Courtesy of Jim Feist
Start your engines! The NBA playoffs have started, time for endless full court action every night as the league crowns another champion. Let's take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won nine of the last 14 NBA titles.
Oklahoma City: The team no one wants to play! The Thunder gave us a hint of their young talent two years ago, putting it all together in 2012 - at least until they imploded in the NBA Finals against the veteran Heat. It was a bitter pill, favored to win while taking a 1-0 lead before losing 4 straight. They have a dynamite offense, No. 5, 2, 1 and 5 in the NBA in points scored the last four seasons, led by the 25-year old duo of Kevin Durant (32 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Russell Westbrook (21.7 ppg).
6-10 Serge Ibaka (15 ppg, 8.6 rpg) has emerged from role play to star with over 2.5 blocks per contest. They aren't all offense, either, 11th in the league in points allowed and third in field goal shooting defense (tops in the West) allowing .435% shooting.
They have it all, it seems - except experience. Three years ago after getting to the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder blew Game 4 at home to Dallas, 112-105 in OT, blowing a 15-point lead with five minutes to play in regulation. Dallas closed it out the next game. The 2012 NBA Finals was a failure and injuries derailed them last year.
At what point does all this painful postseason experience bear fruit?
Spurs: A juggernaut down the stretch with a 19-game win streak that wrapped up everything in the West. Last year's Western Conference champs have not slipped despite injuries and they are healthy at the right time. Long known for defense under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs used an awesome array of depth to blitz opponents, ranking 7th in the NBA in scoring, tops in assists and 5th in points allowed.
San Antonio still has the Big Three of 37-year old Tim Duncan (15 ppg, 9.8 rpg), 36-year old Manu Ginobili (12 ppg) and 31-year old Tony Parker (16.8 ppg). Popovich has done a great job in limiting the minutes of the Big 3. The Spurs have won 50 or more games in an astonishing 15 straight seasons, breaking the longest streak in league history behind the Lakers, who won 50 12 times in a row from 1979 to 1991.
The Spurs rely heavily on their bench, which leads the league in scoring for the fourth straight season, with Danny Green, Patty Mills and role players in 7-foot Matt Bonner, 6-11 Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw.
Coach Gregg Popovich and Duncan have 4 NBA title rings and they know defense is essential in the postseason. After ranking 17th in points allowed and 21st in field goal shooting percentage defense two years ago, the Spurs have improved to 9th and 8th in field goal defense the last two seasons. The Spurs are 27-11 ATS on the road.
LA Clippers: The new Beasts of the West? Adding guard Chris Paul (19 ppg) with Blake Griffin (24 ppg, 9.6 rpg) is certainly a nice one-two punch to upgrade any franchise, especially on offense. This team is tops in scoring. But the depth and talent is exceptional for first-year Coach Doc Rivers, who has really helped to upgrade the defense, 14th in points scored, 5th in field goal defense, tops against the three-pointer.
Jamal Crawford, Darren Collison and Matt Barnes are fine role players and Rivers got DeAndre Jordan to focus on defense and he's responded with 13.8 boards and 2.46 blocks per game. They will be fun to watch in the playoffs but here's one warning: The Clippers rank 26th in free throw shooting. Well that hurt in close playoff games?
Rockets: Houston felt it needing one missing piece and added Dwight Howard last offseason. So far, so good. Howard (18.5 ppg, 12 rpg) handles the low post and has improved the defense, ranking 7th in field goal shooting defense.
That clears the way for James Harden (25 ppg), Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin to strut their stuff on offense, second in the NBA in points scored and on a 19-7 run over the total. Howard and point guard Pat Beverely rested down the stretch to get healthy for the postseason. It's a tough all around team but, like the Clippers they can't shoot free throws, ranked 26th at the charity stripe. In Game 7 do you want Howard and his 55% free throw shooting at the line down by one?
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