Wild weekend ahead in the Western Conference

NBA.com Global on Apr 07, 2018 08:18 AM
Wild weekend ahead in the Western Conference
SAN ANTONIO, TX - FEBRUARY 28: Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs dunks against the New Orleans Pelicans on February 28, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

The Western Conference is indeed wild as the regular season gets closer to the tape, with just a handful of games separating fourth place and 10th, raising all sorts of confusion regarding playoff teams and seeding. This makes for a mob scene between now and Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time), when the season ends and everyone can breathe easier.

Well, at least those teams that make the cut.

Nobody’s completely safe headed into the weekend because nobody has managed to break from the seven-team pack that for now seems glued together. Unlike many teams at the bottom of the standings, these squads want to keep their season alive.

With the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz all in the mix for seeds No. 4-8, somebody’s headed for disappointment (maybe even on the final day of the season).

Why are there so many teams in this mix? Well, the Spurs likely wouldn’t be here if Kawhi Leonard were healthy, and same goes for New Orleans, perhaps, if DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t done for the year. The Clippers traded Blake Griffin at the deadline to free themselves from that gargantuan contract -- a contract they gladly gave him just months earlier -- and therefore this is the downside to that trade. And Minnesota has played the last month without Jimmy Butler, the leader and defensive ace of the young Wolves.

The West, once again, has teeth and two teams with winning records will not make the playoffs. It’s a terribly deep conference that’s both top-heavy (Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets) and playoff bubble-heavy.

Here’s a look at those who still have the right to dream about playing beyond Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) and some critical games between now and then:

Utah Jazz

Remaining games: Three (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, PHL time)

Key remaining game: Wednesday (PHL time) vs. Golden State Warriors

Since center Rudy Gobert returned, Utah is 28-7 (losing a pair to the Hawks) making the Jazz one of the NBA’s better teams since early January. Rather than retreat into the lottery after the first two months and when Gobert pulled up lame, they surged and fought their way to the thick of the race. Barring an unexpected collapse, they stand a decent chance at seeing their hard work pay off. Gobert’s return obviously helped Utah’s defense, which is the team’s main weapon. But the continued steady play of rookie Donovan Mitchell has also led the turnaround. Mitchell is the rare rookie who leads his team in scoring at 20.4 ppg and serves as the go-to guy in tight games. None of Utah’s three remaining opponents (Lakers, Warriors, Blazers) have anything on the line in those games and the last two could rest key players in preparation for the playoffs. Their doing that would only enhance Utah’s odds. This would be a semi-amazing run for a team that lost Gordon Hayward last summer and couldn’t help but feel bummed at the time.

San Antonio Spurs

Remaining games: Three (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, PHL time)

Key remaining game: Thursday (PHL time) at New Orleans Pelicans

The Spurs are looking to extend their playoff streak to 21 seasons, but it won’t come without some suspense and sweat, something the Spurs aren’t used to feeling this late in the regular season. Yes, it’s early April and instead of resting players, the proud Spurs are forced to push themselves to the limit. After they breathed life into their season at the end of March, a bad few days in Los Angeles where they blew a 19-point lead to the Clippers and swallowed a grapefruit against the undermanned Lakers put them back on the burner. Pau Gasol said their margin for error gets “slimmer and slimmer,” which is also the odds of Kawhi returning from his injury to rescue them down the stretch. As it is, the Spurs will not win 50 games for 19 straight years but that was fairly apparent since the All-Star break. LaMarcus Aldridge is doing his best Franchise Player impersonation and has had some monster games lately (35 points against the Clippers, 45 vs. Utah, 30 vs. Minny) but on the flip side, Tony Parker looks gassed (2-for-10 shooting in the two LA games). If their fate comes down to the final game, it’ll be in New Orleans against another team that could be fighting for a playoff spot, and here’s the deal: San Antonio has dropped 11-of-12 on the road.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Remaining games: Three (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, PHL time)

Key remaining game: Saturday (Sunday, PHL time) at Houston Rockets

We’ve spent the last six months trying to figure them out and guess what? Nobody has figured them out. Despite Russell Westbrook on pace to average a triple-double for the second straight season and Paul George giving an All-Star effort and the addition of Carmelo Anthony as a third scoring option, OKC sits on the playoff fence and gives no hint of what it’s capable of doing on a night-in and night-out basis, even here in April. This hot-cold personality will only hike the mystery about their playoff chances and/or playoff seeding. They’ve lost five out of seven and the crusher was at home against the equally-desperate Nuggets, which raised an important question: What’s with George? He’s had some troubling shooting nights here in the stretch: 4-of-15 field goals vs. Portland, 4-of-12 vs. Denver, 5-of-19 vs. Golden State. That has forced Westbrook into old habits where he dominates the ball and loses trust in his teammates during crucial moments. More troubling is OKC’s defense; the Thunder have held only two team below 100 points since March 11 (Mar. 12, PHL time). Is this where they’re missing Andre Roberson? It would help if OKC got consistent production from the bench aside from Corey Brewer. The remaining schedule looks fairly favorable for OKC and it ends in Memphis, but again, this is a team that’s had some really bad L’s this season (Dallas twice, Phoenix, Brooklyn, Charlotte), so who knows?

New Orleans Pelicans

Remaining games: Four (Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, PHL time))

Key remaining games: Sunday (PHL time) at Golden State Warriors; Tuesday (PHL time) at LA Clippers; Thursday (PHL time) vs. San Antonio Spurs

Remember when Anthony Davis was on fire and the Pelicans found themselves sitting in fourth place? Well, an untimely and potentially costly four-game losing streak pushed them to the edge until the Grizzlies showed up on the schedule. Such is life in the West. Now the Pelicans face a somewhat daunting three road games in four nights and then close at home against the Spurs who might have a reason to win that game. It’s the toughest finish of all the playoff contenders in the West, and it will rightly require a superb effort from Davis to carry them through. The Pelicans are getting steady direction from Rajon Rondo (10 assists average the last three games) and Jrue Holiday but the rest of the cast is unpredictable. Basically, Davis can’t afford to have a mild impact game, and lucky for New Orleans, those are rare for him. There’s probably more at stake for the Pelicans making the playoffs than most teams. If they fail, will there be major changes in the basketball operation? Or can coach Alvin Gentry and GM Dell Demps play their Boogie Cousins Got Hurt card and survive? Davis can spare them the drama by going Superman over the next few days and grabbing a playoff spot.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Remaining games: Three (Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, PHL time)

Key remaining games: Thursday (PHL time) vs. Denver Nuggets

Maybe the real question regarding the Wolves is this: How in the heck did they find themselves in this spot in the first place? Yes, Butler’s injury was an obvious disadvantage, yet the Wolves with Tom Thibodeau, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins should be better than this. For some reason, this team seems to underachieve, which is why they’re suddenly fighting for survival. Here’s a fun fact: Since February 2 (Feb. 3, PHL time) the Wolves have only beaten two winning teams (and one was the Warriors minus Steph Curry), proof that Minny might not be ready to be lumped with the big dogs just yet. And, how do you lose to Memphis, as the Wolves did a week ago? The mental toughness needed for the playoffs needs improving. In addition, they’re still not strong defensively and don’t always close out games, and again, this is surprising given the reputation of their coach. The return of Jeff Teague will help and eventually so will Butler, now suiting up following a knee issue. Still, Minnesota needs more from a bench that hasn’t helped much.

Denver Nuggets

Remaining games: Three (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, PHL time)

Key remaining games: Sunday (PHL time) at LA Clippers; Tuesday (PHL time) at Portland Trail Blazers, Thursday (PHL time) at Minnesota Timberwolves

Much like the Timberwolves, this team has too much talent to find itself on the fringe. Yes, Paul Millsap missing 43 games didn’t help, and Gary Harris sitting with knee issues only adds to their misery. But once Harris returns the Nuggets will be whole for the first time in a while. In the meantime, it’s up to Millsap, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Will Barton to finish up strong. The Nuggets are a balanced scoring team that can turn to a few players in desperate times, mainly Murray and Jokic, but also lack the lead-singer type of player who can completely take over games. Jokic has been burning up the minutes (40 per over the last five games) and giving quality production at the rim and with his passing. The Nuggets have already ensured their first winning season since 2012-13, so progress has been made.

LA Clippers

Remaining games: Three (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, PHL time)

Key remaining games: Sunday (PHL time) vs. Denver Nuggets, Tuesday (PHL time) vs. New Orleans Pelicans

They’re on life support, but if we’re being honest and fair, the Clippers face the least amount of heat compared to the others. That’s because they weren’t fully expected to compete for a playoff spot after losing both Chris Paul (before the season) and Griffin (at midseason) and dealing with a rash of injuries to the remaining cast. This team could’ve folded the tent and looked toward next season after losing Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley, and that’s a credit to everyone involved. It would’ve been something had they grabbed the No. 8 spot and faced old friend CP3 in the first round.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting. 

Latest News