By law, highlighting the Eastern Conference means the Western Conference deserves a piece of my (not so) infinite hoops wisdom as well. And why not? We’re only on the brink of a 6-7-8 seed race that will only get more interesting/nerve-racking/stressful/hilarious as the regular season nears its end. By doing so, too, an executive decision was made to switch up the format in a more conducive manner.
Now’s the time when every game holds weight regardless of whether a squad sits in first or eighth. Playoff positioning means everything in a sport predicated off taking advantage and exploiting match ups. From San Antonio’s chess games to the Lakers recent surge (bringing them within one game of .500) it’s all here. And, of course, a Western Conference roundtrip wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to the funniest and most awkwardly talented enigma currently lacing up sneakers – the honorable Sir JaVale McGee of Denver.
Previously: Eastern Conference Progress Report: Indiana Pacers Stock Rising, Knicks Free Falling
1. San Antonio Spurs — The funniest NBA debate on Twitter of the past week was whether or not Greg Popovich is a first ballot Hall of Fame coach. Pop’s the greatest leader of men of the past 25 years who doesn’t reside in Montana, smoke lavish amounts of marijuana and have a fiancé who helps run one of the most powerful businesses in North America.
This leads me to believe he’ll play the rest of this season very, very strategically. Maintaining their current three game lead on the Thunder is vital, but heading into the second season healthy is imperative. Home court throughout the playoffs or not, the Spurs will still have to win on the road. Having Parker, Duncan, Ginobli, Green and Leonard as close to 100% as possible is the main objective, as it should be.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder — I still fully expect OKC to be one of the final four teams left standing. I still fully expect Kevin Durant to finish the season with his first (of several) 50-40-90 season(s). I still fully expect OKC to end the season in the second seed (or first if Pop decides health over seeding is the logic he’s running with). And I still fully expect there to come a time in the postseason where Kevin Martin will have to make several big plays for the Thunder to stay alive. That’s where things get foggy.
3. Los Angeles Clippers — As long as the Clips avoid San Antonio, they should be fine. With Chris Paul running the operation, I harbor the belief “the Clippers won’t be able to run a half court offense come May” is vastly overrated. Take a second to think, too. If the playoffs started this week, we would be looking at a Clippers vs. Warriors first round matchup. Awesome because every game would have an over/under of 209. Awesome because both teams aren’t necessarily on the best of terms. This series needs to happen. And it needs to go seven.
4. Memphis Grizzlies — There are times when Memphis looks discombobulated on offense, but things appear to be heading in the right direction in the post-Rudy Gay era. They’re 7-3 in their last 10 and only 3.5 games back of Oklahoma City of the two seed. Chances are Lionel Hollins, Lionel Hollins’ impeccable Steve Harvey suit collection and the Grizz won’t catch them, but keep in mind Memphis boasts a luxury not many teams can counter with – two highly effective big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
It gets even scarier when taken into consideration they love playing alongside each other. I’m so glad management didn’t blow this team up any further prior to the deadline.
5. Denver Nuggets — Your Denver Nuggets will make the playoffs, but it’d best serve them to gain some sort of home court advantage (i.e. overtake Memphis for the four seed) seeing as how they’re 23-3 at home and 12-19 on the road. Beating a dead horse isn’t really one of my strong traits either but, again, Denver’s lack of go-to late-game scorer will be their undoing.
The positive in all this? They’ll be fun to watch and competitive as hell, and at the very, very least…WE GET JAVALE MCGEE FOR FOUR GAMES!
6. Golden State Warriors — Did you see Jarrett Jack Friday against the Spurs? And again Sunday against the Timberwolves? Pretty good, no? Jack’s been filling that role all season and despite Golden State limping to 4-6 in their last 10, he’s going to make that Sixth Man of the Year race with Jamal Crawford something to make note of these final 25+ games.
However, news of Andrew Bogut’s setback means the Warriors will have to play the remainder of the season with the same roster that started the season (not banking on Bogut). They’re a team who thrives getting out and running and crashing the boards, led by walking double-double in David Lee, so not much should change.
By a show of hands, though, who else is excited to potentially see Steph Curry in the postseason? I’ve been waiting on this moment since the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
7. Utah Jazz — If I can be bias for a sentence or two, here’s how I feel. Someone has to be the odd man out of the final three teams fighting for the last two spots. Houston/LA sounds a lot better than any other combination involving the Jazz. You know, unless you want to see a bunch of midrange Marvin Williams jumpshots, which is well within your right. But why do that when the CSPAN channel is showing marathon footage of your favorite senator’s most recent filibuster?
In all fairness, the Jazz won’t go quietly off the strength that Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson will carry them to the brink of a playoff spot. The fight for position will come down to the final week of the season to decide who walks home with the seventh and eighth spots. And who just walks home.
8. Houston Rockets — If in-depth thoughts about the Rockets are needed, head to The Sports Fan Journal. Houston’s biggest issue arises on defense. They blew a double digit lead in Washington on Saturday in a game they should have and needed to win. This really isn’t rocket science. If Houston wants this playoff spot, they’re going to have to at least give the illusion they want to stop their opponent from scoring. The offense is more potent than nearly anything touching hardwood right now at 106.3 points a night, second only to the Thunder’s 106.6.
On the flip side, they’re 29th in the league giving up 103.5 per game. That’s entirely too much pressure to put on yourself night in and night out. To put this in perspective, trying to score 106 points every game while knowing you’re good for giving up 100+ is like trying to manage having three girlfriends who all work at the same job. For awhile you may be able to manage it off sheer luck, but sooner or later one of them is going to put a picture on their desk and the shit will hit the fan. And no, I’m not speaking from experience.
9. Los Angeles Lakers — They’re 11-4 in their last 15. Dwight Howard has been a different player since abandoning the headband, per my suggestion before Christmas. Kobe’s returned to (efficient) gunner mode, including 38-12-7 and vintage fourth quarter on Sunday vs. Dallas. Meanwhile, the entire team is playing with added motivation of Kobe’s guarantee and Dr. Buss’ passing. Everything that can go right for the Lakers is going right, aside from erratic Metta World Peace three pointers.
It’s what I’ve been saying all along even as Lakers fans hit the panic button threatening to sacrifice their first born child in return for a change of fortunes. The Lakers will make the playoffs. Yes, it’s been funny to see the panic, but there’s no way a Lakers team with this much drama (and talent) misses the playoffs and the opportunity to provide playoff drama.*
* – Playoff drama trumps regular season drama by a mile.
10. & 11. Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trailblazers — Portland’s bench won’t do them any favors and Dallas just isn’t the same Dallas we’ve seen for the past decade. For either team to make the playoffs, Dirk Nowitzki will have to convince himself it’s 2011 all over again. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge have to somehow right a ship in danger of sinking for good (3-7 in their last 10) and produce more than they’ve already been doing thus far. In other words, we’re looking at a nine team race out West.
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