Start your engines, the NBA playoffs start next week.
Time for endless full court action every night as the league crowns another champion. Let’s take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won nine of the last 12 NBA titles.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The team no one wants to play! Oklahoma City gave us a hint of its young talent a year ago, but has put it all together in 2012 – at least in the regular season. They have a dynamite offense, No. 5 in the NBA in points scored last season and No. 2 this year led by the 23-year old duo of Kevin Durant (27.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Russell Westbrook (24 ppg).
OKC has 22-year old 6-10 Serge Ibaka (7.6 rpg) and 6-10 center Kendrick Perkins for rebounding and defensive muscle, plus 22-year old sixth man 6-5 James Harden (16.7 ppg), who does a little of everything. The OVER is 10-3 in the Thunder’s last 13 vs. the NBA Pacific division. They have it all, it seems – except experience.
Could this hurt in close, postseason games where the pressure is intense? It appeared to last season. After getting to the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder blew Game 4 at home to Dallas, 112-105 in OT, blowing a 15-point lead with five minutes to play in regulation. Dallas closed it out the next game.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
A juggernaut from start to finish, San Antonio has redefined itself the last few years and has had another monster season. Long known for defense under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs used an awesome array of depth to blitz opponents, ranking third in the NBA in scoring, No. 10 in rebounds and 17 in points allowed.
San Antonio still has the Big Three of 35-year old Tim Duncan (15 ppg, 9.2 rpg), 34-year old Manu Ginobili (12.7 ppg) and 29-year old Tony Parker (19 ppg). Ginobili spent most of the year getting healthy, missing half the season. Because of the shortened season the Spurs streak of 50-win seasons is likely to end at 12, tied for the longest in league history behind the Lakers, who won 50 games 12 times in a row from 1979 to 1991.
The Spurs rely heavily on their bench, which leads the league in scoring for the third straight season, with Richard Jefferson (9 ppg), Stephen Jackson and role players in 7-foot Matt Bonner, 6-11 Tiago Splitter, Dujuan Blair and Gary Neal. Popovich and Duncan have 4 NBA title rings and they know defense is essential in the postseason. With that said, they are 21st in field goal shooting percentage defense. Spurs were on a sizzling 24-8-3 ATS run as of late last week. The OVER was 22-8 following a straight up loss. UNDER was 22-8 against teams with winning records.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Despite a lot of changes, still a formidable team. New Coach Mike Brown has turned LA into a defensive-first team, slowing the pace down. The Lakers are No. 12 in the NBA in points allowed and seventh in field goal shooting defense (43%).
There’s no denying the talent and depth on this team, led by 33-year old Kobe Bryan (28 ppg), 7-foot 31-year old Pau Gasol (17 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and 7-foot center Andrew Bynum (18 ppg, 12 rpg), the biggest reasons they are second in the NBA in rebounding. The Lakers added 25-year old point guard Ramon Sessions, an excellent pick-up. Opponents had been exploiting LA’s aging and small backcourt the last two years, but Sessions has helped turn that around.
Of course, the Lakers have a losing record on the road, which is a concern. Despite that commitment to defense, LA ranked fourth in field goal shooting defense last season and is on a 21-7 run OVER the total against the Western Conference.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The new Beasts of the West? Well, not quite. Adding guard Chris Paul (19 ppg) with Blake Griffin (20.7 ppg, 11 rpg) is certainly a nice one-two punch to upgrade any franchise, especially on offense. And they will be fun to watch in the playoffs, but the Clippers are not a good defensive team.
The Clippers are in the middle of the pack in points allowed and field goal shooting defense, in addition to No. 26 at defending the three-pointer. That explains a losing road record. The OVER is 19-7 in the Clippers last 26 games vs. a team with a winning percentage above .600.