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.

No Rest For The West – March 16

The start of March Madness obscured a momentous night in the West. So what changed in the all-important playoff race? Doc Rivers is pissed at the refs after a loss to Houston knocked the Clips down too ninth, so nothing new there. The Spurs won a huge game over the Pelicans to get back to the 8-seed. Utah kept winning. So did Portland, despite LeBron James ruining Jusuf Nurkic‘s year with this masterpiece:

 

In a big change, Denver beat a team that they’re better than (the Pistons), yet may have lost Gary Harris to a knee sprain for some amount of time. They can live without him Saturday against the terrible Memphis Grizzlies, but the Nuggets schedule soon gets brutal. So let’s hope Garris is back at 100 percent soon or we can wave goodbye to the 10-seed Nuggets.

Finally, since Tuesday, the ever-changing 4-5-6 slots have shuffled again. OKC is leading the pack, followed by Minnesota and New Orleans.

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Tonight’s slate is light, with just one crucial game between the Clippers and Thunder, while the Warriors’ B team takes on the Kings’ F team.

Clippers @ Thunder – Recently OKC had done its job by racking up wins against pitiful teams. Now the fun begins. They have 12 games left on the schedule and the first 11 of them will be mighty struggles against the league’s best. They’ll need to win at least six of these games if they hope to cling to a top-4 seed and homecourt advantage in the first round. Worst case scenario could even see them missing the playoffs. That’s how tough this stretch is, with road games at Toronto, Boston, Houston, San Antonio and New Orleans on the horizon. A win tonight over Doc’s Clippers, who are playing for the second time in two nights, is almost mandatory. My pick: Thunder 111, Clippers 103.

Kings @ Warriors – No Steph. No Klay. No Durant. Maybe no Draymond Green. It’s smart that the Warriors are letting their stars heal, but will it cost them against the Kings, who’ve already beaten them at Oracle this season? No.

The Kings are that bad. Warriors 98, Kings 88.

Picks record since March 5 – 24-12

No Rest For The West – March 13

It’s finally happened. The San Antonio Spurs are wallflowers at the NBA playoff party, at least for now. The Spurs haven’t been outside of the top-8 this late in the season since Tim Duncan invented the light bulb.

Houston, as expected, lit up the Spurs at home last night, sending Pop’s squad to its third straight defeat and eighth loss in ten games. The loss dropped them down three spots to 10th(!) in one night. Do they have enough time to make a late run if Kawhi Leonard comes back? How healthy/rusty will he be? These kinds of tough questions are new to the Spurs, whose incredible 20+ year run may be ending.

The other team that had its fate change quickly, but in the opposite direction, is Oklahoma City. Last night’s closer-than-it-should’ve-been win over the Kings catapulted them from the sixth seed to the fourth. Sorry, Pelicans and Timberwolves, that’s what you get for having the night off.

Oh, and Portland won yet again, this time over Miami. Damian Lillard is hitting his peak prime and Jusuf Nurkic was a beast in the paint with Hassan Whiteside out. The Blazers now own a 10-game winning streak. Continue reading

No Rest For The West – March 12

At this time of year, it’s fun to look back on where expectations stood coming into the season. I can only speak for myself here, but I thought there was clear top four pecking order in the West, in order: Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City. In mid-March the Blazers and Pelicans have upset that order, with a little help from Kawhi Leonard‘s quadriceps and the Thunder’s rollercoaster. Now we still might end up with the projected top four, given Kawhi’s expected return and the razor-thin margin for error beneath the Warriors and Rockets. But it’s genuinely surprising to look at the current pecking order for me. I had thought Portland reached its full potential over the past couple seasons and that their ill-advised spending spree in the summer of 2016 would limit their ceiling. They are now clearly the third-best team in the West. I also assumed the Pelicans would be scraping at the margins of the 8-seed and that Minnesota would need another year before reaching 4-6 seed range. But what do I know? I also thought Memphis was going to be back in the playoffs this year (yikes).

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No Rest For The West – March 11

Greetings, fellow NBA-heads. Things are really starting to move in the West. We took a day off yesterday given there were only two impactful games going on (and I got lazy) but since Friday the standings have shaken up. The Spurs are the latest team in danger of falling out of the top eight, the Clippers are catching fire and Oklahoma City is back in the top five. Meanwhile, three of the top four teams have finally lost a game, with only Portland keeping its winning streak going. And don’t look now but 10-seeded Utah is on a five-game streak of their own. Here are the latest standings heading into a big Sunday slate of games:

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Let’s get right into it. Here’s what’s coming up on a juicy Sunday:

2:30 CT – Warriors @ Timberwolves: The Dubs had a chance to reclaim the 1-seed Friday, but couldn’t hang with the red-hot Blazers on the road without Steph Curry. Today Curry, Jordan Bell and Pat McCaw aren’t with the team while David West and Andre Iguodala are all most likely out. But these are the Warriors, don’t shed too many tears for them. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green should still be able to lead them to victory over a Jimmy Butler-less Wolves team on a three-game skid. Especially if Derrick Rose eats into Tyus Jones‘ minutes. The pick: Warriors 103-100.

3:00 CT – Jazz @ Pelicans: It’s legit exciting that this is an important game in mid-March. Both teams have battled injuries again this season but are thriving regardless. Keep an eye on the Anthony DavisRudy Gobert matchup (assuming AD is back, fingers crossed). The best offensive big man in the game against the best defensive one. For tie-breaker purposes, this one is big for New Orleans, who have lost two of three to the Jazz this season. Since Boogie Cousins went down, the Pelicans have been best when playing at a breakneck pace. Utah will try to slow everything down. Something has to give. The pick: I’m taking the Jazz on the road, given Davis’ potential limitations, 106-99.

4:00 CT – Kings @ Nuggets: The schedule gods have given Denver plenty gifts lately. The problem is they tend to turn their noses up at such good tidings. But the Kings are a special kind of bad team right now. Give me the Nugs in a rout, 117-92.

6:00 CT – Rockets @ Mavericks: Houston saw it’s 17-game streak broken in Toronto Friday night, but gave a valiant effort in a late comeback bid. They are just fine. Don’t expect them to take the Mavs for granted like Denver did this week. Houston despises Dallas, in basketball and just about everything else. The Rockets will twist the knife tonight, winning in Big D, 122-100.

Picks record since March 5: 14-9

No Rest For The West – March 9

Here’s a funny stat: the top four teams in the West are on a combined 42-0 run. How could this be? I’d argue it’s a mix of transcendent individual performances (Dame Lillard, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant) and the prevalence of tanking teams throughout the league to for these giants to bulk up against. You hear a lot of chatter about this tanking dilemma as it pertains to top-heaviness, so let’s look at the recent streaks of those at the top.

Just five of the Rockets’ 17 straight wins have come against bottom-feeders, which makes their incredible run all the more impressive. Half of the Pelican’s 10-straight wins have been over bad teams, with a fairly small average margin of victory. Likewise, half of Portland’s 8-straight wins have come at the expense of tankers but the Blazers have flexed their muscles a bit more in those games. The Warriors have beaten three tankers in their 7-game run. So excluding the Rockets, about half of these win streaks have been built on sand. Yet, is this any different than most NBA seasons? There may be more outright tanks jobs than normal right now, but by March every year there are teams who have lost hope and have their eyes on the future rather than the present. It seems a bit overblown. These four teams all have at least one superstar playing at their peak. That tends to lead to a lot of wins in bunches, regardless of who’s on the schedule.

At least one of these streaks ends tonight, when the Warriors and Blazers go at it in Portland. Steph is out with an ankle injury and it’s a back to back for Golden State after a thrilling, but taxing, comeback victory over the Spurs last night. Things are lining up for Rip City. The Rockets play at East-leading Toronto in the game of the night and New Orleans has a tough one with the Wizards coming to town and Davis nursing an ankle injury.

Who knows, maybe we’ll only have on huge winning streak come Saturday morning.

Latest standings:

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Tonight’s relevant games & picks:

Warriors @ Blazers – Gimme Portland over a shorthanded Dubs squad, 121-114.

Rockets @ Raptors – I like the Raps here, but I’ve also vowed not to pick against Houston during this streak. Rockets in a thriller, 118-116.

Wizards @ Pelicans – Will the Brow play? Probably not. So the Pels streak stops here. Wiz take it 108-94.

Lakers @ Nuggets – Ugghh, who knows with Denver? I could see Lonzo Ball carving up the porous Nugs D and getting all the Lakers fans that go to games in Denver fired up. But Brandon Ingram is also likely still out. I’ll shakily take the Nuggets, 122-117.

Jazz @ Grizzlies – The Jazz win their 5th straight, 103-87.

Cavaliers @ ClippersLeBron’s starting to get that look in his eye (see: total 4th quarter annihilation of Denver Wednesday). I like his Cavs in a tight one over the Clips, 108-105.

Record since March 5: 9-6

No Rest For The West – March 7

OK, before we get into the updated standings, I have a few thoughts off top on the Denver Nuggets. I’ve written about their upcoming easy schedule and how imperative it is for them to take advantage if they’re going to finally be a real big boy playoff team again. Shockingly, they didn’t listen to me. I was embarrassed for them watching last night’s disastrous loss to the 20-win Mavericks. Sure it was on the road, but they had two days rest after a very impressive win in Cleveland. And again, it was the Mavericks, who are in free-fall both on and off the court. The vibe I got was that the Nugs thought just showing up would be enough to get an easy win before a home rematch with the Cavs tonight. It’s easy to get on the coach in these situations – don’t worry, I will – but this is the NBA. It starts and ends with the players, namely the stars. Nikola Jokic is one of my favorite players and a true inspiration to all flat-footed, doughy big men. But he stunk last night, and his disappearing act has happened way too often this season. Either he’s not ready to carry his own team or maybe he loses interest if things don’t go his way early. He’s young and has a lot of weight on his shoulders. Regardless, as the future of the team,, his on-court effort or lack thereof is entirely his responsibility. Now, when he’s off the court there’s not much he can do for his team, which brings us to coach Michael Malone. What the hell was he doing last night? He benched Jokic for the entire fourth quarter, even as the lineup he did roll out there clanked threes, missed free throws and played lazy defense. It reeked of a desperate motivational tactic, which there just honestly isn’t time for at this point. You’re not a mid-major college coach, Malone, nor are you Phil Jackson. Play your best player when every game is basically a must-win. I can’t believe I have to say that.

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