As we head toward the All-Star Break and the ensuing stretch run, let’s look at a few of the most important players in the Western Conference playoff race. Each of these guys brings a specific component which will likely prove significant to the success or failure of their respective teams.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard’s all-around game, Tiago Splitter’s passing, Danny Green’s range, the health of Duncan and Parker
Leonard’s 26-point explosion last night against Chicago came with Duncan, Parker and Ginobii sitting out once again. Despite getting destroyed on the glass, 49-26, the Spurs handed the tired-seeming Bulls a 103-89 thumping. Popovich’s strategy of resting his elder statesmen and leaning on his extremely talented younger core led to a 51-42 half-time lead. Like the Heat two months ago, the Bulls couldn’t seem to find the motivation to compete with this new edition the Spurs put on the court. Popovich knows how good the 21 year-old Leonard can be, and he’s wasting no time getting him that confidence that will allow him to replace an aging Ginobili/Jackson combination at the small forward.
Leonard’s 7-foot-3-inch wing-span allows him to defend power forwards, while he’s quick enough to drive by shooting guards. With confidence, Leonard has the potential to lead San Antonio through the later rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. Last night, Leonard’s 11-18 outing (with zero turnovers) showed just how valuable he can be. Splitter also showed incredible efficiency against one of the league’s toughest defenses, going 5 of 7 from the field and knocking down all 6 free-throws. The type of ball movement this Duncan-less Spurs team put on display was telling. Ironically, it was from the phenomenal passing of Duncan that Splitter has learned how to see the passing angles he now executes so well. The international trio of Splitter-de Colo-Diaw know how to share the rock, as the kids like to say. Danny Green’s range (3 of 5 from distance) is the icing on the cupcake of that great ball movement. The Spurs have the NBA’s best combination of wisdom and youth and it’s because they’ve passed the torch: Duncan to Splitter, Bowen/Jackson to Leonard, Ginobili to Green.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin sharing the scoring load, Westbrook rising to the occasion
Scott Brooks has the cushiest job in the NBA when it comes to coaching offense. Durant’s mesmerizing ability to get his shot off whenever he wants, over whomever he wants, when combined with his new-found focus on attacking the rim make him the least-guard-able player in the NBA (yes, Durant is a tougher cover than LeBron). LeBron’s strength and agility are unparalleled, but if (and these are two big “if’s” the Heat don’t get out in transition, and “if” he’s not particularly warm from distance, LeBron is possible to defend. Jeff Green did a great job on him in the 2nd half of the Celtics double OT win over Miami two weeks ago. Green was physical and persistent, and stifled LeBron effectively. Since then, LeBron went on one of the more dominant stretches of any single player in NBA history.
Back to the Thunder: even though Durant and Westbrook create their own shots with the best of them, a seven-game series against San Antonio, the Clippers or Memphis will test the Thunder’s offense. Ibaka’s fifteen-footer has turned heads this season, at times becoming an unstoppable force. Martin’s corner 3-point accuracy and slashing ability stabilize the bench when Durant gets his eight minutes of rest (Brooks has been smart to limit Durant’s minutes in Jan/Feb blow-outs). The under-reported component might be Westbrook’s less-than-stellar season. After shooting 44% in 2011, and 45.7% in 2012, Westbrook’s field goal percentage sits at an ugly 42.5%. This has to concern Brooks and his staff. While Durant’s MVP season has him hitting at 51.6%, Westbrook’s shooting woes could become a problem in May.
Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul’s knee, Lamar Odom’s conditioning, Eric Bledsoe staying in LA, clutch Crawford threes
The Clippers were the talk of the NBA in December and January, putting together a scintillating 17-game win streak, built on the best 9-man rotation in the league. As we documented in late December, the Clippers’ bench is better than a good number of NBA starting units. When Paul’s knee started screaming at him to shut it down for two weeks, the Clippers’ heart-beat went away and all of that early-season success couldn’t survive life on the road. The Clips lost 7 of 9, but only the Thunder loss was at home. What are the Clippers banking on in order to maintain that early season mojo in April and May? Chris Paul’s knee is priority #1, #2, and #3.
Priority #4, keeping Eric Bledsoe, in part to give Paul a break and in part because he is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league. The CLips need to hold onto Bledsoe despite the fact that many other teams are desperate to take him on and sign him to a long-term deal (he becomes a FA this off-season). Lamar Odom’s rebounding and interior presence allow them to sit Jordan (and his awful free-throw shooting) at the ends of games. The longer the season wears on, the more one wonders if Odom can maintain his conditioning. The Clippers dominance in December went hand-in-hand with Odom’s increased effectiveness and minutes.
Memphis Grizzlies: Conley and Bayless providing the spark and offensive balance
Memphis and Chicago are mirror images of each other…except Chicago has Derrick Rose returning after the All-Star break. Memphis, who traded away some of their scoring in Rudy Gay, have been pleasantly surprised with Jerryd (that’s Jerry + d) Bayless’ performance since the trade (21 pts, 4 reb, 5 asts in 37 minutes/game). Granted, Phoenix’ defense (Bayless smoked them for 29 points) leaves something to be desired. If Conley (whose numbers have dipped recently) can regain the touch he had early on this year, and Bayless continues to provide that Jarrett Jack-like spark he’s been able to recently, Memphis has a legitimate shot at a run once again. As the Clippers and San Antonio have learned in the past two playoffs, Memphis’ defense is about as suffocating as a summertime bus without air conditioning (thanks to Gasol, Randolph and Tony Allen).
Golden State Warriors: Bogut’s foot, Curry’s ankle, Jack’s shoulder, Thompson’s touch, and defensive intensity
Speaking of Jack, the Warriors have fallen on some hard times on the road recently (losing to three playoff teams and then getting blown out at Dallas without any of the above players on the floor except for Klay Thompson. The Warriors will battle it out with Denver for the 5th seed (and the chance to face Memphis–not an appetizing prospect but better than OKC, SA or LAC). The Warriors will need every ounce of feisty energy from Andrew Bogut and his surgically-repaired foot and every quick pull-up transition three-pointer that Steph Curry provides in order to make the noise that the crowd at Oracle literally makes in April. Thanks to Jarrett Jack’s rebirth and Klay Thompson’s hot shooting, this offense isn’t solely dependent on Curry’s shot-making and penetration.
As Bogut increases his minutes, the rust is slowly coming off and the Warriors have, in their best moments, looked like a legitimate “tough out.” Health will be the key. The defensive identity the team developed in November and December has gone away at times, as Bogut’s arrival, which should lead the defense in due time, has changed the rotation.
Understandably, the revamped and defensive-minded Warriors were bound to regress at some point. That defensive energy must return at crucial moments and against the better teams. The three-point arc has been a particular concern for Golden State when they’ve struggled. While David Lee’s offense and board work have been exemplary, can he score against the interior defense of Memphis or the Clippers?
When healthy, Golden State has the offensive balance, the depth and the home crowd to overcome certain limitations. They also have one of the top five shooters, if not the best pure shooter in the NBA. It rests on the health of his ankle.
Denver Nuggets: Can they win on the road? Nuggets dominance at home won’t be enough in post-season
The Nuggets have shown in January and February just what a tough schedule they had in November. With road games making up 75% of their early season slate, the Nuggets hovered around .500. They’ve been devouring teams with their pace in the high altitude of Denver. Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and Javale McGee could all place into an All-NBA 100 meter dash. Lawson and Faried can get out of the blocks in a flash, while McGee in full-stride can make up ground on anyone, as evidenced in his open-court blocks.
As hot as Denver has been, a few facts remain: 1) They haven’t proved that they can win on the road; 2) They have no crunch-time scorer unless you count Gallinari; 3) They are not exactly “playoff-tested.” That said, the Nuggets will be difficult to beat in Denver, no matter what month it is. They can beat Memphis, but it’s unlikely the’d threaten the top 3 seeds in the west, barring injury.
If you need more on the Spurs, here are two links: