Don’t be shocked if there is an upset in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
The top four teams — the Spurs, Lakers, Mavericks and Thunder — are all a notch above the teams below them. But the teams below them are hot. They each create some matchup problems and have been exploiting them well of late. They have been defending. There will be no easy outs.
Mark Medina at the Los Angeles Times Lakers blog was able to pry anonymous answers out of four Lakers players about who they want to avoid come the first round.
The answers: Portland and Memphis.
Portland because the Rose Garden has long been a place the Lakers have struggled to win. And even with Los Angeles 3-0 against Portland this season the Lakers are wary. Portland has some real talent at the forward spots with Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge, they have Brandon Roy and Marcus Camby, too. They are dangerous.
Memphis, however, scares more than just the Lakers. People with one of the other top teams in the West have told me Memphis is the team they most want to avoid in the first round. Even without Rudy Gay.
Memphis brings to the table one of the best and biggest front lines in basketball with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. They have a good wing defender in Shane Battier, they have a solid point guard in Mike Conley.
All top four teams in the West can beat the Grizzlies, but it’s about getting it over with quickly. Not having to play extra games and take on an extra physical beating in the process. Memphis is going to make it hard on some team (it may well be the Spurs, who will need Tim Duncan back and healthy for that series).
Denver also is playing well, but without a star they don’t seem to strike fear into the top teams like Memphis and Portland do.
Since David West went down, the Hornets are the team the contenders should most want to face. Chris Paul is Chris Paul, but without West New Orleans isn’t the same threat.
As of today, the match ups would be Spur/Grizzlies, Lakers/Hornets, Mavericks/Blazers and Thunder/Nuggets in the West. However, with only one game separating 6-8 in the standings and Denver just 2.5 games ahead of that, things could shift dramatically.