Once Again, the West Proves Wild

The NBA postseason that got underway Saturday didn't exactly pick up where the regular season ended, but while breaking the mold is a bad thing when you're casting for a Transformers sequel, it's a blessing when you're a league marred by the absence of any drama since its All-Star Break.

All eight playoff series opened over the weekend, and seven were in doubt deep into the fourth quarter. Given this season's static second half — the 16 playoff teams have controlled the postseason landscape since February, with 10 finishing in the same seeding they held coming out of All-Star Weekend — this has to be considered a major coup for the NBA.

By Sunday night, the East's top three seeds could each count their fortunes after receiving wake-up calls before the final buzzer, though for the Boston Celtics it rang with only 4.6 seconds to spare. The best-in-league Chicago Bulls came from 10 back in the final 3:28 to beat the Indiana Pacers, while in Miami, the second-seeded Heat got down by 14 points early, then let a 13-point fourth quarter lead dwindle to one before hanging on against the Philadelphia 76ers. Ray Allen's last-second trey gave the C's their 2-point win over a surprisingly-energized New York Knicks team that played much larger than their roster bios.

It was a different story out west. The conference renown for postseason theatrics dating back to Dikembe Mutombo's 1994 Denver Nuggets, which became the first eighth-place team in NBA history to knock off a top seed, hinted of a reprise as the top two teams found themselves down one game come Sunday night, while the third and fourth slots survived scares of their own.

That the top-seed San Antonio Spurs are in early trouble out West after losing to the Memphis Grizzlies is not particularly shock-the-world material. The Spurs have been struggling for a month, losers of 8 of their last 12 while their once-untouchable best record was surpassed by the Bulls; the Los Angeles Lakers even came within a game down the stretch. Exacerbating their poor play, the Spurs were without all-star Manu Ginobili, who sat out with a sprained elbow.

Like on-the-job naps to an air traffic controller, losing opening games is what the Spurs like to do. Sunday marked their six consecutive opening game loss. Although they ultimately went down in three of those previous five series, and the Western Conference is a petri dish for incubating eighth-seed upsets, the Grizzlies lack the requisite experience to sustain another Western top-seed collapse. If the world hadn't already known it, the way in which Zach Randolph and his teammates celebrated just a single postseason victory removed any doubt that the Grizzlies have never been here before.

While the two-time defending champion Lakers are the antithesis of the Spurs, having won six consecutive opening round games heading into Sunday, they were in a similar position by week's end, down a game in their series with the New Orleans Hornets. Los Angeles is looking for their fourth consecutive Western title, all without a legitimate point guard. It's the one advantage the Hornets hold in this matchup, and they cashed in their chips on Sunday, getting 33 points and 14 assists out of Chris Paul.

Look for Phil Jackson to make the necessary adjustments on Wednesday to reestablish his front-court dominance and exploit a Hornets team missing its top scorer in David West, who is finished for the year. Jackson's coaching career is going to end soon enough, but Monty Williams will not be giving Phil his final handshake, especially with Kobe Bryant putting up 26 shots a game.

Of course, it was one of Bryant's shots – a three-pointer with less than five seconds remaining in Sacramento last Wednesday night – that helped the Lakers' cause by protecting the second slot and sending the pesky Portland Trailblazers to Dallas. On Saturday, the third-seeded Mavericks struggled, trailing Portland by six in the fourth quarter and not taking the lead for good until 3:40 left to go.

Dallas has been a first-round knockout three times in the last four years, including last season as the West's two-seed. They're a team that never seems to incrementally improve, but, like on-the-job movies to an air traffic controller, you just feel compelled to watch them. The Mavs figure to struggle when the series shifts to Portland, where they lost both regular season games. That makes Tuesday night an early must-win. It will come down to a best-of-three series, and if you're Mark Cuban, you cannot like those odds.

Rounding out the West's wild weekend is the team feeling the most pressure to dethrone the Lakers: the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder came one non-call away from pushing the Lakers to a seventh game in last year's opening round, and the consensus throughout the NBA is that they improved greatly with the mid-season acquisition of Kendrick Perkins, who complements perhaps the best young duo in all of basketball in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

As a Celtic, Perkins did the most to neutralize the front-court presence of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. After he went down with a torn ACL in last year's Finals, the Lakers grabbed 23 offensive rebounds in Game 7 en route to their 15th championship.

It's not surprising that most of the free world not living in Southern California has placed its hopes of stopping the Lakers on the Thunder. And they took their first step in that direction on Sunday, if only partially on script. Durant and Westbrook combined for 72 points to keep Denver at bay, notwithstanding 9-of-11 shooting for Nuggets center Nene Hilario, aka Perkins' man. Forget Perk's sub-par 4-point, 5-rebound night; he got the tip-in that delivered OKC's win, and he provides some veteran playoff experience his new team was missing last year. He has what the Thunder need to carry them into a showdown against the Lakers. The only question in this Wild West postseason is, will either of them be around come Conference Finals?

As Dikembe Mutombo once said, “These are the playoffs. Nobody invites you into their house. You just have to go in and get comfortable.”

Western teams certainly do make themselves feel quite at home, no matter where they are.

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