Can anyone in the West beat L.A.?
When it comes to fan participation, few battle chants are worthy of application in multiple team sports.
One that crosses sport-specific barriers is "We’re No. 1!" Another is "Beat L.A.!"
And "Beat L.A.!" just happens to work extremely well when attempting to define fan predicaments as they relate to the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs.
As we ease into the final week of the league’s regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers stand alone in terms of playoff seeding. The defending champs are inked in as the conference’s No. 1 seed, with the other seven contenders still grappling for postseason position.
A couple of months ago, we were wondering whether any other Western team was capable of even challenging the Lakers in a seven-game series. With that task still at hand, the fluid nature of the standings requires us to examine the credits and debits of the other playoff qualifiers. Fortunately for them, the Lakers’ recent mediocrity makes the challenge a bit more reasonable.
Lakers fans have been made uneasy by the surfacing of several potential problem areas. For example, Kobe Bryant has struggled physically and — although it would be unwise to underestimate him — he may be incapable of grabbing an opponent by the neck and shaking it into submission.
Derek Fisher’s advancing inability to stay in front of quick point guards is another factor, as is the inconsistent play of the bench and a seeming philosophical stalemate co-starring Kobe and coach Phil Jackson.
Anyway, with those issues on the table, let’s take an alphabetical waltz through the seven Western Conference contenders to check out why each can or can’t beat L.A.
Why they can beat L.A.: In playoff basketball, the defense’s eventual familiarity with half-court sets often requires the offense to lean on the one-on-one skill of its go-to guy. The go-to guy can produce points directly or provoke double teams that create scoring opportunities for teammates. The Mavs have such a player in Dirk Nowitzki, who can flourish against the Lakers despite the length and mobility of Lamar Odom. A pre-deadline trade also provided Dallas with another post presence in Brendan Haywood (crucial against L.A. if Andrew Bynum is healthy enough to be a factor) and yet another half-court scoring option in Caron Butler.
Shawn Marion is a veteran defender who at least can make Bryant earn his points. Kobe managed just 16 per game (on 40 percent shooting) against Dallas this season.
Why they can’t beat L.A.: Jason Kidd was a big star for quite a while, but no longer possesses the wheels to blow past Fisher at will. We also have to wonder whether the Mavericks — who split four games with the Lakers during the regular season — have the defensive focus and toughness to get this done.
Why they can beat L.A.: The Nuggets have a legit go-to guy in Carmelo Anthony, a blisteringly quick point guard in rookie backup Ty Lawson and an experienced leader in Chauncey Billups. Arron Afflalo helped the Nuggets limit Bryant to 37.5 percent shooting from the field in the three games Kobe worked against Denver. Overall, the Nuggets beat L.A. three times in four games. Denver also benefits from having a volume scorer on the bench in J.R. Smith.
Why they can’t beat L.A.: The health of coach George Karl leads Denver’s issues in any series going forward, as does the shaky knee of lead interior defender Kenyon Martin. The Nuggets still lack front-court depth against a team like the Lakers. Denver also suffers from having a volume shooter off the bench in J.R. Smith (yeah, I get the irony).
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Why they can beat L.A.: Coach Scott Brooks has the young Thunder playing defense like spry, committed veterans. He also has the league’s leading scorer in Kevin Durant (go-to guy … check) and a quick guard in Russell Westbrook to keep Fisher on his heels. Thabo Sefolosha is a nice variable to have when tracking Bryant on defense.
Why they can’t beat L.A.: A general lack of experience certainly isn’t an asset when the playoffs begin, and this team is a bit fast and loose with the ball during the regular season. The Thunder also is deficient in lining up big bodies to bang against Gasol, Bynum and Odom. The Lakers have robust Ron Artest to attempt a few bullying maneuvers against Durant; in four games against the Lakers (the Thunder lost three), Durant was held four points below his scoring average and was slightly off from the field.
Why they can beat L.A.: The Suns have several offensive weapons in their starting lineup and actually feature a strong bench that offers reasonable scoring and sound defensive chops (are you paying attention, Mike D’Antoni?). Amare Stoudemire is a match-up problem for anybody, and Steve Nash leads a crew with considerable playoff experience.
Why they can’t beat L.A.: Center Robin Lopez, the leader of the inside toughness upgrade, has had back problems. Even with Lopez at full strength, the Suns’ situational defensive upgrade still may lack the consistency to take on a team that — in good times — can be brutally efficient on offense. The Suns’ double-time tempo is much harder to deal with in regular-season turnarounds, but often is less formidable as a long playoff series rolls along. Kobe bagged 54 percent of his field-goal attempts against Phoenix (the Suns were 1-3 against L.A.) this season.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Why they can beat L.A.: Even though the Lakers won a game at the Rose Garden without Bryant this season, they have a recent history of woe in Portland. Marcus Camby and LaMarcus Aldridge give the Blazers enough length to deal with Pau Gasol and Bynum, while Brandon Roy fills the go-to-guy requirement. Even though we often think of youth when the Blazers are mentioned, Camby and Andre Miller provide considerable experience.
Why they can’t beat L.A.: Miller isn’t exactly a blur, and even if he could move like Ty Lawson, coach Nate McMillan’s dump-truck pace can favor a really solid half-court team such as the Lakers. Even with the addition of Camby, Portland may lack the inside depth to handle the Lakers.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Why they can beat L.A.: The Spurs, who split four regular-season games with the Lakers, certainly have the postseason pedigree to play with anyone. Tim Duncan still is a beast on the block, Tony Parker can turn Fisher into Wile E. Coyote and Manu Ginobili has been one of the league’s best players in recent weeks. San Antonio also has one of the league’s great coaches in Gregg Popovich.
Why they can’t beat L.A.: Aside from Duncan, the Spurs lack length to defend inside and no longer have Bruce Bowen to push Kobe; Bryant made 52 percent of his field-goal attempts against San Antonio this season.
Why they can beat L.A.: The fans in Salt Lake City may be the most difficult to deal with for a road playoff team. Utah also features point guard Deron Williams, who averaged a modest 17 points against the Lakers but is capable of huge nights. Jerry Sloan gives the Jazz a boost from the sideline, while Carlos Boozer provides a great scoring option on the post. Utah’s perimeter defenders had enough length and quickness to make Kobe miss 67 percent of his field-goal attempts against the Jazz this season.
Why they can’t beat L.A.: Well, they didn’t in three of this season’s four regular-season dates. A big issue is a lack of lengthy post defenders (a common theme, isn’t it?). Gasol shot 61 percent from the field against Utah this year, and Odom checked in at 60.