Memphis and San Antonio
Key number: 4.5
Allen has been perhaps the league’s biggest surprise this year, barely playing in the early part of the season for a team destined for the Lottery, before leading a renaissance that has Memphis dangerous and poised to cause havoc in the playoffs.
His 4.5 steal percentage (basketball-reference.com) is by far the highest in the NBA, and he’s taken what he learned in Boston on the defensive end and used it to transform the Grizzlies into one of the league’s toughest teams.
Whether he’s matched up with Manu Ginobili (doubtful for Game 1) or Tony Parker or Richard Jefferson (he will probably guard all three at times), Allen’s physicality will be crucial. This is his shot at a coming-out party.
My prediction: San Antonio in six
New Orleans and L.A. Lakers
Key Number: Three
Somehow, Belinelli is going to have to guard somebody in this series, whether that’s Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest or anybody else. Willie Green and Jarrett Jack play behind him, but neither one is big enough to consistently check either of the Lakers’ starting wing players. Plus, neither one is a great shooter. Belinelli has to compete enough defensively so that he can stay out on the court and stretch the floor.
Against the Lakers this season, he shot a ghastly 30 percent from the field. If the Hornets want to surprise people, Belinelli has to make at least three treys a game to keep the Lakers from collapsing on Chris Paul.
My prediction: Lakers in five
Portland and Dallas
Key number: Four
I feel like Batum is always the x-factor with Portland. When he plays well, especially at home, they look like a top-three team in the West. With so many injuries, the Blazers are lacking for size. Their best lineup is normally going small with LaMarcus Aldridge at center and counting on the versatility of Gerald Wallace and Batum to save them.
The big issue? Dallas has size. It’s not great size, but seven feet is seven feet. Batum is going to have to play both big and small, and will probably spend time defending nearly everyone in the Mavs’ rotation. Because covering Jason Kidd is like playing a wing player at this point and because checking Dirk Nowitzki is like going against a tall small forward, Batum will be checking four different positions during this series. He better be ready.
My prediction: Dallas in seven
Denver and Oklahoma City
Key number: Six
If Denver wants to have any shot in this series, Nene has to be huge. He has to dominate. The Nuggets score the most points in the NBA, but have struggled to open the court up during their last two meetings with the Thunder. The problem for the Nuggets is that Kendrick Perkins is one of the best post defenders in the league. We’ve seen Perkins and Nene get into it already. It’s bound to happen again as this series moves along.
Still, I’m not sure if Nene can score enough inside to balance out Denver’s offense. His one antidote might be the number six, as in six fouls. The first time these teams played after Perkins came to the Thunder, the ex-Celtic had 14 rebounds and held Nene to just three buckets all game. But in the second meeting just three days later, Perkins got into early foul trouble, and Nene responded (18 points, 9 rebounds). That’s about what he’s going to have to average if the Nuggets want to pull off this upset.
My prediction: Oklahoma City in six
Who do you think is the key player for each series?
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