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.
10.) We all tried to forget about Ron Artest’s reputation. The man who won the NBA’s sportsmanship award in 2011 had certainly worked hard enough to try to get us to forget. Hell, he even changed his name, maybe tricking some of us into thinking he was a completely different person altogether. But after Sunday night, no one is going to forget Metta World Peace was once, and still is to a degree, Ron Artest.
9.) By elbowing James Harden square in the back of the head, Word Peace committed one of the most violent plays in the history of the sport…again. And the fact that he is a repeat offender should absolutely be taken into consideration when the NBA levies a suspension.
8.) I have heard some compare this play to “The Punch” that occurred on December 9, 1977 when LA Laker Kermit Washington punched Houston Rocket Rudy Tomjanovich in the face. I can’t go that far; this play was not nearly as malicious as that one. However, World Peace’s actions simply cannot be compared to basketball-related fouls, like the one committed by Andrew Bynum in last year’s playoffs. I cannot think of a violent, non-basketball play like this one in recent memory.
7.) The Lakers knew they were taking a chance by bringing in Metta World Peace as a free agent in July of 2009. The team should be recognized for looking beyond his reputation and seeing that in recent years, the man formerly known as Ron Artest had actually been behaving. However, inherent with that signing was the risk that Artest would revert back to his old ways. As much as you and I would love to mock World Peace for his often offensively challenged skills, the fact remains that he is indeed an incredibly important player for the Lakers. I would not be surprised to see the team knocked out in the first round, in no little part thanks to a suspension to World Peace. As unfortunate as it may be, franchises that keep knuckleheads like World Peace employed are going to pay the price.
6.) World Peace made a completely non-basketball move when he threw his elbow into Harden’s head. It wasn’t even part of his celebration. Instead, it was a player getting too caught up in the moment and, for some reason I cannot even begin to explain, unleashing his energy in an incredibly violent way.
5.) Metta World Peace’s attack on Harden seems pretty unprecedented, but in all honesty we have come close to this before. The only difference is in the past, players haven’t connected on their swings at each other. Obviously, the force with which World Peace hit Harden combined with his history make this a big story, but Shaq’s swing at Brad Miller could have potentially been worse.
4.) Throw in the fact that the NBA has seen one of its most marketable players, Blake Griffin, targeted in thug-like ways throughout the season and you know the NBA is going to come down hard.
3.) One of the most feared enforcers in the league, Kendrick Perkins, was far away from the fight that broke out on the floor. For that we should all be thankful.
2.) The NBA is loathe to be unconventional. So you can throw out any idea of World Peace being suspended indefinitely, only to be reinstated when the Lakers are eliminated from the playoffs. Same for JA Adande’s (very good) idea of suspending World Peace as long as Harden is out, plus two games.
1.) So if this play isn’t as bad as Washington’s, but worse than Bynum’s, how many games should World Peace be out for? Washington was suspended for 60 days (26 games) and Bynum was ruled out for 5 games. Considering Harden’s health, the action itself, and the player’s history, I think that World Peace should be suspended for 15 games. However, throwing in the fact that he is going to miss playoff games, which to me, and anyone who has ever watched an NBA game, carry more weight than regular season games, the suspension should be reduced to 10 games. This way, World Peace would miss the Laker’s final game of the regular season, the first round of the playoffs, and beyond. It sounds a tad extreme on its face, but World Peace cannot be allowed to get away with such a heinous act. The NBA cannot allow players to be assaulted on the court with little penalty. 10 games, which includes several in the playoffs, would send a clear message to the players and teams alike that this will absolutely not be allowed.