The Western Conference Playoff picture looks very different today than it did at the start of the NBA playoffs just 10 days ago.
One thing is absolutely certain – the LA Lakers, who lead the NBA in titles (five) and Finals appearances (seven) here in the 21st century – will not be competing for the title in 2013. LA’s short and sour playoff run ended with their fourth consecutive beatdown at the hands of the Spurs at the Staples Center this past Sunday.
Without injured veterans Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and Metta World Peace in the lineup, Mike D’Antoni’s squad showed plenty of quit in their series against the Spurs: 0-4 SU, 0-4 ATS, losing their home games at the Staples Center by 21 and 31 points.
Joining the Lakers as “non-competitive playoff entrants,” the Houston Rockets face an 0-3 series deficit and were home underdogs for Game 4 on Monday night. No NBA team has ever rallied from a 0-3 series deficit to win, and Kevin McHale’s squad doesn’t have the feel of a squad poised to become the first in NBA history to accomplish that task.
That leaves me with six teams to seriously consider in the Western Conference. All have at least one fundamental flaw; virtually ensuring we’re going to have an exciting and dramatic stretch of NBA basketball over the five weeks as the playoff picture shakes out.
Oklahoma City was the single best point spread team in the NBA during the regular season. They finished in the Top 3 in points per game, field goal percentage and three point shooting percentage on offense, with the No. 2 defensive field goal percentage allowed and No. 5 rebounding margin.
OKC reached the Finals against Miami last June and has the 1 seed in the West, ensuring home court advantage for the first three rounds of the playoffs. But no team in the playoffs suffered a more devastating injury than the Thunder losing All Star point guard Russell Westbrook for the rest of the season following their Game 2 win over the Rockets.
Without Westbrook in the lineup, backups Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher combined for just two assists between them in Game 3.
Kevin Durant, talking about his offensive flow after the game: “I didn’t feel the same.” Derek Fisher: “We’re still grieving, so to speak, as a team.” Replacing an All Star at the most important position in basketball at this stage of the season – an All Star that had never missed a single game in his five-year NBA career – is no easy task.
San Antonio is the team that gains the most from Westbrook’s injury. The Spurs can’t match OKC’s impressive statistical profile, but Gregg Popovich’s four championship rings in the Tim Duncan era speak for themselves.
That being said, the last time the Spurs won a title (sweeping Cleveland back in 2007), their key contributors included the likes of Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Michael Finley, Brent Barry and Jacque Vaughn surrounding Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs “Big Three” are much older now, and all suffered significant injury concerns during the regular season. It remains to be seen whether the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Dejaun Blair and Gary Neal can live up to the high standards set by the Spurs role players and bench during their four championship runs.
LA Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro has been overmatched in his battle of wits against virtually every other head coach in the league; a factor that genuinely matters when we’re talking about Best of Seven series, where coaching adjustments play an enormous role in a team’s level of success.
That being said, the Clips have the deepest remaining bench and the best remaining point guard in the West (all apologies to Tony Parker, but Chris Paul is superior). And the Clips play championship level defense; among the leaders in the league in points per game allowed and shooting percentage allowed while leading the league in steals.
After winning their first playoff series since 2006 last year, the Clips are capable of extending that playoff run significantly this spring.
Memphis has only one playoff series victory in the 18-year history of the franchise; a small market squad without superstars on the roster. Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol are All Star caliber low post forces on both ends of the court.
Tayshawn Prince and Tony Allen are defensive minded veterans with championship rings on their fingers from previous NBA stops. And point guard Mike Conley is emerging as an elite level player; dishing 23 assists with only two turnovers as the Grizzlies won a pair of home games by double digit margins over the weekend.
The Grizzlies lack two key components of a championship caliber squad. First, they don’t have that go-to scorer during crunch time; a team that lacks a true one-on-one offensive creator. And secondly, the Grizzlies limited bench is as weak as any remaining in the playoffs; a factor that once again hinders their chances of surviving the first round, let alone two more rounds of intense playoff action.
Denver: George Karl’s playoff track record is beyond dismal, arguably the single most over-rated NBA head coach of the modern era. And again this year, Karl’s Nuggets are on the verge of losing a playoff series as the higher seeded team.
Karl’s teams have made the playoffs in each of the previous nine seasons. They got out of the first round exactly once during that entire span, and this year’s squad doesn’t look poised to break that trend after a complete defensive meltdown following their Game 1 win over the Warriors.
Golden State looks poised to pull off the only first round upset in the West, enjoying a 3-1 series edge as I type this. But after losing All Star forward David Lee to a season ending injury, the Warriors lack both championship caliber depth and a championship caliber defensive mentality.
Their hot shooting – 65%, 53% and 55% in their last three games – has carried them so far, but that’s no recipe for continued postseason success against an opponent with a better defensive game plan against Stephen Curry and company.
Bottom line? I’ll call it a three-team race in the West, with the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers all live (in that order) to win three series and reach the Finals.