Part II of the discussion about the final stretch of the NBA regular season. This time we cover the better conference. It’s safe to say the West is a better conference. If you think otherwise, you need to start actually watching basketball.
Top half: It’s probably not a huge surprise that the Western Conference playoff picture is a lot tighter than on the worst coast (sorry, can’t help it). All in all, it will make for an interesting conclusion to the season. Despite all Gregg Popovich’s tactics of resting his team and making sure the San Antonio Spurs are ready for the post-season, his team is still riding ahead of everyone else. With way more games at the AT&T Center than away, and a favourable schedule, it seems San Antonio will once again remain a top the League come post-season. Two bouts against OKC in the final stretch should be great to watch as both teams will want to build momentum, but other than that, I don’t expect much resistance to the elite that is San Antonio. If you haven’t been watching Spurs games, you probably should. There is something very poetic to the way the team operates on both ends of the floor. There is a fluidity to everything that happens, and despite being suspect on paper at best, SA has been rolling. If you really do like basketball, watch as many of these as you can.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will try to close the gap of 3.0 games before season’s end and the two games against their Western rival will be paramount to accomplishing that task. OKC has a tougher schedule than the Spurs and will really have to combat for the 1st place while also trying to figure out how to conserve energy for another deep post season run. Durant is a threat to score 40+ every time he is on the court as no one really figured out how to stop him yet (I don’t think there is a way). His quest for the 50-40-90 membership makes OKC worth watching every night. The addition of Brewer should allow them to grind in tougher games, and Westbrook has been a little bit more efficient than before (even though he still lapses). They’re a great team, and the amount of individual talent in one place is overwhelming, but it’s tough to see them chasing down the Spurs with the schedule differential.
The Los Angeles Clippers have cooled down somewhat after their mind blowing December. The teams are starting to put two and two together and grinding the Clips games to a halt. They play a lot of slower pace teams going into the final stretch, which is an opportunity to figure out how to deal with their biggest short comings. When they’re on, they’re on, it’s a dunk fest as we saw last night against the Bobcats, but teams like Indiana (watch that one tomorrow) are a different beast. They face the biggest climb out of the top three teams, and even though they’re only 1.5 games behind OKC it will be a tough gain. Ideally, they’d want to avoid Memphis going into the playoffs so watch some strategic personnel management.
Speaking of the Memphis Grizzlies, they’re stepping on Lob City’s toes. They’ve finally adjusted to the loss of Rudy Gay, building their team around the mind blowing efficiency of Marc Gasol. They can still struggle to get their offense going sometimes, but their brand of D is only behind Indiana in terms of stopping the opposition. They have the toughest schedule coming up out of the top 4 and they will want to capitalize on all the games at the FedEx Forum. If teams can score over 100 against Memphis, that puts them in trouble so watch them try and get their offence together for a deep playoff run.
Bottom half: There isn’t that much of a gap between the Grizzlies and the fifth place Denver Nuggets (2.5 games behind), their abysmal away record (for a top team) held them back. Denver started their season on a long road trip, but luckily for them that means the season wraps up with a lot more home games than away. The Rockies have become a fortress for the high octane Nuggets. They’ve ran teams out of the Pepsi Center almost every time. Seeing a lengthy home stand on the docket it’s not hard to envision Nuggets to sneak into top 4 and first round home court advantage (which they would love). The games against Clippers (March 7th) and the Memphis Grizzlies (15th) are both home and will be important in closing that gap. They’re almost there.
Despite the recent stumbles, the Golden State Warriors are still not in that bad a shape. With Carl Landry in the line up it isn’t as bad to deal with nagging injuries to Andrew Bogut, but I’m sure they’d still rather have him than not. Good news is that they hit March off with a lengthy seven game home stretch, and they don’t face tough opposition in that time in the face of top teams on either side. They’ll need to get their groove back fast if they want to hold on to the sixth spot. The Warriors are a very streaky team, so the fans have to hope they get on the roll sooner rather than later.
It’s tough being the Utah Jazz, with so many teams breathing at their backs. They’re only 0.5 games ahead of Houston in the 7th spot. Utah is deep down the middle, considering they didn’t take a chance to ship Milsap or Big Al away. Unfortunately, this is not a team gifted with guard depth, and in the West that means death. They don’t have a favourable schedule and this would be my team to pick to fall out of the playoff picture by the end of the season. The Jazz have been surprisingly consistent even after losing D-Will and Jerry Sloan, but I don’t see them hanging on for two more months.
That clears the way for the red hot Houston Rockets to sneak into the 7th place and avoid the Spurs in the playoffs (leading them square into the Thunder, but I mean, out of the fire into the frying pan, and I’d rather Thunder-sans Harden in the playoffs than the mind of Gregg Popovich). The Rockets are spotty, but the Beard has them playing well. The arrival of Thomas Robinson may be what sparks them into a late rush as well as the emergence of Donatas Montiejunas. They have a deep homestand to cap off March, but it includes games against Utah, San Antoni and Indiana. If nothing else, they have to beat the Jazz. This team’s playoff hopes rest on the persistence and skill of the Bearded One as well as their ability to mask defensive deficiencies (who can Jeremy Lin guard? Seriously? A chair?).
On the bubble: While Milwaukee is a little more relaxed in the East, the Rockets and the Jazz are constantly peeking behind to see who’s coming. The Los Angeles Lakers seem to finding their form late in the season that suddenly means a whole lot more to them than before. Still 3.0 games behind the eighth seed, and two games below .500 the hopes are slim, but they’re there. On a good day, they can beat almost any team in the NBA, but they need to be in sync and not make any mistakes. That’s a rare occurrence in LA this year. Still, it’s a bad bet to go against Kobe’s perseverance and persistance. If I had to guess, I’d say they displace the Jazz in this year’s playoffs. It’s a neutral schedule in terms of difficulty, but it’s ripe with home games. Still, to stand a chance LA will need to keep beating top teams.
The Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers haven’t exactly disappeared either, 4.0 and 5.0 games behind eighth respectively. First, let me tell you why I don’t see them sneaking in. Portland has held on admirably, but short of plucking people out of the crowd, they have the worst bench imaginable. They could go to the stands and get better production. Mavs on the other hand have been surviving, but sub-par season from Dirk (by his standards) has hurt Dallas a lot. They need to find some chemistry now, especially after a nail-biter loss to LA on Sunday. Out of the two, Dallas has an easier schedule, with Portland pretty much playing exclusively against teams with some steak in the playoff race. They’re lack of depth will show in key back-to-back games (Utah then Golden State; then Clippers and Golden State) in game they must win. For Dallas, it’s just hard seeing them have enough fuel in the tank to squeeze into the 8th seed. Especially past the Lakers, Rockets or Jazz.