A sneak peek at potential first round foes

With the race for first place in the Western Conference playoffs being over for the most part, San Antonio Spurs fans are starting to turn their attention to the teams currently in the seventh, eighth, and ninth spots in the playoff race, hoping for the best matchup for the Spurs.

There are three teams battling it out for the right to face the Spurs in the first round in the playoffs, and each team presents its own challenges — the New Orleans Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Houston Rockets.

Granted there are plenty of games left in the regular season and these three teams may shuffle in playoff positioning. So let’s take a closer look at these potential first round foes.

Hornets — currently in seventh place:

No one in the NBA can run a team like Chris Paul in my opinion. He is a nightmare to guard off the dribble even with him being slowed down with a knee brace. He can absolutely shred defenses when he is at full strength. The Hornets also have smallish but skilled big guys with David West and Carl Landry.

But the key word there is “small.” The Hornets aren’t big enough down low to be really competitive in a seven-game series with the Spurs. West, Landry and Emeka Okafor are a nice trio but they’ll get beaten up on the boards by the Spurs’ bigs. If the Spurs are fortunate enough to land the Hornets in the first-round, I think it would be over in five games.

Grizzlies — currently in eighth place:

The Grizzlies can match size up front with anyone in the NBA except the Los Angeles Lakers. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are one of the best front court tandems in the league. Both are very big and very skilled. They also have tough veteran defensive stoppers with Tony Allen and Shane Battier. Both of the top two teams in the West would gladly choose another opponent in the first-round.

The Spurs; however, have a clear advantage in the backcourt and in frontcourt depth. Mike Conley can’t guard Tony Parker if there were two of him on the court. That’s an obvious mismatch. But the key to this series will be Manu Ginobili versus the long and athletic tandem Memphis will throw at him of O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen.

Also, Memphis lost their main weapon, Rudy Gay, to a season ending shoulder injury but this Grizzlies team won’t back down. In the last two meetings with San Antonio without Gay, the Spurs edged out a 95-88 win in San Antonio back in Febuary – though the Spurs did lose Tony Parker in that game due to injury. In the next meeting, Memphis won 109-93 in Memphis. That last win over the Spurs was also without Gasol who was ejected early in the game.

San Antonio has frontcourt depth with Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter. The Grizzlies don’t have much frontcourt depth so those guys will have a big opportunity to put their mark on this series. That very well could be the advantage that puts the Spurs over the top. I expect this series to be a tough hard fought series that will have Spurs fan’s worried at some point but will be won in six games.

However, without Gay playing, Memphis might just fall out of the eighth spot, paving the way for the Rockets to sneak into the playoffs.

Rockets — currently in ninth place:

Houston has talent at every position but no real dominating star or aspect of their team they can rely on that’s clearly better than any other playoff team.

They have a solid frontcourt with Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes but neither of those guys can rebound at a decent level and they can be bullied by bigger teams like the Spurs. Kevin Martin is a very good shooting guard and is the tenth leading scorer in the league but the Spurs have their own All-Star shooting guard. Even with the youth and scoring ability of Martin, I would still consider this matchup an advantage for the Spurs.

Speaking of guards, Houston traded Aaron Books to the Phoenix Suns for Goran Dragic. Dragic sure does love to play against the team that drafted him. In three meetings against the Spurs this season, he is averaging 8.0 points. 4.7 assists, and averages 52% from the field. Not to mention his out-of-this-world performance against the Spurs in the playoffs last season as a Sun.

I say the Spurs have an advantage at almost every position. Couple that with the coaching matchup being in Pop’s favor this series would go five games at most with Houston stealing a game at home.

Overall, Memphis is by far the most difficult matchupfor the Spurs and anyone for that matter at the top of the Western Conference. The Grizzlies’ real emergence as a playoff contender may have to wait until next year though as Rudy Gay is out for the season and with Memphis being a young team they might not be able to adjust.

The Rockets are coming on strong and have won five straight, peaking just at the right time for their own playoff push. Houston is the easiest matchup in the first round and Spurs fans should be quietly pulling for their interstate rivals to take the eighth spot.

The Spurs have been banged up lately and can use a relatively easy series with the goal of a long playoff run.

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