The plot thickens – Who has a case to come out of the West?

Since the last time I did this, on Friday, much has been revealed. For one, the Spurs – on a 4-game run – have switched places with the Timberwolves. The Wolves can’t get Jimmy Butler back soon enough. Shockingly Derrick Rose hasn’t been the answer. A 2-game skid in this quagmire is enough to drop you from 5th place to 8th just like that. Luckily for Tom Thibodeau’s team, a recent Clippers mini-swoon and the Nuggets’ fraudulence gives them a 2-game cushion for the final playoff spot.

Here’s what else we know at this point: at least four West teams are playing their best basketball right at the most crucial time. The Rockets, Blazers, Jazz and Thunder are riding winning streaks of six games or more, while the aforementioned Spurs have turned it around and just might get Kawhi Leonard back.

With the Warriors a M.A.S.H unit, the door seems to be open for the first time in four years to other contenders. I break down each team’s chances of reaching the NBA Finals, from what we know at this point, below. But first, the standings:

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Regardless of the current standings, I’m going to rank each team in order of best to worst chance of surviving the Western Conference playoff gauntlet. The three main factors for me are (a) crunch-time scorers, (b) playoff experience and (c) team defensive ceiling. Each of these categories are measured on a 1.0 – 5.0 scale.  Let’s dive in…

1. Golden State Warriors: Score – 14.5 (5.0 Crunch; 5.0 XP; 4.5 Team D)

The champ is cut. There’s a golf ball forming over his eye and he’s bleeding. And yet, someone still has to deliver the knockout blow when it counts. As of right now, I’m sitting here in believe-it-when-I-see-it mode. Simply no team can match the firepower of a healthy Warriors team that can turn to three different earth-scorching scorers late in games. Their defense has fallen off some this season, but led by Draymond Green, they can get to a gear no one else can on that end when fully engaged. They do need all four of their starters healthy, especially since the bench has been disappointing. Right now, all four are banged up. But my theory is we’ll be looking back at this wobbly March version of the Warriors and realizing how smart it was to get the core group all this rest before the games really start to matter. It’s not like the 2-seed is that big an albatross. Just give us a healthy dose of StephKD pick-and-rolls, please.

2. Houston Rockets: Score – 13.5 (5.0 Crunch; 4.5 XP; 4.0 Team D)

Look, these guys are on a rampage. I definitely think they have the goods to beat the Warriors with home-court advantage in the playoffs. The Chris PaulJames Harden experiment has come off like Isaac Newton and white light. Their defense, once porous, is now a strength thanks to Paul, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker. They can hit you with four deadeye shooters at once. Eric Gordon is having his best season in almost a decade. They are legit. But questions remain once the curtains fall on the regular season. Though Harden and Paul have a ton of playoff experience, they are more well known for postseason failures than successes. Harden has been to one Finals, but as a sixth man in OKC. He disappeared last season against San Antonio. Paul has never been to a conference final. I know this, you know this. What we don’t know is if, with their powers combined, they can get over the hump together. I can’t wait to find out.

Also can’t wait for their big game tonight in Portland.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder: Score – 12.5 (4.5 Crunch; 4.0 XP; 4.0 Team D)

The Thunder are hoping they’ve figured it out at the right time. Russell Westbrook is back to being the unquestioned alpha, registering five straight triple-doubles during this six-game win streak. Paul George is an uber-valuable perimeter defender who will be asked to be even more of an anchor is the playoffs. Steven Adams can stand toe-to-toe with any big man in the West, save Anthony Davis. But Carmelo Anthony is a question mark, as is the thin bench. Without Andre Roberson, their overall defense has suffered some. Can Russ save enough energy for the defensive end in a long playoff run? I’m dubious, but they have surprised me lately as their schedule has gotten tough and they’ve only gotten tougher.

Another test ahead of them tonight in Boston.

4. Portland Trail Blazers: Score – 12 (5.0 Crunch; 3.5 XP; 3.5 Team D)

Count me as one who did not see this Portland thing coming. Now at 13 straight wins and featuring an MVP-type Damian Lillard performance over the past couple months, this Blazers team is ultra-confident. Jusuf Nurkic gives them a little bit of nasty down low to go with their smooth backcourt. They have a true homecourt advantage and one of the game’s best closers in Lillard. Their defense has been superb during the win streak and really, all season long (they rank 5th in Defensive Rating). I have questions as to how well they can consistently defend the perimeter against the West’ best, but what a run.

They’ll get a chance to prove it against the top team in the conference when the mighty Rockets visit tonight.

5. Utah Jazz: Score – 11.5 (3.5 Crunch; 3.0 XP; 5.0 Team D)

The Jazz have quite a formula figured out. It’s simple: play some of the best defense of the decade night in and night out, and have your late-Lottery pick rookie torch your opponents on the offensive end. The defense is certainly sustainable. Can Donovan Mitchell continue playing at this level in his first postseason? There’s not much history that says a rookie can lead a team to the Finals, but history hasn’t seen this kid yet. Rudy Gobert is anchoring a defense that has given up 100+ points just four times in its last 23 games. The Jazz are 21-2 over that stretch.

I think they present major matchup problems for any team other than Houston, who they’ve gone 0-4 against this season. Tonight’s matchup, the Hawks, won’t be a problem.

6. San Antonio Spurs: Score – 11 (3.0 Crunch: 4.0 XP; 4.0 Team D)

The Spurs have the most variance in their score. Basically, of Kawhi comes back and is 75 percent or better, their crunch time, defense and experience levels rocket up. It’s encouraging how well they’re playing at the moment, but they remain a wait-and-see.

7. New Orleans Pelicans: Score – 9.5 (4.0 Crunch; 2.5 XP; 3.0 Team D)

The Pels are short on playoff experience and elite defensive ability. But they’re long on Anthony Davis. The Brow may be the factor that wins them a first round series, unless they play the Warriors or Rockets. Beyond that, I don’t see a path for them to the Finals.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves: Score – 9 (4.0 Crunch; 2.5 XP; 2.5 Team D)

Much like the Spurs and Kawhi, the Wolves’ score varies based on Butler’s status. He’s the only key player with significant playoff experience and he’s a killer in the clutch. Karl Anthony-Towns will light up the scoreboard in a potential first round matchup with Houston, but it’s not going to be enough. They’re another year or so away from true contention, unless GM Thibs hamstrings them by bringing in Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon to complete his Bulls nostalgia trip.

9. Los Angeles Clippers: Score – 8 (2.5 Crunch; 2.5 XP; 3.0 Team D)

The Clips are a fun story, staying competitive and playing hard after the departures of Paul and Blake Griffin. But Lou Williams is really their only go-to scorer in the clutch, while DeAndre Jordan can’t stop everyone by himself. Injuries have taken a toll but they’ve gamely persevered.  If they make the playoffs that will be enough of a win in itself. They’re not sniffing the Finals this year.

10. Denver Nuggets: Score – 6.5 (2.5 Crunch; 2.0 XP; 2.0 Team D)

The Nuggets are like a forest fire: conditions have to be just right for them to shine. Lately, it’s been nothing but rain.

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