Head scratching and deep-thought aren’t required to draw at least one easy conclusion about the Western Conference this postseason: It’s gonna be a dogfight.
Aside from the Spurs and Thunder, the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers have each made tremendous strides as basketball teams and it is amazing to consider that one of those five-mentioned teams will not even get as far as the second round of the playoffs.
Everything depends on how the seeds break down in the West, first and foremost. If the playoffs began on Feb. 23, the Rockets would battle the Phoenix Suns in the first round while the Clippers and Trail Blazers would engage as the four and five seeds. Of those three teams, it is a tough task to choose one who may emerge as a legitimate contender, so I’ll cheat and make the case for two of them.
Sorry Trail Blazers, but you are the weakest link.
Contemporary history has shown us a few times over that teams that rely on midrange jump-shooting and porous defenses do not typically excel in the NBA playoffs. The games inevitably slow down, getting stops is necessary and a lucid head coach who has an opportunity to study a high-powered offense over a seven-game series will usually find some way to slow it down—even if Damian Lillard is leading it.
That’s why it is difficult to buy the Blazers as a true contender at this moment.
But the Rockets and Clippers? It is impossible to discount either of them.
With Doc Rivers manning the sidelines, the Clippers have put together an overall tremendous season, despite being without both Chris Paul and J.J. Redick for extended periods of time. The reason why is simple: Blake Griffin. He has received ample assistance from Jamal Crawford, but Griffin has simply taken his game to another level. Though his post-moves are still somewhat raw, he has figured out how to use his athleticism to take full advantage of the gifts he has over the conference’s other power forward. His mid-range jumper has become more reliable, and most impressively, he has become one of the game’s premier passers from the power forward spot.
What’s been difficult to ignore with Griffin is how opposing defenses have begun playing him—they know he is a willing passer and have to worry about covering passing lanes as well as his forays to the basket. It is something that has made a tiny difference in the Clippers’ offensive flow, but a major difference in their on-court product.
With Paul and Rivers steering the ship and DeAndre Jordan to defend some of the conference’s other elite big men, the Clippers have a legitimate shot to win the conference crown, though the Rockets do, as well.
The Rockets checked in last week as the No. 3 team in Basketball Insiders’ Power Rankings, and in a nutshell, they are a team that is built for the playoffs.
As Dwight Howard’s health continues to improve, he will once again emerge as a nearly indomitable post presence on each end of the floor, and we have seen flashes of that over the past few weeks.
With James Harden being one of the best one-on-one players in the entire league and their awesome depth featuring the likes of Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, the Rockets could make a serious run in the Western Conference this season, depending on how the brackets shake out.
With less than 30 games remaining in the regular season, we will be watching with curious eyes.
– Moke Hamilton