Spurs, Thunder Neck-and-Neck

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SPURS AND THUNDER IN HEATED RACE FOR TOP SEED IN THE WEST

We've been promising a Western Conference recap in the NOTEBOOK for awhile. The schedule wasn't cooperating because critical games each night were finishing after our publication deadlines. Given the depth and complexity of the race, that's not going to stop any time soon! We've found a solution.

Both San Antonio and Oklahoma City are off Saturday Night before facing Utah and Toronto respectively on Sunday. Those teams are now separated by just percentage points at the very top of the Western Conference standings. Had you noticed that San Antonio had moved into first place in the West Friday Night? Let's compare how the two powers matchup since one of them is most likely to represent the conference in the league Finals. Then, we'll look at recent form in the West amongst the myriad other teams trying to reach the postseason.

Unfortunately, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are done playing each other in the regular season. So, we won't have a showcase TV game to discuss their matchup in depth (the Spurs won the series 2-1, which would give them a tie-breaker edge). If they are to play again, it won't be until the Western finals in about six weeks. What are the strengths that have put these teams at the top...and may propel one all the way to the NBA title? Here are their league rankings in a few of the classic stathead categories.

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
1...San Antonio
2...Oklahoma City

This is scoring adjusted for pace. And...the Spurs and Thunder are the two best teams in the league! This isn't surprising given their weaponry. The Spurs, when healthy, are going to find a good shot on most possessions. Oklahoma City has three offensive stars who are relentless in their attack. The cliché is really true in this case...you can't stop San Antonio or Oklahoma City, you can only hope to contain them. You regulars know we're generally more fond of the "defense and rebounding wins championships" approach. It's telling that San Antonio was eliminated by Memphis in the first round last year, while Oklahoma City struggled with Memphis then lost to a Dallas team that was better in defense and rebounding than many realized. Let's see how the Spurs and Thunder measure up in what may be more favored playoff categories.

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
9...Oklahoma City
13...San Antonio

This is where we may have problems supporting these teams down the road. OKC barely cracks the top 10, and aging San Antonio is better at scoring than they are at stopping the other guys. Tim Duncan isn't what he used to be inside. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are more dangerous on offense than they are on defense to an extreme degree. The Spurs are smart, savvy, and pacing themselves well for the 2012 schedule challenge. They may not have enough defense to thrive next month. Oklahoma City may have enough to win the West...but they'll have the lesser defense against either Chicago (3rd) or Miami (4th) were they to run into either of those teams in the Finals.

REBOUND RATE
6...Oklahoma City
7...San Antonio

Good showings here, as neither will be outclassed in this department in a meaningful way in the postseason. You can't refer to either of these teams as "defense and rebounding" juggernauts. But, they could well be offensive juggernauts who have enough defense and rebounding to get the job done. That's a pretty fair description of Dallas, who surprised everyone by going the distance last year.

Memphis could cause a headache for either once again. Is there anyone else in the West who's truly scary right now? Let's run through the rest of the West. Instead of ranking them by their position in the standings, we're going to rank them by our assessment of their championship potential.

DANGEROUS
Memphis

The Grizzlies haven't been at full strength very much this year. When they are, they look just as scary as they did last year in the playoffs. This team is built perfectly for the postseason. The Miami Heat can tell you a little about that given what happened Friday Night. The Grizzlies will have a better seed this year than last. And, they will have time to freshen up a bit from the brutal 5-in-6 schedule spot they were just dealing with this week (three games in three days, followed after a day off by two more games in two days).

LONGSHOTS
LA Lakers
LA Clippers
Dallas
Denver (if healthy)

The Lakers may have a great history, but this current roster sure doesn't look like a team that's going to scare Oklahoma City or San Antonio. Kobe is old, and his jumpshot inconsistent. Andrew Bynum can't be counted on to stay on the floor. The bench is weak compared to other Western benches. These guys are struggling with the likes of New Orleans, New Jersey, and Houston lately.

The Clippers have Chris Paul, which gives them a chance to shine in the postseason. Remember that he almost led New Orleans past the Lakers in the first round a year ago. But, the team defense has been abysmal by playoff standards. And, Blake Griffin is struggling on jumpers and at the free throw line. You don't advance in the playoffs with impressive dunks. You're the token highlight as ESPN shows your loss.

Dallas had too much talent turnover to maintain last year's mojo. Well, that and the fact that the new talent has been a major disappointment. Lamar Odom is a shoe-in for "No Show of the Year." We like the coaching...the smart overall approach...and you've got to love what Dirk Nowitzki brings to the floor every game. This team right now is much worse than last year, and would need to catch a few breaks to be a force this season in our view.

Denver can't seem to stay healthy. And, trading Nene made it fairly certain that the team is thinking about the future rather than this season. He's REALLY important in a playoff series. Even if Denver stays healthy, we don't see them as a threat this year.

EXTREME LONGSHOTS
Denver (if shorthanded)
Houston
Utah
Phoenix

There are some nice stories here. It's great to see the spirit and hustle of youth...and of the perpetually youthful Steve Nash. Watching these teams go hard for four quarters makes for great television. It doesn't make for more than two or three playoff wins in a series though as a general rule. Maybe one of these teams gets hot for one series. It's impossible to see them going deep in the playoffs given their rosters.

We're glad we got this chance to get you up to speed in the West. The TV schedule has been East-heavy, as it is again Sunday with Chicago-New York on ABC, and Philadelphia-Boston on the NBA Network. JIM HURLEY is looking closely at those games, along with the rest of the seven-game pro hoop schedule. Baseball games on the radar today include Yankees-Rays on TBS, White Sox-Rangers on ESPN, as well as Red Sox-Tigers, Cards-Brewers, and Giants-Diamondbacks.

BIG JUICY WINNERS for Sunday can be purchased right here at the website with your credit card. If you have any questions about NETWORK service, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Seasonal packages offer the most bang for your buck. 

It's a great time to be a sports fan! Basketball, baseball, and the final Sunday in the Masters (Easter Sunday no less!). You're going to be parked in front of the TV set all day. Don't you dare forget that the ultimate MASTER in the field of sports handicapping is legendary JIM HURLEY!

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