Onto the Western Conference. Let's start with the aforementioned Memphis Grizzlies. They beat San Antonio off the singular merits of Zach Randolph. McDyess, Duncan, Bonner, and Splitter were totally unable to stop Z-Bo. And that's why I think the Thunder beat them. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Kendrick Perkins are younger, tougher, and can bully the Grizzlies more. This is where getting Perkins at the trade deadline turned into a genius move by Sam Presti (on the flip side, does O'Neal, O'Neal, Davis, Green for Boston really scare you behind KG? I mean, at least Perk could play some defense. I know Big Baby has quietly gotten loads better, and the stats say that Perk didn't affect this year's team, and Rondo has gotten out of his funk, but still, the dude's a bruiser, someone LeBron and Wade and Rose are glad they aren't going to get funneled into by the help D). I think that the Thunder guards are going to outplay the Grizz guards. And finally, I think Durantula is going to play well against Battier. I know, I know, Shane Battier is one of my favorite players, a guy that does everything right and can make any shooter's night a long one. But Durantula has historically shot well against Houston (though he goes to the line less), proving that Battier can't bother him that much. I think it's because Battier's game is pushing shooters to places where they're less effective and making them shoot over him while not fouling. Against a guy like Kobe who loves to play Battier's game but isn't great shooting over people, that works. But I feel Durantula has fewer weak spots on the floor, and his length makes it easier for him to shoot over the top. The only way you're going to make things hard on him is to body him like Ron Artest, constantly annoying him physically and throwing off his rhythm (even then, the Thunder last year, who were nowhere near this year's edition, pushed LA to within one short Westbrook jumper of a game 7). I'm pretty confident the Thunder wrap this up in six, and even in seven, I have faith in them at home.
LA and Dallas is harder for me. I love #41. I think he's the best offensive player in the league (Rose gets my MVP vote). He has somehow taken it to another level and blown past Durant as my number no scorer and fourth quarter cooler. I just know that if there's one guy in the league I want to throw the ball to in the fourth quarter, it's Dirk. If I have one shot to win or tie the game, I want Dirk taking it. People think of Kobe as a cooler; Dirk has all his moves: he can drive, he can reverse, he can step back, he can heat check, he's got the full assortment of Jedi mind trick pump fakes, shots off the wrong foot going in the wrong direction, turn-arounds, fade-aways, shoot free throws...this guy is the complete package. And beyond the eye test, he passes the statistical test as the best fourth-quarter scorer in the league. That does not lie. And still, I'm hesitant on this series. I look at Gasol, Odom, Artest, and think of guys that can make life difficult for Dirk (although if Pau and Odom don't get their acts together, that last bit may be entirely wrong). So I think the frontcourt is going to even out, especially with Tyson playing 'Drew tough, even though 'Drew is more menacing rim protector. Kobe is going to get his, though I am interested to see how well DeShawn Stevenson defends him, and JJ Barea is going to kill Laker ones. Artest and Marion are a draw, though I am loving the Peja pickup more and more as he seems healthier and healthier. Kidd outplays Fisher, I think. The X-factor in this series, to me, is Jason Terry. I don't think that Shannon Brown/Steve Blake/Matt Barnes can guard him, and I don't think their minutes are consistent enough to trust any of them. I don't know if Kobe will have the energy to guard him for 30 minutes, or even 15 minutes a game. I don't see how the Lakers stop him in the fourth quarter. Of course, Terry can be brutally inconsistent, but still, who is going to guard him if he gets hot? I know the Lakers are more physical and can dominate inside, but I think these Mavs are a rare team that can win off jump shooting (kind of like the champion Celtics). I think if Terry can have three good shooting games of around 25 points, and someone else (Marion, Kidd, JJ) can step up, the Mavs can do it. Am I going to pick them? Sure, why not. It goes against my instincts (defending champs, black mamba, jump shots versus layups, a bad loss in LA not too long ago), but I think LA has fallen back to earth after their post-break tear, and I think the Mavs can pull this one off. Can they? You make the call. But sports are about taking chances, and this is one I'm rolling with.