The Spurs beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in impressive fashion last night, winning by 16 points and dominating the glass. Before the Spurs schedule gets really crazy, I thought I’d give you a brief overview on our Western Conference competition.
Oklahoma City Thunder (35-12, 6-4 L10)
The Thunder have been the incumbent for as long as I can remember. You probably already know that they excel in most statistical categories. So I won’t go there. But, if Serge Ibaka isn’t protecting the rim and making up for defensive breakdowns on the perimeter, are the Thunder really that intimidating? The difference between OKC and the Spurs is primarily in their fourth quarter offense. OKC strays from their offensive sets — why not more Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook pick-and-pops? — instead relying on Durant and Westbrook to bail them out in isolation sets. San Antonio doesn’t do that. And that’s where I wouldn’t feel too confident if I was a Thunder fan.
Los Angeles Lakers (29-18, 6-4 L10)
I really do not want to see this team play the Spurs in a playoff series. Especially if we don’t have home court advantage. In another productive (ugh) trade deadline, the Lakers sent veteran Derek Fisher, the expendable Luke Walton and a couple of inconsequential late draft picks in exchange for Jordan Hill and Ramon Sessions. They filled a need (starting point guard) and filled in some depth behind the dominant tandem of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. They went from aging playoff team to potential Finals contending team in about two hours. Do I need to tell you that their offense, and not their strong defense, has scored 100+ points in six of their last eight games?
Memphis Grizzlies (25-19, 6-4 L10)
Zach Randolph is back! Wait, that’s not a good thing. This Grizzlies team is primed for another playoff run mostly because of Z-Bo and Marc Gasol. Gasol’s interior passing and Randolph’s savvy high post game are tough to stop mostly because their skills complement each other so well. Hey, at least they don’t have Darrell Arthur, Shane Battier or Sam Young this year (Had to end on a good note. I, too, still have a bitter taste in my mouth).
Los Angeles Clippers (26-20, 4-6 L10)
What’s going with the Clippers? Their surprisingly low pace, the brilliance of Chris Paul and the overall talent from this team is usually good enough, on most nights, to beat the average NBA team. In their last eight losses, Lob City has shown a striking propensity to lose close games and the inability to shoot the basketball. And aside from DeAndre Jordan there really isn’t anyone capable of protecting the rim. That needs to be fixed or else this team will be in danger of falling through the cracks.
Dallas Mavericks (27-21, 5-5 L10)
Maybe the injury to Brendan Haywood is really affecting them, but the Mavericks have been struggling defensively. That’s a big problem considering they have a below-average offense. The Mavs defense has posted plus 100 defensive ratings in 11 of their last 13 games. That’s not a good sign.
Denver Nuggets (26-21, 6-4 L10)
Denver is a fun team. One of my favorite teams to watch. Their diverse roster and exhilarating pace really entice me. I’m not so sure how they’ll fare in a playoff series, though. I just don’t feel overly confident in their frontline to be good enough. But any team that can go 10+ deep (especially this year) and offer many different lineup combinations can win this year.
Houston Rockets (25-22, 4-6 L10)
The Rockets are a better team than Utah. In my opinion. They are slightly better offensively and considerably better defensively. While the Jazz are bullying opposing teams down low, the Rockets have struggled to do almost everything associated with good basketball. Defensively, suspect. Offensively, solid, but it still hasn’t been enough to sufficiently alleviate their defensive shortcomings. In the end, I still like Houston to sneak into the No. 8 seed. I was a big proponent of the Marcus Camby trade because it grants them financial flexibility next year and creates a dominant defensive tandem at the center position. Give them some time. Then we’ll talk.
Utah Jazz (24-22, 7-3 L10)
Considering the Western Conference is going through a bit of a transition and teams have fallen to earth, this has granted a huge opportunity for this inexperienced Jazz team (average age of 26.1 years). On Mar. 5, Utah was 3.5 games back of the No. 8 seed. After a couple of impressive wins against the Thunder and Lakers, the Jazz have closed their deficit to a mere 0.5 games. The Jazz have accomplished this by ratcheting up their offensive efficiency, preventing turnovers and grabbing a lot of offensive rebounds. Their strength is their multi-faceted frontline — Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson, Enes Kanter, Paul Millsap — and the ability to mix and match other frontlines with relative impunity. For them to legitimately stake a claim at the No. 8 seed, this team has to continue to create extra possessions because their 23rd ranked defense leaves a lot to be desired.