Clearing Up the Western Conference Playoff Picture
I always find it amazing that after an entire season, spots in the playoffs and seeding can come down to the final few games. This year in the Western Conference, it is no different. The east has been settled for over a week and there is only limited jockeying for position. But the west is deeper and it's been a struggle for teams to just make the playoffs let alone move up the rankings for home-court advantage.
Since the Rockets are officially in, let's take a look at the likely scenarios for each team as we wind down the last week of the season and head into the playoffs.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder Last year's Western Conference champ appears a near lock for a number one seed in the playoffs and home court advantage all the way up to the NBA Finals unless they face the Heat, which has the best record in the NBA. Despite trading away James Harden, the Thunder appear to be firing on all cylinders. Their first-round matchup, regardless of whether the Lakers hang on or the Jazz squeak in, should be fairly easy business for this young, talented team. Expect another trip to the Western Conference Finals for the Thunder, but be wary of the Nuggets as a possible spoiler.
Most Intriguing Matchup Possibility: Clippers in Round 2 Best Chance of Getting Ousted: Nuggets in Round 3
2. San Antonio Spurs The Spurs are limping into the playoffs with age not on their side, yet they continue to win and put up big numbers. There is not a better franchise in basketball, but the play of Tim Duncan has been impressive all season and Gregg Popovich continues to work his magic. They were tossed out of the playoffs last year by the Grizzlies, and another first-round struggle would not be a surprise. Still, never count them out.
Most Intriguing Matchup Possibility: Rockets in Round 1 Best Chance of Getting Ousted: Nuggets in Round 2
3. Denver Nuggets Denver might be the scariest team entering the playoffs. They have been absolutely dominant at home with an assist to the high altitude. They are one of a couple of run-and-gun Western Conference teams that can run just about anyone out of the building at any time. Their chances of getting into the later rounds of the playoffs appear good. If the Nuggets continue to roll, they could pose a serious challenge to the Thunder in the west.
Most Intriguing Matchup Possibility: Thunder in Round 3 Best Chance of Getting Ousted: Thunder in Round 3
4. LA Clippers It has been an up-and-down year for the Clippers. They are an extremely dynamic and athletic team, but they do have weaknesses. I wonder how they would be exposed in a seven-game series. Chris Paul is still the best point guard in the league and his will to win is extraordinary. They get a tough draw in round one against the Grizzlies, one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
Most Intriguing Matchup Possibility: Lakers in Round 2 Best Chance of Getting Ousted: Thunder in Round 2 5. Memphis Grizzlies Memphis is a bit of an anomaly for the west, a team built around big men and tough defense. They have continued to be consistently good even after cost-cutting trades that gutted much of the roster. They present an interesting challenge for teams that like to get up and down the court and any team without serious beef in the low block.
Most Intriguing Matchup Possibility: Thunder in Round 2 Best Chance of Getting Ousted: Clippers in Round 1
6. Houston Rockets Talk about a surprise team. Right now situated in the sixth spot and controlling their own destiny, the youngest team in the playoffs also happens to be one of the best offensively and they live here in Houston. At this point, any playoff experience is good for these young players, but it would not be a shock if they knocked off someone in round one. Unfortunately, if they do face the Nuggets, I'm afraid that will be a much taller order than if they faced, for example, the Spurs. The best part is that no matter what happens, they are the only playoff-bound team that also has a boatload of cap space to use in the offseason.
Most Intriguing Matchup Possibility: Spurs in Round 2 Best Chance of Getting Ousted: Nuggets in Round 1
7. Golden State Warriors No one expected Golden State to have the success they've had. They started off the season red hot and most predicted they would fall as the Lakers would rise. That simply hasn't happened. They didn't wind up with home-court advantage, but having a shot at the six spot is still very impressive. They do have the kind of team that could challenge the Spurs in the first round.
Most Intriguing Matchup Possibility: Rockets in Round 2 Best Chance of Getting Ousted: Nuggets in Round 3
8. LA Lakers After their win over San Antonio Sunday night, they are almost a lock to make the playoffs despite losing Kobe Bryant to a torn Achilles tendon. With Bryant out, there is little chance the Lakers will be able to advance beyond the Thunder, but a second-round all-LA matchup at the Staples Center would be fascinating to watch.
Most Intriguing Matchup Possibility: Clippers in Round 2 Best Chance of Getting Ousted: Thunder in Round 1