Ball Don't Lie - NBA

With less than five weeks of the season left, the difference between the conference leading Rockets and the No. 9 Nuggets is just six games. No playoff spots have been clinched; anyone could still play anyone. So, we asked a few of the best team bloggers around: If the playoffs started tomorrow, which opponent would you most (and least) want to see in the first round? Here are their answers.

The Dream Shake: As I write this, the Rockets are a solid hour into enjoying their most recent and satisfying victory in a 22 game winning streak. And we beat the team that was tied with us for the #1 overall spot in the West. It felt good to beat Kobe. In the playoffs, however, it will feel much better to put a hurtin' on the Utah Jazz. I hate the Utah Jazz. I hate the Utah Jazz more than Eric Cartman hates hippies. Game 7 last year was an abomination. T-Mac even cried afterwards. The Houston Rockets lost a game 7 at home for the first time. And it sucked. This year I want to make Kirilenko cry. Okay, make him cry again.

Utah has nearly the same team as last year ... minus Derek Fisher and plus Ashton Korver. The Rockets added Bobby Jackson and "Luis Landry". The Scola/Landry combination alone atones for the one major weakness we had last year -- production from the power forward position. This year it's a position of strength. And if/when Tracy eliminates Utah with Yao there cheering him on ... I can't think of anything sweeter other than winning it all.

Speaking as an NBA fan, is there anyone in the West 1-thru-9, that any other team actually wants to face?  This year is the single most impressive Western Conference in NBA history. However, as a Texan, I do not want to face off against either of the two other Texas teams. I wholeheartedly believe the Rockets can handle the Mavericks and the Spurs, but I simply do not want to deal with the fans of the other teams in my arena. While we are an expansive state, there is a large amount of movement between the cities and, in the Spurs case, an excessive supply of bandwagon fans. The fans living in the other team's cities, and those that travel with the team, can be an intolerable bunch, win or lose, and frankly I've tired of dealing with it. I also have an insatiable need to insulate drunken fans (yes, Rockets fans too) from turning a sporting event into a pissing contest. The most elementary way for me to do that is to avoid San Antonio and Dallas; though I do truly enjoy handing out beat downs to both Southwest Division foes.

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Forum Blue and Gold: The "bring it on" team is the Phoenix Suns. There is not much fear of them anymore because, despite the trade for Shaq, this is not a good defensive team. They are simply going to try to outscore you, and that is not the way you win a title. Shaq gives them a bigger presence in the paint but at this point in his career his rotations are slow, and if you have a center who can hit the 18-foot jumper (hello Pau Gasol) you can pull Shaq away from the rim and make him far less effective. But the real defensive problem for them is on the wing -- without Marion Raja Bell is the only decent perimeter defender they have. Think about it if they are playing the Lakers -- Bell may slow Kobe (somewhat) but who then tries to cover Odom? You can pick and roll them to death if you have a good PG -- Nash ad Shaq can be exposed. After the last couple of years, Lakers fans really would like another shot at the Suns, this season (when healthy) the Lakers really have the Suns number. And a lot of other teams do to.

Who would the Lakers like to avoid? The San Antonio Spurs. This is not only a team that is the defending champions but is a tough match up -- a point guard who can get into the lane and score or pass (something the Lakers struggle with), another wing payer with all-world skills and a center (no way Duncan is a forward, don’t care what you say) who can play inside and out. Those stars are surrounded by smart, veteran role players who play within themselves. The Spurs are committed on the defensive end and are efficient on offense. They can beat you in a number of different styles. They may be getting old, but if you think they are not the team to beat in the West you are kidding yourself.

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Bright Side of the Sun: A week ago, I would probably have picked the Yao-less Rockets hands down as the lesser of seven evils (OK, I did do that). But then there's that whole 22-game winning streak thing, and the fact the Suns have yet to face the Rockets since trading Shawn Marion for Shaq. There are no "cupcakes" in the West this season. So, in light of this, I think you can make an argument for just about any team being the preferred match-up for one crazy reason or the other (the Spurs would be the most satisfying, the Warriors would be the most entertaining, the Mavericks would be the best grudge match with the Nash-Cuban angle, etc.)

All that said -- and with full knowledge I may look like a fool a week from now -- I'm sticking with my pick for the Rockets. Even with the acquisition of Shaq, and the breakout of Amare Stoudemire, the Suns still rely so much on Steve Nash, that I'm partial to match-ups that favor the Suns at the point guard spot. Also, without Yao, the Suns should rule the paint, and Raja Bell should be able to pester Tracy McGrady. Here's hoping I didn't just put the mother of all jinxes on my team when they face the Rockets this coming Saturday.

As for who I'd least like to see? The Lakers. Forget about the fact they're a popular pick to win it all, and that they mostly "owned" the Suns in the regular season. Starting the playoffs against the same team three seasons in a row is simply too monotonous.

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Pounding the Rock: The question of who the Spurs most want to see in the playoffs is an easy one to answer:  whichever team employs the dead, rotting corpse of Robert Horry. Since one cannot play themselves in the playoffs (though Phil Jackson will undoubtedly try to “zenvince” his Lakers that they are, in fact, battling only themselves and those who would fill them with trans-fat and non-free-range chicken), playing against Robert Horry's collective detritus would imply he's no longer part of the Spurs' geriatric wing. Yes, fine, ok, he's going to hit a big shot in the playoffs. He's also going to miss dozen of wide open looks and generally muck up the offense. Offensively speaking, the Spurs are 8.9 points worse per 100 possessions when Horry's on the court compared to when he's sitting. You cannot nostalgia that away.

If forced to select a more realistic, the obvious answer is Golden State. They generally abstain from defense and each of the Spurs big three creates significant match-up problems for them. The Spurs, assuming their rickety joints are properly lubed before the game (which they should given the extended playoff schedule), are quite effective at slowing down the fast break. Not to mention Golden State, namely Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, can easily be convinced to hoist many a horrible jumper.

Who would we least like to face? The Lakers would be the biggest nemesis. Both Gasol and Odom have been pains in our side in the past. Bowen's been generally successful in slowing down Kobe (even outscoring him on a couple of occasions), but he's never gotten into his head. With Bynum, Pau and Turiaf they have three different types of defenders to throw at Duncan.

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Pickaxe and Roll: The question of what team would be the best match-up in the playoffs for the Nuggets is a difficult one seeing as how my number one choice, Seattle, has been mathematically eliminated for a while. But going under the dangerous assumption Denver will end up making it, the team I would prefer them to play would be New Orleans. First of all, the Nuggets do match up pretty well with the Hornets. Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler are very similar players. Kenyon Martin has been playing better and better since the All-Star break and he matches up well with David West and no one on the Hornets can handle Carmelo Anthony or Allen Iverson. Of course Chris Paul is no picnic to try to defend, but Denver has shown that they can bottle him up for short stretches this season.

The other reason to hope for a match-up against the Hornets would be their lack of playoff experience. Teams typically have to pay their dues before they advance in the NBA playoffs (Golden State had not been there as a team, but Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington had all been on playoff winners), and New Orleans has a gaggle of players who have little or no playoff experience. How the Hornets will handle the added pressure is an unknown.

The list of teams the Nuggets do not want to see in the playoffs is eight teams long. They have not won a season series against any of the playoff teams in the West.

It is difficult to imagine a scenario at this point where Denver will advance out of the first round. That being said, the only playoff team the Nuggets have not defeated this season is the Lakers. Los Angeles has handed Denver two of their most embarrassing losses of the season to date and Pau Gasol was not yet in the equation for any of the three meetings.

Los Angeles is such a great passing team that it is only a matter of time before the pick Denver's lackadaisical defense to pieces.  Denver has no one who can physically match-up with Kobe aside from J.R. Smith and he is, to be kind, a work in progress on the defensive end of the court. If Denver makes the playoffs and they end up sharing a bracket box with the Lakers, I might not even bother to tune in.

(Note: I'll post the Jazz, Hornets, Mavericks and Warriors bloggers' opinions later this week.)

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