Western Conference teams face perilous path to NBA Finals

Tony Parker thought he'd seen it all in the Western Conference.

He should've known better.

The Spurs rolled into the final game of the regular season winners of 11 straight games to announce themselves as serious contenders again. One loss at New Orleans sent San Antonio from second to sixth place, costing the defending NBA champions homecourt advantage in the first two rounds.

''It's been a crazy season, crazy West,'' Parker said.

The margin for error will be just as slim when the playoffs start Saturday. The conference is so loaded with talent that it's hard to call any matchup a major upset.

Top-seeded Golden State might be the exception. The Warriors won a franchise-record 67 games behind MVP candidate Stephen Curry and the league's top-ranked defense. Their reward?

A best-of-seven series against budding star Anthony Davis and a pesky Pelicans (45-37) team that would've comfortably finished sixth in the Eastern Conference. Too bad for them they play out West, where there are no nights off.

''You couldn't take and sit guys out for a week or any period of time because it was so competitive,'' Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. ''It's an arms race every week.''

For the second straight year, seven teams won 50 games in the West: Golden State (67-15), Houston (56-26), the Los Angeles Clippers (56-26), Portland (51-31), Memphis (55-27), San Antonio (55-27) and Dallas (50-32). Adding to the rugged landscape, scoring champion Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City (45-37) got left out of the postseason because New Orleans won the head-to-head tiebreaker over them.

''It's hard to judge your team, at times, because the West is so tough,'' Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. ''Sometimes you can make a mistake or a rash decision if you base it just on how your team fared in the West because it's a tough conference.''

So, with all the clutter and competition, the question now is whether the team that advances to the NBA Finals will be better or beaten up because of the perilous path to get there.

''I have no idea,'' Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. ''If it's up to me, I hope we sweep everybody.''

Some things to watch in the Western Conference playoffs:

SURVIVE AND ADVANCE: Houston, Portland and Memphis might stand as good a chance as anybody to win the conference if they're at full strength. Right now, they're not. And they may not be all postseason. How each team deals with replacing key players could determine how difficult the West will really be.

CLIPPERS-SPURS: Speaking of surviving, the Clippers-Spurs series is the kind of marquee matchup that usually comes in late May, not mid-April. San Antonio is trying to win back-to-back titles and six overall, while Los Angeles is hoping to break its trend of early-round exits and get to the Western Conference finals. No doubt the winner of this series will be favored to do just that.

ROOKIE COACH: Kerr already has won more games than any first-year coach in NBA history. But's he never coached in the playoffs. Kerr is counting on his experience as a player, when he won three titles alongside Michael Jordan in Chicago and two more under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, and veteran assistants Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams to prepare him for the pressure-packed moments on Golden State's sideline.

HELPING HARDEN: James Harden carried the injury-ravaged Rockets all season, making a strong case for MVP. Dwight Howard is healthy again, but he has hardly been playing like the All-Star center who won Defensive Player of the Year three straight seasons from 2009-11 in Orlando. If Howard can get anywhere close to his level of old, there's no telling how far Houston could go.

DON'T FORGET DALLAS: For a 50-win team with an attention-grabbing owner, nobody seems to be talking about Dallas. The Mavericks pushed the Spurs to seven games in last season's opening round - San Antonio lost only four other games the rest of the playoffs - and are always dangerous with Dirk Nowitzki's streaky stroke.

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Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

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