the Celtics might not have many options. In Game 6, fans and media members alike had their eyes on Bosh to see how he would spread out the Celtics’ defense with his midrange jumper. However, Bosh played sparingly and failed to consistently challenge Garnett on both ends of the floor. Although we have seen Bosh for a limited amount of time in this series, we surely have not seen his best against what could arguably be the best basketball KG has played in his career. And that, my friends, is a crying shame.

1. Avery Bradley vs. Dwyane Wade
Bradley has turned into one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Wade continues to be one of the best penetrators and finishers in both transition and the half court. How could that matchup not be a classic? Seeing one player transform into one of the most daunting defensive presences in the NBA while matching up against one of the most explosive players in the game certainly would have been a treat. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be as Bradley was knocked out of the playoffs with repeated shoulder problems. Instead, Bradley has to sit on the sidelines while his team has taken a 3-2 lead against the favored Heat and wonder what could have been if he had his shot at Wade. In a postseason that has been fascinating from so many angles, matchups like these that should have been are about all fans can find to complain about.

Time to Stop Doubting the Heat

Dwyane Wade was disappointed when his potential game-winning three-point attempt rolled out Sunday night, but Miami’s track record indicates the team will bounce back just fine.

Can the Heat bounce back?  How are they going to plug the hole in the middle with Bosh injured?  Is their bench good enough?  They are never going to advance if Wade keeps playing like this.  Can LeBron come up big in the 4th quarter for once?

We all want to know how and when the Miami Heat are going to stumble.  Any chance critics get to point out a flaw they are quick to hypothesize over the demise of the team.  This team, understandably, is analyzed and picked apart like no other in the league.  I’ll admit that I’m one of the biggest offenders; any chance I get to rip on LeBron James and company I will take it.

But it is time for all of us to realize one thing: this team, as much as us haters loathe admitting it, has proven time and again that it can bounce back from almost anything.

Believe you me, I want to see them fail just as much as the next person, but their track record shows that this team is at its best when its doubters have the most ammunition.

You need not look further than the Heat’s first round matchup with the Indiana Pacers.  After Chris Bosh went down in Miami’s Game 1 victory, they dropped two in a row to fall back 2-1.  Not only that, but the way they dropped Game 3 (which Original NBA predicted) by giving up 38 points in the paint and making Roy Hibbert (19 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 blocks) look like the franchise player he never will be, while getting only 5 points out of Dwyane Wade had the doubters in full force.  Wade was injured beyond repair, the Miami bench was quite possibly the worst in these playoffs, and the Heat absolutely could not replace Chris Bosh in the middle.

However, Miami shut us all up real quick.  They reeled off five straight wins to knock the Pacers out of the playoffs and go up 2-0 against the Celtics.  In fact, since that game Wade has put up 26 points a game and played some of the best ball of his life. Miami has had huge games from their non-star players, including Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Udonis Haslem.  Haslem and Joel Anthony have at times filled in admirably for Bosh, who will in all likelihood be back for Game 5 against the Celtics.

Earlier in the season, when Miami lost three games in a row in January to the Warriors, Clippers, and Nuggets, critics across the country were telling us all the reasons why the Heat should be concerned in the long term.  What did they do to respond?  They put up 20 wins over their next 23 games.  Hell, that run included a nine game winning streak and Wade even sat out six out of those 23 games.

And speaking of Wade, during the 14 games he missed due to injury, when Miami was supposed to be relegated to a two-man team incapable of running with the big boys without their leader, the Heat went 13-1.

The long and short of it is this: any time the Heat have faced significant adversity this season, they have bounced back to play some of their best basketball.

So now that they have dropped two in a row inBoston, how ever will the Heat rebound and get back on track?  They will do the same thing they have done all season long and battle through the questions and just play basketball.  Getting Bosh back is certainly going to help ease the pain, but even without him back in the fold, my money would be on the Heat to make a big statement against the Celtics tonight.  Instead of overreacting as I and countless others have done after things don’t go Miami’s way, I instead expect them to respond to their previous two defeats in a big way.  After how they responded to adversity throughout this season, I would be a fool not to expect their best tonight.

The 5 Key Match-ups in the Thunder-Spurs series

Can Russell Westbrook keep up with Tony Parker for an entire series?

5.  Gregg Popovich vs Scott Brooks

This is a matchup of great minds, both who have received the Coach of the Year award, Brooks in 2009-2010 and Popovich in 2002-2003 as well as this season.  Brooks represents a fast-paced young team ready to take over the NBA while Popovich is the wily veteran who has managed to get his veteran players to buy into a system that values the team over any single player.  What amazes me about the Spurs are their ability to rotate so beautifully on defense and their knack for passing up a good shot for a great shot, they always seem to make that extra pass.  The Thunder surprised me several times last night when the rotated just as well, stopping the Spurs from any good looks no matter how many passes they made.  If the Thunder can keep that up all series (or at least for an entire game) this series is going to be even better than anyone anticipated.
Advantage: Spurs

4.  Tim Duncan vs Kendrick Perkins

Perkins brought to the Thunder a defensive minded post player with championship experience and toughness in the paint.  He has been very important in their rise to the top, but unfortunately his counterpart in this matchup exceeds his pedigree by a longshot.  Duncan has receded from his super-stardom with great dignity, taking a reduced scoring role all while maintaining solid interior defense, rebounding, and passing out of the post.  Perkins may be able to stop Duncan from scoring inside (Duncan was 6 for 15 in game one) but Duncan’s vision from the post frequently leads to an assist or a pass leading to an assist.  Watch for Duncan to hit those open midrange shots when Perkins is slow to rotate.
Advantage: Spurs

3.  Kevin Durant vs Kawhi Leonard/Stephen Jackson

Last night we saw Popovich throw the combination of Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson at the scoring king Kevin Durant in an effort to at least slow him down.  That strategy didn’t work so well as Durant scored 27 points on 42% shooting and was 11 for 12 from the free throw line.  Leonard was struggling offensively and Jackson wasn’t a detriment on that end so the Spurs’ coach opted for the veteran late in the game.  Personally, I think Leonard has a better chance at stopping Durant if you keep him out there most of the game.  He has the length and athleticism to stay on him and contest those difficult shots that KD is known to make so frequently.  Obviously you can’t expect anyone to shut Durant down, but if you play defense well enough on him he’ll be forced to pass it to Westbrook who has the unseemly talent of putting up terrible shots, especially late in the game.  If the Spurs can figure this out they’ll have no problem in this series, but if Durant continues to produce at this level expect every game to be as competitive as last night.
Advantage: Thunder

2.  Manu Ginobili vs James Harden

James Harden may have won 6th Man of the Year, but Ginobili has long been one of the greatest bench scorers in the NBA.  Manu easily won the matchup in game one, scoring 26 points on 9 of 14 shooting while Harden struggled, going 7 for 17 with 19 points, but Harden will come out on top over the course of the series.  Ginobili really stepped up his game last night, but he has struggled throughout the playoffs, which we delve deeper into here, shooting 30% from beyond the arc and 43.8% from the field.  Meanwhile Harden has slipped a little in shooting from the field (41.8%) but has maintained his 3-point shooting (38.1%) and has gotten to the line almost twice as much as Ginobili (7.1 times per game compared to 3.6) while shooting 90.1% from the line.  Harden’s youth, consistency, and ability to get to the line really give the Thunder an outstanding option off the bench that will surely pay dividends throughout the series.
Advantage: Thunder

1.  Russell Westbrook vs Tony Parker

Westbrook is the epitome of what teams look for in a young point guard.  He’s incredibly quick and athletic, gets to the lane with ease, has a developing jumper, and rebounds well for his position.  Parker, on the other hand, is a coach’s dream of what a point guard can become.  He creates his own shots as well as setting up others for shots.  He always seems to know whether he should take the jumper, drive the lane, or pass up the shot and make the key extra pass to a wide open teammate.  In Game One of the series this wasn’t much of a competition.  Parker had 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, not to mention some key buckets towards the end of the game to extend San Antonio’s late run.  Westbrook, however, went 7 for 21 from the field while accumulating 17 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists.  His shot selection towards the end of the game was a momentum killer and he could not seem to contain Parker.  If the Thunder are going to win this series they will need their star point guard to step up, put that athleticism to use on defense, and work on being much more choosey with his shots.
Advantage: Spurs

Indiana’s Most Dangerous Asset: Mean Reversion

Danny Granger is one of several players likely to benefit from the theory of “Mean Reversion.”

Game 2 of the Indiana-Miami series showed just how important Chris Bosh is to the Heat’s chances of contending for a title this season. Without their best big man, Miami lost gave up its +12 advantage it had scoring in the paint in Game 1 and the rebounding margin was +10 in favor of the Pacers. Clearly, the Heat ought to be worried about their glaring disadvantage in the frontcourt.

However, more than anything else, Miami ought to fear the theory of “Mean Reversion.” This theory states that a statistic’s high and low values are only temporary and that over a longer period of time, these statistics are bound to move towards the average.  In basketball terms, it’s simple really: no player or team will stay cold or hot forever; they are bound to return to normalcy.

So far in the playoffs the Pacers have not played up to their regular season standards and, more than likely, their production will return to normal sooner rather than later.

Offensively, the Pacers numbers are down across the board when compared to their regular season output. During the regular season Indiana scored 97.7 points a game on 43.8% shooting from the field and a 6th best mark of 36.8% from behind the 3-point line. In the playoffs, Indiana’s scoring is down to 91.0 points per contest while shooting only 29.3% on three-pointers. If the Pacers shot that poorly during the regular season, it would have been the worst percentage in the entire league.

Individually, several players are bound to break through. Shooting percentages for many of the Pacers’ key players have plummeted. Danny Granger shot 41.6% from the field during the regular season, but is only shooting 38.0% in these playoffs. Paul George has regressed from 44.0% to 39.0%. David West’s 48.7% conversion rate has dropped to 43.9% in the playoffs.

Roy Hibbert, who shot three out of his six field goal attempts in the first two minutes of Game 2, is bound to perform better against lesser competition. You would have to imagine that he will outperform his Game 2 numbers of 8 points on 2-6 shooting from the field. His 8.7 attempts per game are 1.6 less than he averaged during the regular season.

The theory of mean reversion would indicate that all these areas in which the Pacers are under-performing will eventually return to normal.  It is highly unlikely that a very good three-point shooting team will continue to struggle in that category and that a player will shoot well below his season average.

Long story short: at some point Indiana is going to start making their threes, Granger, George, and West will step it up, and Hibbert is going to take advantage of the obvious advantage he has in the post. When all of that happens, how will the Heat respond? Certainly their defense has been a factor in keeping some of these numbers down, but a team that shoots the ball from distance as well as the Pacers do is bound to regain its form. Especially when you consider that Miami was tied for 25th worst in the league in opponents’ 3-point percentage.

Miami has to pray for a speedy recovery for Chris Bosh and that Indiana’s reversion to the mean does not happen any time soon.

Five Up, Five Down

Some players thrive in the playoff atmosphere, the pressure ignites something within and they call upon every ounce of talent they have to give it their all when it matters most.  On the flip side some players just can’t handle the spotlight of the NBA playoffs and end up withering when their team needs them the most.  These are the 5 players who improved the most from the regular season and the 5 players who saw the biggest drop offs in the 2012 playoffs.

The 5 Up

Rondo has dominated the playoffs thus far.

Rajon Rondo:
We all knew Rondo was a triple-double waiting to happen when the playoffs started, but his performance so far in the playoffs has been ridiculous nonetheless.  Over the course of the Celtics’ seven playoff games Rondo has averaged 15 points, 12.7 assists, and 6.7 rebounds.  That’s an increase from 11.9, 11.7, and 4.8 respectively from the regular season, all while maintaining a shooting percentage around 44%.  The Celtics will need his consistent play and ability to improve the veterans around him if they hope to advance past the Sixers.

Ty Lawson:
Yes, the Nuggets eventually lost to the Lakers, but the series would have never made it to seven games if it weren’t for Lawson’s play.  Lawson increased his scoring from 16.4 per game in the regular season to 19 in the series against the Lakers, playing almost the exact same minutes per game and meanwhile improving his shooting percentage from 48.8% to 51.4%.  Lawson’s performance in game 6 and 7 are reason enough to include him on this list.  In those two games he averaged 28 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds while shooting 64.9% from the field and 58.3% from beyond the arc.

Kevin Garnett:
Garnett has re-emerged as the KG of old in the playoffs, scoring, rebounding, and bringing the swagger that won him defensive player of the year in 2008.  After averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1 block on 50.3% shooting in the regular season the 2004 season MVP has improved to 19.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks while shooting 52.9% and giving Rondo a reliable scoring option.  Look no further than Game 6 against the Hawks for proof, when he scored 28 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, and garnered 3 steals and 5 blocks.

Nick Young:
In 22 games for the Clippers during the season Young provided a solid but streaky scorer off the bench.  So far the former reigning “Not Top Play” champion has excelled in the playoffs.  Despite seeing less minutes per game Young has averaged 8.8 points on 45.8% shooting, 59.1% from three, making the most of the 6 shots he sees per game.  Considering he shot 39.4% (35.3% from three) during the regular season it’s great to see him pick up his play in the postseason.  I guess it takes a little while to scrub the musk of the Wizards off you.

George Hill:
Hill contributed 9.6 points per game off the bench for the Pacers after they took a risky move trading Kawhi Leonard for the former Spurs guard.  That move is now paying off with Hill stepping into the starting lineup and providing a reliable scorer while Darren Collison comes off the bench.  The guard out of IUPUI has contributed 13.7 points per game during the playoffs and has more than doubled his trips to the free throw line where he has improved from 77.8% in the regular season to 85.3% in the playoffs.

Honorable Mention: Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday, Roy Hibbert, Reggie Evans, and David West

The 5 Down

Pau, wondering why he can’t perform in the playoffs.

Pau Gasol:
Gasol’s strength and resolve have been questioned in previous years when it came playoff time, and this postseason does nothing to refute those claims.  While his counterpart in the post has maintained his performance, Pau has experienced a significant drop in a number of major statistical categories.  Throughout the regular season he averaged 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and shot 50.1% despite the continued emergence of Andrew Bynum.  Unfortunately during the playoffs he has regressed to 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds while only shooting 43%.  The last time the Lakers won the championship Pau averaged 19.6 points and 11.1 rebounds while shooting 53.9%, what a difference two years make.

Manu Ginobili:
Ginobili struggled to stay on the court during the regular season due to injuries, but he still provided a reliable and efficient scorer off the bench that was a threat from anywhere on the floor.  The Spurs have succeeded in the postseason so far despite Ginobli’s significant decline in production.  After posting 12.9 points on 52.6% shooting, including 41.3% from three, Manu has been struggling to find his shot.  He is averaging more shots per game (9.2 compared to 8.4) while scoring less (11.2, down from 12.9) thanks to his 41.4% field goal percentage and 27.3% from beyond the arc.  The Jazz weren’t even a speed bump on the Spurs path to the championship, but the Clippers are a significantly better team.  If the Spurs hope to put away good teams Ginobli is going to have to step up his production.

Avery Bradley:
Bradley impressed Celtics and NBA fans alike when he stepped into the starting lineup for Ray Allen and produced spectacularly.  He averaged 15.1 points while shooting 52% from the field and 54.5% from three during the month of April, a promising performance knowing Allen may have to miss some games during the playoffs.  Despite his regular season burst in production Bradley has fallen hard back down to Earth after Allen returned.  During the postseason Bradley is averaging 7.4 points on 38.3% shooting from the field and 23.5% from three.

Lou Williams:
Rarely does the leading scorer of a playoff team happen to be a bench player, but the Sixers put together an impressive season that led to a playoff berth with Lou Williams leading the charge with 14.9 points per game off the bench.  He wasn’t the most efficient scorer (40.7% from the field and 36.2% from three) but he brought life to the second unit and proved to be a valuable asset.  During the Sixers playoff run Williams has seen a drastic drop in his already not-so-efficient play.  The runner up for the 2012 6th Man of the Year is currently shooting 34.8% from the field and 15.2% from three point land, making the already difficult task of taking down the Celtics that much tougher.  Fortunately the Sixers have enough players that can contribute scoring that it may not be too detrimental to their playoff hopes.

Gordon Hayward:
The Jazz were late in joining the playoff picture and early leaving it.  The young team was no match for the top-seeded Spurs and were easily taken care of in four games.  I’m sure there are plenty of startling bad stats from that series, but Hayward’s performance stands out among them all.  The former Butler phenom enjoyed an impressive improvement from his rookie year this season, averaging 11.8 points on 45.6% from the field and 34.6% from three.  Those numbers seemed to indicate progress made on his jump shot, but they took an unfortunate turn for the worse once the playoffs started.  Hayward made 6 out of his 33 shots during the series, 1 out of 12 from three, which translates to 18.2% from the field and 8.3% from three.  The only player who averaged more than 10 minutes per game and had a worse shooting percentage was Iman Shumpert.  However, Shumpert gets a free pass since he played 19 minutes of one game and then tore his ACL.  Hayward averaged over 30 minutes per game in that series.  I don’t know who to feel worse for, the guy that got injured or the one who had everyone watch him shoot slightly better than Jared Jeffries (16.7% in 6.8 minutes per game).

Honorable Mention: J.R. Smith, Deandre Jordan, C.J. Watson, O.J. Mayo, and Elton Brand

Playoff Troubles

The Lakers were demolished by the well-rested Thunder, the Heat choked in the final seconds against the Pacers, the Celtics slipped in a tight game against the Sixers, and the Clippers fell to the savvy Spurs.

Concerns After Game One

The Top 5 Individual Matchups Out East

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Who will win out in the battle of these members of the 2003 draft class?

5.  Rose vs His Body

Well, this matchup has already been decided.  The main concern for the Bulls during the post-season was going to be keeping their star player healthy in an effort to maintain their title hopes.  Unfortunately for Chicago fans those hopes were all but dashed last night when Rose tore his ACL while driving into the lane.  In spite of their recent success without Rose it is highly unlikely that the Bulls will make it far in the absence of their best player.

4.  Roy Hibbert vs Glen Davis

Without Dwight Howard the Magic have a distinct size disadvantage in this series and Roy Hibbert will look to exploit that.  Both Davis and Hibbert were pretty inefficient offensively last night going a combined 11 for 31, but the discrepancy becomes immediately apparent when you look further into Hibbert’s stat line.  The Pacers’ big man grabbed 13 boards and swatted away 9 shots giving Indiana an inside presence that will pay off in this series, even if it did not carry them to victory in the first game.

3.  Paul Pierce vs Joe Johnson

If the Hawks want to make it past the surging Celtics they will need Joe Johnson keyed in on both sides of the court.  Johnson finished the last 4 games of the season shooting 61.67% and averaging 23.8 points, numbers he will need to continue to put up against the 2nd best defensive team in the league.  His task on defense is to impede Paul Pierce, a man who has averaged 21.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4 assists in 110 career playoff games, not to mention one of the most clutch shooters in the league as evidenced here.  Good luck to the both of them

2.  Luol Deng vs Andre Iguodala

Both Deng and Iguodala are underrated players who excel on the defensive end and contribute in multiple ways offensively.  Iguodala has taken a dip in scoring in favor of a more team-oriented style of play for the Sixers but continues to spread the ball around (5.5 assists per game) crash the boards (6.1 rebounds per game) and pick pockets (1.7 steals per game).  Deng, on the other hand, now becomes the Bulls most important offensive player with Rose out for the rest of the playoffs.  With Rose attracting most of the defense’s attention Deng contributed 17 points on 8-14 shooting last night, but the game will be completely different with Iguodala focusing all of his efforts on Deng.

1.  LeBron James vs Carmelo Anthony

After Game 1 it’s already advantage LeBron.  Last night was a perfect example of a worst-case scenario for this matchup.  Carmelo couldn’t get his shot going (3-15 from the field) and LeBron was aggressive on offense going 10-14 from the field and 11-14 from the line.  Carmelo is going to need to continue shooting an exorbitant amount if the Knicks are going to have a chance against the championship hopeful Heat.  He’s already shown he can be an efficient scorer (29.1 points per game over 16 games since 3/26) but LeBron’s DPOY candidacy can and will effectively stop both him and the Knicks.

No kidding, this is the picture ESPN3.com used to promote the Indiana-Orlando game

Obviously, Jameer Nelson vs. Leandro Barbosa is the marquee matchup in the Indiana-Orlando series.

The Top 5 Individual Matchups out West

Marion-Durant was one of the most compelling matchups in all of the playoffs last year. This year, they match up in the first round.

5. Ramon Sessions vs. Ty Lawson
Down the stretch, Sessions’ play dropped off a bit. Over the Lakers’ last 7 games, he still posted solid averages of 10.7 points per game on 41.4% shooting with 4 assists per game. However, during that span, he shot 40% or lower in four of those contests. Sessions will have to step up his offensive production as well as his ability to distribute the ball effectively to the three stars on that team. Lawson, on the other hand, has been consistent all year long, leading the team in scoring with 16.4 points a game while shooting an extremely efficient 48.8% from the floor. Lawson is going to want to push the ball up the court and try to influence the pace of play in the Nuggets’ favor. It will be Sessions’ job to slow it down; although he alone is certainly capable of running with Lawson, the rest of his team does not operate that way. This may not be the most important matchup of this series (as you will see below), but the pace of play will be crucial in this series and it begins with these two.

4. Tim Duncan vs. Al Jefferson
The Jazz have little chance at pulling off an upset here, but if it’s going to happen, Jefferson is going to have to carry the load. With San Antonio ranking 2nd in the league in scoring and Utah 4th, while both teams are in the lower half of the league in opponents’ scoring, offense will decide this series. Jefferson represents Utah’s most consistent scoring threat and thus their most important piece if they want to win this offensively loaded series. In his four games against the Spurs this season, Jefferson put up 21, 20, 19, and 12 points respectively and the Jazz went 1-3 in those games. Clearly, for these Jazz to have any chance at pulling a Memphis-sized upset in these series, Jefferson is going to have to produce more than what he has given Utah in their previous games against the Spurs this year.

3. Kobe Bryant vs. Arron Afflalo
Bryant struggled in his three games against the Nuggets this year, shooting only 27.5% from the floor. OK, that’s a small sample size, but how about last year? He was a little bit better, but still Bryant only managed to convert on 39.2% of his field goal attempts. This is no coincidence; Arron Afflalo clearly gives Kobe problems. Surely, George Karl will turn to other players to help out on Kobe, namely Corey Brewer, but Afflalo figures to be crucial in defending Bryant. Offensively, Afflalo really turned a corner in April. During that span, he has put up 18.7 points a game, while shooting 52.1% from the field and 44.9% from beyond the arch. On both ends of the floor, this has the makings of a great matchup, which will certainly have a large bearing on the outcome of the series.

2. Shawn Marion vs. Kevin Durant
Key in the Mavericks’ 2011 run to the Finals was Marion’s defense on any opposing player that Coach Rick Carlisle assigned him. In the Western Conference Finals against these same Thunder, Durant averaged 28 points a game on 42.9% shooting. Marion, not known for his offensive skills, put up 18 and 26 in games 3 and 5, respectively. If Dallas wants to make a run at upsetting the Thunder, Marion is going to have to disrupt Durant during key stretches like he did last postseason. Moreover, with Tyson Chandler gone Marion will be the one spearheading this defensive attack.

1. Blake Griffin vs. Zach Randolph
I know that Zach Randolph has not played like the 2011 version of Z-Bo as of late. And I know Griffin isn’t the most important player in determining the outcome for his team, but I still see this as the most crucial matchup in what is the most evenly matched series out West. The Grizzlies have slowly been working Randolph back into the rotation, which can partly explain why he hasn’t reached 20 points in a game since March 16. But the fact of the matter is that if Memphis wants to make a deep run, they need the Randolph of old to show up. Griffin, not the most adept defender in the league, might be a good place to start. Defensively, you know that Randolph and the rest of the Grizzlies are not going to allow Griffin to simply jump over them; they will gladly send him to the line before allowing him easy buckets. If Memphis’ offense is sputtering at any point, don’t be surprised if you see them throw the ball down low to Randolph to get them going. Only if he shows up like he did last season can the Grizzlies make a deep run.