Separation Showing in the West
OKLAHOMA CITY, SAN ANTONIO SHOWING SOME SEPARATION IN THE WEST
Back on Sunday we ran through the playoff picture in the NBA's Eastern Conference to get you ready for a big TV doubleheader involving top contenders. As promised, we're back now to talk about the West in a way that will help set up Thursday Night's LA Clippers-Portland game on TNT.
It's very likely that we'll see the Clippers and Blazers in the postseason, though Portland has lost some of its mojo in recent days. Frankly, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Clippers face the Blazers in the postseason given how jumbled the picture is... and how competitive things can get once the trophy is on the line.
*Top seed San Antonio lost in the first round
*Projected longshot Dallas kicked things up several notches and stormed through the West
*The experienced Los Angeles Lakers suddenly looked very old and helpless
*The young and frisky Oklahoma City Thunder were badly hurt by a lack of experience
Several teams were capable of winning the West last year. Everyone had strengths, but an exploitable weakness. Results often were dependent on who ran into kryptonite and who dodged it. San Antonio might have won the West if they hadn't run into Memphis... a team well-suited to exploit their soft underbelly inside. The Lakers might have won if they hadn't run into Dallas, a team that could spread them out and rain treys on their heads.
Has much changed this year? NOT REALLY!
For the most part... same teams... same kryptonite... same potential for a thrilling postseason depending on how the brackets fall.
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves though. We're just now coming up on the midway point of the regular season. Here's a brief rundown of the playoff picture as it looks at midweek
These two teams are starting to put some distance between themselves and the next group of contenders. And, there are extenuating circumstances that suggest their edges may be even bigger.
*Oklahoma City leads the West clearly... yet they've played just 11 home games and a whopping 18 road games! They're going to be favored in the seven home games that eventually equalize the difference. That should allow them to pull even further away. As impressed as you should be with OKC's great start to the season, it's even better than you realized! They've played an unfriendly schedule in a tough conference yet they still sit at the top of the heap.
*San Antonio has surged into a clear second place... and they just got Manu Ginobili back from injury. They were playing well enough without him. But, they're once again looking like top seed material with him on the floor. It's last year's Spurs all over again. Maybe they're only a #2 seed this year instead of #1. But, that's because Oklahoma City's young lineup has improved. San Antonio is still lethal (particularly at home). And, they're ahead of the next hunk of contenders as long as Ginobili is in uniform.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
Denver was higher up until injuries took their toll in recent days. It could turn out that Denver is more like a #3 when everyone's healthy. Do they have a roster that can be healthy come playoff time? Tough call. To us, this is really a “name out of a hat” situation. Everyone on that list is capable of beating anybody over 48 minutes...but has shown a disturbing tendency to lose focus periodically. What will happen once focus is 100% in the playoffs?
*Dallas has to get the nod based on last year, and the addition of Lamar Odom...who could have found his fitness and form by then. Dallas will still be dangerous even without Tyson Chandler.
*The Clippers have Chris Paul, and you'll recall that he almost beat the Lakers last year single-handedly when he was with New Orleans. Blake Griffin may not be ready yet to star in a playoff series given his free throw meltdowns in recent crunch times. We definitely look forward to watching this team. We can't yet endorse them as a championship threat.
*The Lakers have Kobe, which is important in slow halfcourt games. But, the team hasn't improved since last year, and they were exposed last year. The legs aren't there to chase down three-pointers.
*Denver when healthy is going to be a handful. They were hurt last year by not having a clear go-to-guy late in close playoff games. Has that changed?
Frankly, those four teams bring an interesting mix of question marks and exclamation points. The Western Playoffs should really be something this year.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Our first two groups listed six teams...and there are only eight playoff spots available in the West. So, the race for the last two positions could really be something special. Portland and Memphis definitely want return trips...and will definitely be dangerous first round opponents vs. whoever they face. Remember that Memphis took out San Antonio last year in a one versus eight matchup...and that Portland was favored over Dallas
But, don't sleep on Houston! They've been using their minutes very intelligently in a way that could keep them fresher than other contenders in the second half of the season. We don't think of them as having a playoff roster in terms of raw talent. But, they have great regular season depth which could launch them into the playoffs anyway.
Utah and Minnesota have come from off-the-radar thanks to coaching changes, youthful energy, and chemistry. This is a season where youthful energy could matter because the grind is so intense. In most seasons, experience trumps young legs. THIS YEAR, young legs could get to a shorter finish line first in what can best be called a marathon/sprint.
Bottom line, we'll soon be coming up on a period of play where most of the West is FIGHTING for playoff positioning or inclusion. This is something handicappers will really have to stay on top of.
We could see that kind of intensity tonight in the Clippers/Blazers game on TNT. But, both teams played last night, so we could see more of a tired shoving match that has a dramatic ending after a slow build-up. You can purchase JIM HURLEY'S Thursday plays right here at the website with your credit card. We're obviously looking at that game plus the Boston-Chicago rematch in the early TNT game. Top games on the college card include Wisconsin-Michigan State, West Virginia-Pittsburgh, and NC State-Duke.
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We'll be back Friday to outline expectations in the most important Bracket Buster games of the weekend. You've probably seen the ads on ESPN for St. Mary's at Murray State, which could feature a couple of Cinderella's. The first Bracket Buster of note Friday is VCU at Northern Iowa. An important early tip Saturday is Drexel at Cleveland State. Later in the day Akron and Oral Roberts match up in a meeting of highly regarded Dance hopefuls (Bracketology gives both 13th seeds at the moment). We'll take a look at all four of those games in Friday's report.
The weekend brings Ohio State-Michigan in our Saturday Showcase, plus “Linsanity” from the NBA as New York hosts Dallas in an early Sunday TV tip.
What a great week to attack the baskets. DON'T SIT ON THE SIDELINES, GET IN THE GAME!
We have great rates for seasonal packages here at the website and in the office at 1-800-323-4453. You can try things out on a day-by-day basis with your credit card online. Selections go up a few hours before first tip each and every day.
Back tomorrow to talk about a few more teams that may deserve more love in the NCAA selection process. We hope you have a GREAT Valentine's Day with your special person. IF YOU LOVE WINNING, IT'S THE PERFECT DAY TO LINK UP WITH JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!
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