ESPN Daily Dime: "How West Playoff Matchups would play
Here's a look at how the Western Conference playoffs would shape up, based on Monday's standings. Plenty of room for teams to move up and down here -- Phoenix elevated to No. 5 after these were written -- and we can expect changes in the projected pairings on almost a daily basis.
No. 1. San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Golden State Warriors The Spurs have too much discipline for the Warriors. San Antonio, as usual, is playing its best basketball as the playoffs approach and Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have not played heavy minutes all season. They also have more depth than ever with the acquisitions of Kurt Thomas and Damon Stoudamire, plus the addition of Ime Udoka to the rotation. They will force the tempo to slow down and their half-court defense will force Golden State into an array of forced shots. (Spurs in 5)
No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
The Lakers now have the most complete offensive team in basketball. As Sunday proved when Kobe Bryant lit up Dallas for 52 points, the Mavs have no answer for Bryant defensively now that Kobe has Pau Gasol's versatility for teams to deal with. If Andrew Bynum returns to the rotation in time for the playoffs, the Lakers size will dominate the Mavs front line. (Lakers In 6)
No. 3 New Orleans Hornets vs No. 6 Phoenix Suns
It is no fluke that the Hornets swept the Suns in four games this season. Chris Paul's eyes light up when he sees the Suns, especially now that Shaquille O'Neal and Amare Stoudemire are the primary pick-and-roll defenders to help Steve Nash try to keep Paul out of the lane.
The Suns have lost their ability to run teams off the floor and they miss Shawn Marion's rebounding, athleticism and defense more than they ever imagined. (Hornets in 6)
No. 4 Utah Jazz vs No. 5 Houston Rockets
This would be very competitive series, despite Yao Ming's absence. The Jazz are 26-3 at home and that will mean a lot in this series. Deron Williams took it to another level in the postseason last spring and is poised for another run.
Houston defends (fourth in points allowed), takes care of the ball (fourth fewest turnovers), and rebounds (second overall), but Tracy McGrady will need more scoring help than this team can provide. (Jazz in 7)
San Antonio vs. Utah Jazz
A rematch of the West finals from a year ago, these teams are mirror images of each other. They both have outstanding point guards in Parker and Deron Williams, dominant big men in Tim Duncan and Carlos Boozer, and a deep complement of role players and shooters. The difference in the series would be Ginobili. He has returned to the form that made him a legit Finals MVP candidate in 2005 and gives the Spurs the additional playmaker down the stretch that Utah lacks. (Spurs in 6)
Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Hornets
This is all about matchups. The Lakers' ability to negate the size up front of Tyson Chandler and David West with Bynum and Gasol takes away a big part of the Hornets' advantage. The one thing the Hornets lack is a big, athletic wing defender to use on Bryant.
He will put up big numbers.Paul is special but at least the Lakers have two solid defenders in Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar to chase Paul around all night. Finally, the biggest problem for N.O. Will be Lamar Odom in the post and off the dribble against Peja Stojakovic. Hornets aren't quite ready for this kind of leap. (Lakers in 6)
San Antonio vs. Los Angeles Lakers
It is awfully difficult to pick against the Spurs with a Finals appearance on the line, but it's Kobe's year in the West. For much of the same reasons that they match up well with the Hornets, the Lakers have an answer at every position to combat the Spurs' balance offensively.
Ultimately, it will hinge on which team makes plays down the stretch and Kobe Bryant is unmatched in crunch-time situations. Gasol's addition was the piece that put the Lakers over the top. Duncan won't be able to rest against the likes of Kwame Brown or Chris Mihm. He will have to work. As will Ginobili against Kobe. The Lakers finally break through without Shaq, and Phil Jackson gets a shot at his tenth ring. (Lakers in 7)