Give And Go: Analyzing the best of the West as tight playoff race intensifies
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Dissecting five questions about the top of the Western Conference. (All stats and records are through March 5.)
1. Five teams -- Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston, the Clippers and Portland -- are separated by 4½ games atop the West standings with roughly 20 games left in the regular season. Which team will finish with the No. 1 seed?
Ben Golliver: Thunder. No disrespect to the Clippers, Rockets and Blazers, who all have much to be proud of this season, but the Thunder and Spurs have been so consistently excellent that it's virtually inconceivable that both fall off dramatically enough to blow a cushion of at least three games in the loss column over the next six weeks.
Take the Thunder: Winning nine of their 10 remaining games against projected lottery teams would lift them to 55 victories. Even if they were to go just 5-6 against the other teams, they're looking at 60 wins. To match that, Houston would need to close 18-3, with games still to play against the Thunder (twice), Heat, Pacers, Blazers, Clippers and Spurs. Forget about it.
Similarly, if the Spurs win 10 of their 12 remaining games against projected lottery teams, they would jump to 54 victories. A 5-5 record against current playoff teams gets them to 59 wins, a standard that will almost certainly be too high for the Clippers, Rockets and Blazers to achieve.
In reality, this is a two-team race. I'll stick with my preseason pick of Oklahoma City, even with recent injuries to starters Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha. The playoff odds at Basketball-Reference and ESPN.com both favor the Thunder, who lead San Antonio by 1½ games, and there's no question that the older Spurs are more likely to rest players once April hits. It will be close, but I like Oklahoma City to finish with the most regular-season victories in the West for the second straight season.
Rob Mahoney: Spurs. It's worth acknowledging that the Clippers -- who are 4½ games behind the top seed -- have an outside shot at closing the gap. Making up that much ground with 20 games left is tough, but the Clippers have the easiest remaining schedule in the conference and are riding a five-game winning streak (including victories over the Thunder, Rockets and Suns) into the home stretch. The favorable schedule could help the Clippers separate from the other quality teams in the middle of the West bracket and challenge for a top-two seed.
That said, I'm still operating from the same basic Thunder-Spurs coin flip that Ben mentioned. I lean slightly in San Antonio's favor. The Spurs are unquestionably the more likely of the two to rest their stars down the stretch, but I wonder if coach Gregg Popovich might be slightly more hesitant to do so than his track record would suggest. This isn't a typical Spurs season. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green have all battled injuries. San Antonio's usual starting five has appeared in just 19 of 60 games for 162 minutes.
Even with the 2012-13 season serving as a foundation for the Spurs' core, I could see Popovich wanting to have his best players work themselves into a nice end-of-season rhythm. That might come early enough that Parker, Ginobili and Tim Duncan can get a few days off, but even then I wouldn't count San Antonio out of any game. The JV Spurs have gotten the best of too many opponents to be written off.
2. Which team is the more realistic title contender: the Rockets or the Clippers?
Golliver: Clippers. This is a tight one. These two teams are neck-and-neck on both sides of the ball. Both also have the strong base of two perennial All-Stars, a general prerequisite for title contention. I'm not completely sold on either team, but the Clippers have fewer questions, as long as Chris Paul remains healthy.
The playoffs will be a big-time "prove it" showcase for James Harden. Ditto for Dwight Howard, who is three years removed from having a major postseason impact (nice numbers during a 4-0 sweep to the Spurs while with the Lakers last season don't count). Ditto for just about everyone else on Houston's roster. That said, the Rockets' ability to jell this well in the first year of the Harden/Howard pairing bodes very, very well for the future.
Although Paul and Blake Griffin also have light playoff résumés, their surrounding pieces are fairly trustworthy veterans, many of whom have been through the fire before. As a whole, the Clippers seem just a bit further along on the contender's growth chart compared to the Rockets, as Los Angeles' roster construction over the last year has been totally geared toward making a deep playoff run. The recent addition of Glen Davis addressed the Clippers' most glaring weakness -- the lack of a reliable third big man behind Griffin and DeAndre Jordan -- and now the greatest concern is whether J.J. Redick will be back for the playoffs.
One thing is for sure: After trading budding star Eric Bledsoe and spending a first-round pick and big money to land coach Doc Rivers, the Clippers have more to lose with an early playoff exit than the Rockets. As talented as they are, the Rockets aren't in a huge rush. If we asked this same question about which team has a better shot at title contention over the next five years, my answer undoubtedly would be Houston.
Mahoney: Clippers. Both are realistic title contenders. If forced to choose, I'd pick the Clippers.
Both have the qualities necessary to make a deep playoff run: solid defense that paves the way for brilliant offense; superstars to help gain leverage in a grind-it-out series; and versatile complementary types capable of adapting to situational needs.
The Clippers have a modest advantage in the wild-card capacity to play even better than they have so far. Glen Davis, who is off to a slow start in three games as a Clipper, will only get better as he grows more comfortable. Fellow newcomer Danny Granger can't be depended on yet for consistent production, but he could re-establish himself while playing off Paul and Griffin. J.J. Redick's return from a back injury is uncertain, but if he's available for the postseason, his off-ball movement would give the Clippers a nice boost.
None of those three pieces is the kind of over-the-top addition that would make the Clippers favorites to win the West, but they have the potential to extend the rotation and potency of a formidable team.
3. If the Heat make the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season, which West team is best equipped to halt their pursuit of a three-peat?
Golliver: Thunder. A case can be made that five or six West teams would be able to produce a compelling Finals matchup with the Heat. But how many of those teams would have a legitimate chance of toppling Miami, assuming the two-time defending champs are fully healthy? Again, that's a two-horse race between the Thunder and Spurs.
You can't make a team work harder for its rings than the Spurs did against the Heat last year, but I'm fully invested in Heat-Thunder II and LeBron James-Kevin Durant II. Oklahoma City possesses all of the necessary attributes to keep pace with Miami: superstar talent, experience, offense/defense balance, depth and athleticism. Extreme confidence and/or a chip on the shoulder are important, too, and the Thunder -- particularly Durant and Russell Westbrook -- have both.
It's very difficult to separate the above question from the question of which matchup carries the greatest historical implications. The Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird reminiscing has really started to pick up this season, as James and Durant have gone back-and-forth in the MVP race. Not many people would complain if the league's two best players went head-to-head in the Finals for the second time in three years. Whenever I consider the possibility of a Miami-Oklahoma City Finals, I also go back to Durant's preseason decision to exclude Dwyane Wade from his list of top-10 players. Who doesn't want to see that beef addressed on the court for all the marbles?
Mahoney: Thunder. In answering this question, I'm looking primarily at the following factors:
1) Which teams have wing players who can slow James and make him work defensively?
2) Which teams have the passing ability to beat the Heat's pressure defense?
3) Which teams can create turnovers to take advantage of Miami's periodic carelessness?
5) Which teams can balance offensive rebounding with transition defense?
6) Which teams have the rim protection to ward off James and Wade?
By those criteria, the Thunder or Spurs would test the Heat the most. Oklahoma City holds a slight edge over San Antonio, in part because the Thunder satisfy No. 1 on that check list in a way that no other team could. Miami skirted that problem by having Battier defend Durant in their most recent meeting, but over a seven-game series James would inevitably have to guard his most potent individual challenger. Otherwise, the Heat run the risk of overplaying Battier.
That scenario, combined with solid on-ball defense by committee with Serge Ibaka looming at the rim, could slow James to the point of making Miami beatable. Having players such as Thabo Sefolosha (once healthy) and Perry Jones to make James work for his points is crucial because it spares the Thunder stars -- and Durant in particular -- from that unenviable task. Having Durant as fresh as possible would prove essential in breaking down Miami's defense possession after possession.
Durant will have help in that regard from Westbrook and Reggie Jackson, who both can attack the gaps in the Heat defense when it overextends. Either guard can penetrate to get all the way to the rim or set up a teammate, a flexibility that is crucial in beating Miami's quick rotations regularly.
In all, that's enough to give the Thunder an honest shot in a competitive series -- more than most could ask for when facing the defending champs.
4. Which player besides Russell Westbrook is the biggest X factor in the conference?
Golliver: Stephen Curry. The Warriors have gone from "darlings" back to "dark horses" in record time, in large part because they haven't been the overwhelming offensive juggernaut many anticipated. That's fine, but the memories of last year's playoffs shouldn't have completely faded. In case you're feeling a little fuzzy: Curry averaged 23.4 points and 8.1 assists and shot 39.6 percent from three-point range, including a 44-point outburst against the Spurs and two 30-point performances against the Nuggets. Given that Golden State has the best defense in the West, a little top-shelf Curry magic on offense could go a long, long way.
Just thinking about what Curry might do is enough to get me excited for April, and it's a good reminder of how stacked the West is this season. Consider: The Rockets, Clippers and Blazers are engaged in a tight three-way battle for the No. 3 seed. The reward for the winner? A likely first-round series against Curry, the Warriors and the strong Oracle Arena crowd. Now that's rough.
I'd like to add a postscript mention for the Clippers' Griffin, whose recent tear has included 20 consecutive 20-point games. A matchup with the rough-and-tumble Grizzlies and an ankle injury combined to limit him during the 2013 playoffs. But things are setting up much better this year, as the four-time All-Star could be headed for some favorable matchups.
If the Clippers draw the Rockets, Griffin would go up against second-year power forward Terrence Jones. If the Clippers meet the Blazers, he would have a high-profile showdown with LaMarcus Aldridge and a Portland team defense that will almost certainly rank among the worst in the West's playoff field. If the Clippers play the Warriors, he would continue his blood feud with Golden State in a buzzworthy series. Any way you slice it, Griffin could be in for tons of headlines early in the postseason.
Mahoney: Chandler Parsons. Houston is likely to face the Warriors, Clippers or Blazers in the first round, followed by a potential matchup against the Thunder or Spurs. Any of those series would demand a strong showing, but the most challenging matchups will also test the Rockets well beyond Harden and Howard.
That's where Parsons comes in -- as a spot shooter, an off-the-dribble threat and the best wing defender on the team by default. If opponents manage to hinder Harden and Howard while keeping Parsons under wraps, Houston would likely be in for a tough go and, potentially, an early out. But if Parsons can function as the release point that helps the Rockets create against staunch defensive pressure, a deeper playoff run could be in the cards.
5. What is your dream West finals matchup?
Golliver: Thunder vs. Spurs. For strictly basketball reasons, I want to see the best go against the best. That would mean a fully healthy Thunder team squaring off against a fully healthy Spurs team in a rematch of the 2012 conference finals. Westbrook's knee injury spoiled a potential epic matchup in last year's conference finals, and I'm ready to make up for that lost time.
Oklahoma City and San Antonio have the West's two best records. They have two of the West's top-three point differentials. They both boast top-seven offenses and top-five defenses. There is plenty of star power, including perennial MVP candidates in Durant and Parker, and gobs of depth and well-fitting parts on both rosters.
My backup choice would be Thunder-Rockets, mostly for storyline reasons. There's the continued fallout from the Harden trade, the Westbrook vs. Patrick Beverley animosity and the "Can Howard deliver on his free agency decision?" angle. There are also plenty of future implications, with Oklahoma City and Houston seemingly set up to be powerhouses for the next half-decade.
Imagine if the Rockets did reach the conference finals: What would that mean for their ability to land a third All-Star next summer? Who wouldn't want to hop aboard such a fast-rising star?
Mahoney: Thunder vs. Spurs. It's a fever dream of talent and athleticism wrapped in clever schemes and positional chess matches. Virtually any combination of the top teams in the West would yield a great series, but there's no use in denying that seven games between the two best teams in the conference would be a treasure trove for basketball geeks while playing well in all time zones. When the two last met in the postseason, Oklahoma City overwhelmed San Antonio by loading up on Parker and sending the Spurs into a scramble. In the two years since, Popovich has made it a priority to put players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in positions to create. The result is a more buoyant Spurs team -- one that withstood the speed and athleticism of the Heat in last year's Finals, and would play the Thunder more closely than it did in 2012. Here's hoping it get the chance.