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 13 NBA titles.
Oklahoma City Thunder: The team no one wants to play! The Thunder gave us a hint of their young talent a year ago, putting it all together in 2012 – at least until they imploded in the NBA Finals against the veteran Heat. It was a bitter pill, favored to win while taking a 1-0 lead before losing four straight. They have a dynamite offense, No. 5, 2 and 1 in the NBA in points scored the last three seasons, by the 24-year-old duo of Kevin Durant (28 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Russell Westbrook (23 ppg).
The big change was getting rid of 6-5 James Harden from last year, but 30-year-old, 6’7” Kevin Martin (14 ppg) has filled in nicely. He’s No. 3 in scoring coming off the bench. They also have 23-year-old, 6’10” Serge Ibaka (7.8 rpg) and 6’10” center Kendrick Perkins for rebounding and defensive muscle. They aren’t all offense, either, No. 13 in points allowed and second in field goal shooting defense (42.6%).
The Spurs have it all, it seems – except experience. Two years ago after getting to the West 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. Last year they fell apart in the Finals. At what point does all this painful postseason experience bear fruit?
Note: The Thunder is 39-18-3 ATS against the West and 23-8 ATS at home.
San Antonio Spurs: A juggernaut from start to finish, the Spurs have redefined themselves the last few years and had another monster season. Long known for defense under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs used an awesome array of depth to blitz opponents, ranking fourth in the NBA in scoring, tops in assists and ninth in points allowed.
San Antonio still has the Big Three of 36-year-old Tim Duncan (17.6 ppg, 10 rpg), 35-year-old Manu Ginobili (12 ppg) and 30-year-old Tony Parker (21 ppg). Popovich has done a great job in limiting the minutes of the Big 3. The Spurs have won 50 or more games in an astonishing 14 straight seasons, breaking the longest streak in league history behind the Lakers, who 12 times won 50 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 Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and role players in 7-foot Matt Bonner, 6’11” Tiago Splitter, Dujuan Blair and Gary Neal. Coach Gregg Popovich and Duncan have four NBA title rings and they know defense is essential in the postseason. After ranking 17 in points allowed and 21 in field goal shooting percentage defense last season, the Spurs have improved to 9 in both categories.
Note: The Spurs are 27-9-1 ATS in their last 37 versus the Eastern Conference.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies are another young team few want to face, with a big front court and a suffocating defense, tops in the NBA in points allowed and field goal shooting defense. There’s no denying the talent and depth on this team, led by 31-year-old 6-9 Zach Randolph (15.5 ppg, 11.3 rpg), 7’1”, 28-year-old Marc Gasol (14.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg), guard Mike Conley and longtime Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince.
Despite a slow pace this team is No. 11 in the NBA in rebounding. They raised some eyebrows after trading away their top player earlier in the year, Rudy Gay, but will still make the playoffs.
Note: The UNDER is 39-18 in the Grizzlies last 57 on one day’s rest.
LA Clippers: The new Beasts of the West? Adding guard Chris Paul (17 ppg) with Blake Griffin (18 ppg, 8.4 rpg) is certainly a nice one-two punch to upgrade any franchise, especially on offense. The amount of depth and talent is exceptional with role players Jamal Crawford, Caron Butler, Eric Bledsoe, and rebounders DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom. They will be fun to watch in the NBA playoffs.
Note: The Clippers have vastly improved their defense from a year ago and rank No. 8 in points scored, 4 in points allowed.
Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Reach him at [email protected]