Race to Playoffs Part 2 – West Conference

Posted by By at 21 April, at 09 : 49 AM Print

Race to Playoffs Part 2 – West Conference

The NBA Playoffs are approaching us quickly with most teams having five more games left till the end of the regular season. This year’s condensed season has provided us with amazing story lines, highlights and drama. It has brought new found fame to rising stars, surprising trades and unfortunately a huge amount of injuries.

As our focus slowly turns to the playoffs, with Milwaukee, New York and Philadelphia fighting for the last two spots of East and Denver, Dallas, Phoenix, Houston and Utah fight for the last three spots of the west. Most of the teams are settled in their rankings and I want to give you a run down on the contending teams, their strengths, weaknesses, player to watch and how well I predict they will do in the playoffs.

West Conference

 

1. San Antonio Spurs
Spurs continue to defy the law of age and play efficiently and effective. They continue to prove naysayers wrong and stay up the top. They have plenty of experience in their team with Duncan (35 years old), Ginobili (34 years old) and Parker (nearly 30 years old) and they have put themselves in such a good position after having two 11 game winning streaks which is remarkable and shows strong consistency! Even though they are a team of veterans, they can beat quick teams and will be a good team to watch in Playoffs after bowing out early to a shock loss to Memphis last season!

Strengths: Experience, Teamwork and depth, San Antonio are one of those rare teams that have players playing together for years and are used to each other, have years of experience in NBA and playoffs and still are able to have a huge amount of depth. Spurs have the best bench in the NBA based on efficiency differential. Their starting veterans show no signs of slowing down this season and should continue that into the playoffs, Parker has been arguable one of the top point guards this season with his relentless scoring and assists. Duncan has similar stats per 48 mins this season and his MVP year. The only concern is if Ginobili can stay injury free.

Weaknesses: Age, even though they haven’t been affected by it yet, if anything is going to slow them down, age is the factor. When playing teams like Oklahoma or Memphis who are young and quick, Spurs can quickly find themselves on the back foot. They need to attack and control the game on their terms

Player to watch: Manu Ginobili. We already know that Parker and Duncan will deliver in the playoffs. So the focus shifts to Ginobili who played hurt last year’s playoffs. Spurs need Manu healthy and being the offensive threat he is if they are going to cause headaches for the opposition. Parker is great but he can’t do it all himself. Ginobili needs to have one good last crack at winning the playoffs.

Prediction: Expect Spurs to travel all the way to the third round barring any upsets like last season which would be on their minds. They may struggle against the likes of Oklahoma or Memphis but lock them in to be a huge chance for the championship due to incredible depth and consistency.

 

2. Oklahoma Thunder
Thunder has developed into the team that everyone expected them to be since drafting Durant (Thanks to Portland) Thunder have crafted such an enticing list with the likes of Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Perkins and Ibaka. Oklahoma have now solidified the second seed with a 44-17 record. Thunder will be looking to make their first conference finals push since the geographical move from Seattle and have a huge chance for the ring.

Strengths: Thunder have quick, young, damaging offensive players who can create their own shot. Durant is arguably the best offensive shooter, hitting 50.1% percent of his shots and averaging 27.8 points per game this season. What makes him even more deadly is his clutch plays. Durant has won countless games off his own shot when they need it and that will only boost their confidence in the playoffs. Westbrook is Durant’s partner in crime, even though people may complain he takes too many shots, Westbrook’s game is not to looked down upon. He is one of the quickest and most aggressive point guards, averaging 24.1 ppg and 5.4 assists per game.

Weaknesses: Offensive troubles, because Thunder has a couple of offensive weapons, they have a huge reliance on them to create their own shot. In playoff games where defence becomes a key and clamps down on Thunder, it could cause problems for them. Thunder may have the best offense but they have the worst team offense. They have the highest turnover percentage (15.3 percent), the lowest assist rate (13.1) and the worst assist-to-turnover ratio (1.13) in the NBA.

Player to watch: Russell Westbrook, only because we know Durant will perform well and their success may rely on how Russell Westbrook performs. If he’s scoring and assisting, Thunder have it in the bag. If Westbrook is holding the ball and missing shots. It will become far more difficult and they will be at a huge disadvantage. Westbrook needs to make the right decisions and be at his shooting best.

Prediction: Expect Thunder to push all challengers away and make it to the West Conference finals where things could become a challenge for them. If their offensive regime works well in playoffs, expect a ring on the finger, but as always it won’t come easy.

 

3. LA Lakers
Lakers have had more issues this year than recent years, many people wrote them off because of new coach, loss of Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown, poor players at PG and lack of depth. however if you have a bloke name Kobe Bryant on the team, you are playoffs bound. LA Lakers have grinded out the season and hold the third seed slightly ahead of neighbours LA Clippers. Credit to them and they will be one to watch in the West Conference as usual!

Strengths: Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum, they are in the top two in their positions, SG and C respectively. That itself is not to be looked down upon. With Pau Gasol, they could be called the big three themselves. Kobe will need to be at his playoffs best if he is to push Lakers deep and Bynum will be a good barometer as the better he performs, the better chance of winning.

Weaknesses: Unlike previous years where Lakers had Odom and Brown coming off the bench, Lakers lack the depth this season and it has shown many times with the starters needing to put up big numbers for them to win. The addition of Ramon Sessions was needed as they may not have done well with Fisher holding the starting position. The starters need to perform every game if they are to win. Bryant alone cannot defeat the Parker/Duncan, Durant/Westbrook, Paul/Griffin combos.

Player to watch: Ramon Sessions. He was brought into the team for the reason to bring more scoring opportunities and help Lakers be more efficient and it has work so far with Lakers being far more effective in the +/- minus when he’s on court compared to when he is off court. Sessions provides speed and creativity to a position that was weak at the beginning of the season and will be a key player this playoffs.

Prediction: Lakers most likely will struggle in 2nd round but can have a good crack with solid players in PG, SG, PF, C and instigators Artest/Barnes.

 

4. LA Clippers
Since Paul joined Clippers, it was expected that ‘Lob City’ would be making an appearance in the playoffs. They looked to be challenging for the top seed with Billups firing but unfortunately went down with a season ending injury. Clippers were on a slide and Coach Del Negro was in the hot seat. Lucky for them, they were able to gain the feisty Nick Young from Wizards who is an upgrade from Foye. Since then, Clippers have risen slowly and solidified a respectable fourth seed, with the third within reach. Clippers will be a force to be reckoned with.

Strengths: Point guard position/Blake Griffin combo is just the biggest strength they have. Paul is a genuine point guard that has the ability to turn games on their head and his chemistry with Griffin is pure gold. Having Mo Williams waiting is not bad for a backup. If the duo can consistently perform in their position and gel well with Griffin, they should rack up more wins than losses and can go deep into the playoffs.

Weaknesses: Coach Del Negro. If you look at the playoff teams, they often have the best coaches – Doc Rivers, Mike Brown, Greg Popovich, Stan Van Gundy and Scott Brooks. Del Negro is one of the lowest rated active coaches. When it comes to the crunch moment, the opposition will have the game situation planning advantage. It is up to the players to take control.

Player to watch: Chris Paul, when Paul is quiet, Clippers are quiet, when Paul is in control, Clippers are very good and capable of winning the ring. Simple as that. Paul needs to attack, score and get his wing players good looks and Griffin to dunk. Paul needs to take control of his playoffs inexperienced team and lead from the start!

Prediction: Clippers should win the first two rounds but it won’t come easy for them. Wouldn’t be surprised if they made it to the Finals. Third round a good pass mark though.

 

5. Memphis Grizzles
Memphis have got the threat factor ever since they won their first playoffs series against top seeded Spurs last season. Many people expected Memphis to be contending for the top seeds at the start. Until they lost the valuable Zach Randolph to injury. Memphis struggled for a little while until role players started having a bigger impact. Now that Randolph is back, they have moved up the rankings and have tried fighting for the fourth or third seed. However it looks like they will hold the 5th seed and play one of the L.A teams.

Strengths: Memphis have such a strong starting five, and considering there hasn’t been many roster changes, they have a strong chemistry within the team. They have one of the best starting front courts in Randolph and Gasol, who carried them in the series win against Spurs, they have a solid PG in Conley and a strong defensive player in Allen. Their performances will be crucial if they are to win. The bench is an area of concern. If the starting team does not beat the opposition starters, then a loss is expected.

Weaknesses: Shooting, even though Memphis have a strong inside game, they lack the outside game. They are 28th in three-pointers made and they are 24th in three-point percentage. The only reasonably good three-point shooter on the team is O.J. Mayo, who at .371 isn’t really that good to be the number one for the team. Three point shooting isn’t the most important element to victory but it helps to have someone to stretch the court.

Player to watch: We know Zach Randolph will perform and Gasol will help but the player to watch will be Mike Conley, considering he will have to play the likes of All stars Paul, Parker, Westbrook and others such as Lawson and Sessions. Conley will need to curb the influence of these guys as much as he can while having a good game himself. It won’t be easy but that needs to be done if Memphis are going to upset Clippers/Lakers

Prediction: They have the potential to go far, but expect them to lose to the hostile crowd of L.A and fall out in first round.

 

6. Dallas Mavericks
Witnessing Dallas become the champions was gold. However we had a feeling they would decline after the loss of defensive anchor, Chandler, Butler, Barea and Stevenson. But nobody expected them to win the ring last year and they could turn it on again behind the performances of vets, Nowitzki, Kidd and Terry.

Strengths: Mentality + Experience. They are the defending champions and are so for a reason. Their mentality beat the combined talent of the Miami Big 3 last season. Their playoffs loss in 2006 is still embedded in the minds of the current Dallas players that played then. That carried them over the line last year and could so again this year. Their experience is not to go unnoticed with two finals appearances in the past 6 seasons.

Weaknesses:  Hunger and roster changes. Because they won last season, they seem satisfied. They don’t seem unhappy that they are the 6th seed and not in the top 4. That lack of hunger won’t help them when they play teams who want it more. The roster changes will hurt them too. Losing Chandler leaves a huge gap in the center that won’t be filled in the shoes of Haywood/Mahinmi. Odom was a big pick but didn’t make the cut. Although West seems to be an upgrade from Barea with his clutch. The loss of wing players Butler and Stevenson will be the second biggest loss (first being the center), to make up for it, Carter will have to be Vintage Carter once again.

Player to watch: Dirk Nowitzki, he is the captain, the barometer and the player that carries the hopes of Dallas to defend their ring. Nowitzki, combined with Kidd and Terry will have to be at his best if they are to go deep into the playoffs. After all, him dominating Bosh was the reason they won.

Prediction: Expect a first round loss to Lakers or Spurs. Not hungry enough and too many gaps in the team.

 

7. Denver Nuggets
Nuggets are the team’s team. While they have no real star player, they have many strong players in Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari, Faried, Miller, Fernandez and McGee. Losing Nene for McGee would decrease experience and maturity in the team but McGee can service them well in the playoffs if he takes advantage of his height.

Strengths: Nuggets have a strong offensive game. Their shooting will hold them in good stead! They have the fourth-best field-goal percentage at .470 and they also do it the hard way by bringing the ball into the paint with average of 21.2 field goals per game at the rim, the most in the NBA, which bodes well for playoff success.

Weaknesses: Because Nuggets play a good offensive flowing game. This causes them to leak goals easily, making it a high scoring affair. Even though nuggets have a good field goal percentage, their oppositions score just as good! Nuggets do a horrible job defending the three point line which will hurt them in the playoffs against teams like Clippers, Spurs and Dallas. Nuggets need to either clamp down, or simply score better. The latter will probably have to serve them well.

Player to watch: Danilo Gallinari, we know Ty Lawson will do them justice but the focus is on Gallinari, we know this man can be damaging and cause trouble for oppositions with his height and strong three point shot. However Gallinari hasn’t been doing well. He needs to turn it on when it comes playoffs time if Nuggets are going to win, considering the have no real star player, except for Lawson at best.

Prediction: Expect Nuggets to lose first round, unless the whole team steps up and play consistent basketball. Unlikely.

8. Utah Jazz
Utah Jazz will be a future contender with the likes of Jefferson, Hayward,  Favors, Harris and Millsap. Playing this season’s playoffs will hold them in fantastic stead and give them invaluable experience as the young team work on becoming a real contender in the next few years.

Strengths: Nothing to lose – Utah have fought and scrapped for the last playoff spot, they haven’t won it yet. But if they do. They have done very well this season and they will have nothing to lose. Just like Memphis last year, they could be a threat if they play a team that will certainly be favourites to start off with. If Jazz hit their strides, cause spurs or thunder to get nervous. They are a chance.

Weaknesses: Experience and young. You rarely see a young team win the championships, especially when they haven’t played playoffs. Oklahoma took a while a few years before they became a contender and the same will happen to Utah as they grow and develop. You can’t expect Utah to win the first round this season

Player to watch: Al Jefferson will be carrying this young team, if they are to win, he will need to put in monster lines with the aid of Millsap as well.

Prediction: Expect them nothing. Fall to Spurs or Thunder. They did well just to make playoffs.

9. Phoenix Suns
Phoenix has done well to be in the race of the playoffs and Nash continues to defy age! Who doesn’t love him? They have drafted well with Morris and got Brown, along with Telfair and Redd who have been serviceable. Phoenix are still fighting for the 8th spot but don’t expect much from them in the playoffs.

Strengths: Nash/Gortat combo. Nash thrives on the pick and roll plays. Gortat’s game has improved largely due to that. They have a good chemistry between them that allows each of them to bounce off each other and score. These two players are largely the reason why Phoenix are contending for the last playoff spot.

Weaknesses: Overall team roster. They just don’t look like a playoff contending team. Good on them if they make finals but it just won’t cut it for them.

Player to watch: Marcin Gortat, this bloke has thrived since joining Suns and he will continue to gain invaluable experience leading the team with Nash in the playoffs. If in a few years time, Suns are looking like contenders, expect Gortat to be at the forefront!

Prediction: Expect them to fall in first round. Not a good enough roster to win.

10. Houston Rockets
Houston have been a very interesting team to watch this season with their strong back court but weak front court. Houston have climbed up and down the rankings the whole year and losing PG Lowry was a blow but he’s back and buzzing around. Houston could have clinched the playoffs with two close games but couldn’t close down the stretch which is a huge area of concern.

Strengths: Back court – They have one of the strongest front court combinations with Lowry, Martin, Dragic and Lee. All four players could be starters and they rank ninth in the NBA for net efficiency from their back court. When they turn it on, they have a huge chance of winning the game.

Weaknesses: Front court – It doesn’t help that the Rockets have Camby and Dalembert on the sidelines with back issues as they would more than help the team. The Rockets have the 20th-ranked front court in terms of net efficiency. The front court tends to be the determining factor in whether the Rockets win or lose. They are 8-19 when the front court is out rebounded and 11-16 when they have fewer points. With some of the front courts the Rockets are likely to face in the postseason, this is very problematic. Their first two opponents would likely be the Spurs, who have the eighth-best front court, and the Lakers,  who rank seventh.

Player to watch: Kyle Lowry. A lot of blame falls on his shoulders as the play maker of his team. When he was out with injury, Rockets won 9-6. Lowry will be looking to improve after his injury and hopefully wrong the critics before the season ends, otherwise he will cop a lot during the off-season.

Prediction: If they make playoffs, surprise. If they do, they won’t go past first round.

 

The West Conference playoff winners are up in the air between the top 5 teams. Will Thunder finally reach their destination? Will Spurs have the last crack and go for the ring? Will Lakers hold up after a stressful season? Or will neighbour Clippers win it after spending so long as a cellar dweller? Will Memphis improve their playoff run and cause more upsets?

From 2nd round onwards, the west are going to throw many challenges and it will be very exciting to watch! Expect a lot of 6-7 game series.

Thanks for reading!

Follow me on Twitter @jamesmoody12

The Bowse's Word

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