This has been one of the more entertaining first rounds that I can remember, especially in the Western Conference. The Portland Trail Blazers tied their series with the Phoenix Suns 2-2 after Brandon Roy, who had knee surgery last week, made a surprise return to the lineup. Game 5 is tonight and, if the previous four games are any indication, the Blazers will have an excellent chance of taking a 3-2 series lead if they can keep the game close; in Games 2 and 3, they lost by 29 and 19 points, respectively. About as equally surprising as Roy's return was the Oklahoma City Thunder blowing out the Los Angeles Lakers 110-89 on Saturday night to tie their series 2-2. Everyone figured the Thunder would steal a game at home because of their exuberant fan support, but who envisioned them blowing the Lakers out in a game, much less doing so to tie the series? Not to be outdone, the Dallas Mavericks-San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets-Utah Jazz series have not played out at all like anyone expected.
By all accounts, the Mavericks and Nuggets were expected to pose the biggest threats to the Lakers in the West. I myself thought that the #2 seeded Mavericks were the best bet to win the Finals. However, they now find themselves down 3-1 to their in-state rivals, the #7 seeded San Antonio Spurs. As a Spurs fan, I was disappointed with this season, even if they did have another 50 game season. Richard Jefferson, acquired last summer in a trade with Milwaukee, had not panned out at initially expected. Also, Tony Parker had been banged up late in the season with a broken hand. I expected the Mavericks to make short work of them as as they did in last year's first round, but the Spurs are playing great. Tim Duncan is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds and dominating the Mavs' big men while Manu Ginobili is putting up 20 points, 8 assists, and 4 rebounds. Adding to Ginobili's magnificent performance this series was him breaking his nose in Game 3 and returning in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points to help seal the win. Ginobili has also been moved to the starting lineup along with second year guard George Hill, who has averaged 23 points in the last two games. His increased playing time as the primary ball-handler has also opened up the offense because of he is more of a playmaker than Parker is. This, in turn, has helped Jefferson be more comfortable in the offense. Meanwhile, Parker has become the Spurs' sixth man (he's even been dubbed "Manu Jr.") and is putting up 19 points a game despite whatever lingering effects he may have from his hand injury. I know we're constantly beat over the head with this kind of talk, but the Spurs have so much experience and a great coach in Gregg Popovich that they can make anything happen. The Mavericks, on the other hand, don't seem to be at that point yet despite all the talent they have (and what I said a few weeks ago). After having a terrific season and putting together one of the better teams the franchise has had, they are once again on the verge of having a very long offseason.
More impressive than the Spurs play in their series is what the Utah Jazz have been able to do against the Denver Nuggets. The Jazz are down two starters, forward Andrei Kirilenko (left calf strain) and center Mehmet Okur (strained left Achilles), which drops them 24 points and 11 rebounds. They so far haven't needed either of those guys as everyone else on the team has stepped up to make up for those losses. Sixth man Paul Millsap has increased his scoring by five points per game and rebounding by three per game, giving him averages of 15 points and 9 rebounds. C.J. Miles, filling in at small forward for Kirilenko, has increased his scoring average by seven points, bringing it to 16 per game. And though he hasn't been scoring or rebounding very much, rookie big man Kyrylo Fasenko has put in some quality minutes in place of Okur by clogging up the paint and making it difficult on the Denver post players to score. But by far the two players who have taken their games to entirely different levels are Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. The duo is playing out of their minds!! Williams is putting up 26 points (+12 from the regular season) and 8 assists per game while Boozer is averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds; Boozer had a huge game last night with 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists as there was little Denver could do to stop him or Williams, who added 24 points and 13 assists. It's been amazing to see these two guys elevate their games and watch their teammates follow suit. I think Utah's performance so far is a testament to just how good Jerry Sloan is, even if we don't always notice. He knew his team was going to be without Kirilenko before the series started and then they lost Okur, but that hasn't stopped him from getting his team prepared to play and play hard.
Clearly, the Western Conference playoffs have been infinitely more entertaining that the Eastern playoffs and have given us some great stories, but there is one solemn thing about them: George Karl. Much of the Nuggets' poor play in the last couple months of the season can be attributed to his absence as he deals with throat cancer and the chemotherapy that it entails. While the Jazz and Spurs have been galvanized by Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich, respectively, the Nuggets are listless without their leader. Interim head coach Adrian Dantley has done fairly well despite the circumstances, but Karl was responsible for giving the Nuggets the feeling that nobody could beat them. It's also been just as tough on Karl, who must now watch helplessly as his team sits on the brink of elimination, as seen in this segment on ESPN's "Outside the Lines." After seeing the condition he's in, I really feel bad for him. Hopefully he's able to get better and returns before too long
Photos: Manu Ginobili (Yahoo! Sports), Utah Jazz (Yahoo! Sports)