Playoff preview: Western Conference

Last year was only the second Western Conference finals since 1998 that did not include the Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs. Was that a fluke? Can we apply the same label to the Dallas Mavericks' championship run?

The Spurs and Lakers, occupying two of the top three seeds, look better prepared to return to glory than the Mavericks. The question is whether the champions of the past can reclaim the conference or they're about to be permanently pushed aside by the rambunctious Thunder, Grizzlies or Clippers.

Let's take a look inside the matchups. (For our East preview, click here.)

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz

The stakes

Before the Spurs can reclaim their old title as champions, they have to redeem themselves for last year's first-round fizzle against the Grizzlies. In fact, the Spurs have won only a single playoff series in the past three postseasons. Consider the opening round a test track for this group. Yes, the Spurs have won it all before, but these Spurs haven't. Even coach Gregg Popovich wonders how his team will react to postseason pressure. "We start Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard the entire year," Popovich said. "And if they start in the playoffs, will they be the same players they've been all year, or will that heightened intensity change them to some degree? I don't know. You just don't know."

The question you have to ask about the Jazz is whether they'll simply be grateful for the invitation. That the Jazz are in the playoffs a year after trading Deron Williams to New Jersey is already an achievement.

Al Jefferson can't be content. Now that he finally has driven a team to the playoffs (Jefferson was in the backseat for the Boston Celtics' playoff run his rookie season) he needs to show he can produce in the postseason. His ratio of 8,922 regular-season points to 43 playoff points is as out of whack as it gets.

Realistically, giving the Spurs a good run while gaining playoff experience for the likes of Gordon Hayward would make this a very productive postseason for the Jazz, while adding to Tyrone Corbin's coaching credibility.

How it'll be decided

Not defensively, that's for sure. The Spurs and Jazz are the second- and fourth-highest scoring teams in the league, respectively, and both rank in the lower half for points allowed.

This matchup suits the narrative of Tony Parker's ascent this season; he averaged 21.7 points and got to the free throw line 28 times in three games against Utah.

The Spurs hold the most significant home-court advantage of any first-round series. They were 28-5 at home this season (tied with the Miami Heat for best in the league), and Utah couldn't get within 10 points of them in its two games played in San Antonio.

The other serious advantage is San Antonio's depth. The Spurs have eight players averaging nine points or better. That doesn't even include valuable contributors Matt Bonner or Leonard. In the three games the Spurs won against the Jazz this season, their reserves were plus-58, while the Jazz's reserves were minus-90.

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks

The stakes

For Oklahoma City, these playoffs set up like a journey straight from Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With A Thousand Faces." If the Thunder are going to arrive, if they're going to go from ascending to the apex, it seems right that they should go through the Mavericks, the Lakers and the Spurs, through Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Those are the three teams and key players who have accounted for every NBA championship won by the Western Conference since 1999. They would be the Thunder's opponents if they advance and play the highest possible seed in each round.

It might turn out that the Thunder's greatest adversary is themselves and their late-game execution issues. They don't have a comfort zone they can enter. There are no tried-and-true plays they can turn to. While they have two of the game's top scoring threats in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they have yet to master that seamless ability to play off each other. One odd tidbit lingering from 2011: Westbrook sat the entire fourth quarter of the Thunder's last playoff victory, Game 2 of the Western Conference finals in Dallas.

Everything seems different now. Westbrook is a better leader. And the Mavericks are undoubtedly worse. They let Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea leave in free agency, then acquired and jettisoned a moping Lamar Odom. After exacting revenge on the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, the Mavericks are in jeopardy of mirroring the Heat's pathetic title defense from 2006-07.

That Heat season began with a 42-point loss at home to the Bulls on ring night and ended with them getting swept in the first round by Chicago.

The Mavericks were blown out by the Heat on Christmas to start this season. After playing some good ball in January, the Mavericks are 22-22 since Feb. 1.

Jason Kidd put up the worst numbers of his career. Dirk Nowitzki shot the lowest shooting percentage since his rookie season. For Mavs fans hoping for a repeat of last year's championship run that materialized seemingly from nowhere, keep in mind that nothing in the NBA comes from nowhere. The Mavericks won 24 of their first 29 games last season, a run that culminated with victories at Miami, Orlando and Oklahoma City in a span of seven days. That was a championship indicator. Nothing of the sort this season.

Maybe the Mavericks reload by signing Williams in the offseason. But can they afford to waste a season of Dirk's career along the way?

How it'll be decided

We're not accustomed to asking this question about the Mavericks, but can they score enough points? They were 19th in the league in scoring. Yes, they are long removed from the Don Nelson days, but even so the Mavericks haven't finished outside the top 12 in scoring since the last lockout season in 1999. Their average of 95.9 points per game was 7.2 points behind Oklahoma City's. That's the greatest discrepancy of any first-round matchup. The Thunder don't make it easier for Dallas, because they don't send Nowitzki to the free throw line excessively.

The Thunder shoot better, grab more rebounds, even make more free throws (that used to be a Mavericks specialty). They just don't move the ball well. They're next-to-last in the league in assists. So it's up to the Mavericks to turn the Thunder's scorers into passers, to up the shot counts of Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins. And do they dare go zone against Durant, who launches 3-pointers so effortlessly?

Will James Harden's head be clear enough for him to play at the level that's about to bring him the NBA Sixth Man of the Year? If he is back to normal after absorbing that Metta World Peace elbow to his skull, the Thunder will have a clear advantage when the game is turned over to the second units.

The wild card is Delonte West. He averaged a pedestrian eight points per game against the Thunder, but averaged 13 points in April and is back to the scoring threat we've seen before, keeping his dribble and carving out tiny spaces in the defense.

Dallas is going to have to find the points somewhere, and Vince Carter doesn't appear to be the answer.

(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets

The stakes

Here's the "great superstar versus communal effort" debate reduced to one tidy lab experiment. We all know who will be taking the shots for the Lakers in the late going. Who will step in and handle the duties for the Nuggets?

George Karl bristles at the notion that his Nuggets are worse off without a go-to guy. He had one of those in Carmelo Anthony and wasn't happier for it. But this Nuggets team did have a 12-9 record in games decided by five points or fewer (the Lakers were 22-8 in such games.).

The Nuggets can already claim a small victory for their way by virtue of their 38-28 record and No. 6 seed, both of which are better than the 36-30 and No. 7 seed posted by Anthony's Knicks.

If anyone has emerged as a star in Denver it is Karl, who has sewn together this team despite tremendous turnover. The Nuggets swapped four players with the Knicks in the Carmelo trade then added seven players who weren't on last season's roster.

The Lakers have six new players themselves, most notably starting point guard Ramon Sessions. Their experience advantage is greatly diminished.

Center Andrew Bynum is featured more prominently, and after spending much of the season at odds with coach Mike Brown they're both aligned in their need to demonstrate they can play leading roles on a championship team. If Brown gets outcoached -- and Karl will certainly get the check mark in that category of the matchup previews -- he's immediately on notice for next season.

It's not that the Lakers are championship favorites, but anything short in the waning years of Bryant's premier-player window will feel like a massive waste.

Strangely, the Lakers could hurt themselves with a sweep or five-game victory. That would mean they would have to play one or two of their second-round games -- presumably against the Oklahoma City Thunder -- without World Peace. They'll need him against Durant much more than against Danilo Gallinari.

How it'll be decided

The Nuggets can't count on four nights of 6-for-28 shooting by Bryant. Those were his numbers in the Nuggets' only victory over the Lakers in four meetings this season. Arron Afflalo typically does as good a job guarding Bryant as you can ask, but the Nuggets should be more concerned with Bynum. He averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds and shot 66 percent against Denver this season. That includes a 30-point game after the Nuggets acquired JaVale McGee from Washington at the trade deadline.

Bynum and Pau Gasol will have to pay attention to Kenneth Faried on the boards. Even though he's smaller than the Lakers' two 7-footers, he's as active on the glass as anyone in the league.

Denver doesn't have anyone who can lock into a duel with Kobe, so Karl will have to use the depth advantage, turning to the likes of Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Corey Brewer off the bench. The Nuggets are the highest-scoring team in the league, bad news for a Lakers team that's had trouble keeping opponents to double digits on the scoreboard lately. And the Nuggets get their baskets through ball movement, leading the league in assists.

They also play up-tempo, with the second-fastest pace in the league. It's a rhythm they'll need to maintain to reduce the effectiveness of the Lakers' size advantage. With or without Anthony, the Nuggets are more comfortable when the game is sped up. The Lakers want to slow it down. As much as Sessions would love to get in a race with Ty Lawson, if the Lakers are to win they'll need to do so with deliberation.

(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers

The stakes

It's a team trying to live up to its trendy status versus a team trying to end a downward trend that goes back decades. The Grizzlies became the chic pick for Team Nobody Wants To Face In The Playoffs. People have fresh memories of what they did to the top-seeded Spurs in the first round last year. In the process, the Grizzlies won as many playoff series in the 10 years they've been in Memphis as the Clippers have won since moving from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984. (Taking it a step further, the Grizzlies have won as many series as the Clippers have since the franchise moved from Buffalo to San Diego in 1978.)

Has there been any franchise as desperate to shed its past as the Clippers, yet one that seems perpetually unable to do so? The regular-season finale was a classic example. After Chris Paul led the Clippers to their best-ever winning percentage and turned them from chokers to clutch in crunch time, a strained groin kept him out of the season finale in New York -- their most important game in years. They lost and lost their grip on home-court advantage against the Grizzlies in the process.

Coach Vinny Del Negro survived the Clippers' slide in March. Would owner Donald Sterling's affinity for Del Negro allow him to survive a first-round exit at the end of the most anticipated Clippers season ever? With Paul uncommitted beyond next season, it's crucial that the Clippers show they have championship-caliber leadership on the bench.

The Grizzlies have home-court advantage in a series for the first time ever, and this is the first time they enter the playoffs with expectations. Can Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph play like the two superstars that most championship teams possess? Gay missed last year's playoffs with a shoulder injury. Randolph is still rounding into shape after missing much of this regular season. These playoffs could indicate if the Grizzlies have a foundation or a need to trade someone while he still maintains value.

How it'll be decided

If protecting the ball is essential to playoff success, it is, to coin a word, "essentialer" in this series. The Grizzlies put a premium on disrupting passing lanes and getting steals. They forced the most turnovers in the NBA. The Clippers, on the other hand, had the second-lowest turnover rate in the league, largely because Paul has the ball so often. He had the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio. It would be easier to pry all of his online passwords out of him than get him to give up the ball.

The Clippers won the season series 2-1, in part because they won the turnover category by averaging only 12.3 per game.

It might be asking too much for even Paul's steady hand to compensate for a lineup that features three starters (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye) making their playoff debuts. And can Griffin make free throws? There's no way the Grizzlies are going to let him rack up highlight dunks. They will foul and foul some more. The same 55 percent rate he shot from the line in the season will send the Clippers home.

Randolph used to be as reliable a 20-point, 10-rebound guy as there was in the league. But he hasn't scored 20 points in a game since March 16. Marc Gasol's more prominent role takes a little pressure off Randolph. Still, they could use a dose of the Z-Bo that gave them 22 and 11 in last year's playoffs.

The Grizzlies aren't stylish. They like it grimy. The byproduct of their style is that their games are usually close. It's tough for them to blow anyone out, and it's tough to blow them out. This won't be the most glamorous series, but it will be the best.

Click here to read Israel Gutierrez's Eastern Conference preview »