Western Conference Playoff Situation

by Rob Veno - Date: 2007-03-09 - Word Count: 957 Share This!

It was mid-January when San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich stated that his team was a good two months away from being where they want to be. It is now the beginning of March and the Spurs are a bit ahead of schedule, speeding like a locomotive with their sights directly on the targets. Dallas and Phoenix which are currently being projected by most as the participants in May's Western Conference Championship series need to beware. During their current eight game winning streak which started on February 13th just a tad before the All-Star break, the Spurs defense has been impenetrable. The trademark of this team has taken center stage once again as six of the eight opponents San Antonio has disposed of, scored 82 points or less. Did anybody even notice that in San Antonio's 97-74 destruction of Houston last Saturday night that the starting backcourt was Jacque Vaughn and Brent Barry? Star point guard Tony Parker is nursing a hip injury (check his status this week) but while the defense didn't skip a beat, the offense put up a solid 97 points themselves. The offense which during the Tim Duncan era has been pedestrian more often than not, has suddenly caught fire. In six of the eight games during this winning streak, San Antonio has shot between 51%-54%. The outstanding offensive performance is a product of Duncan playing better than he has all season. This team is multi-faceted in the fact that they have the entire inside-outside package offensively but it all starts and ends with Duncan's efficiency. He and his team look as if they're possessed right now and they're current 7-1 pointspread mark as of this writing looks to be a horse we may want to ride for a while.

While Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio are clearly the top three teams in this conference, Utah right now looks to me as if they have the potential to pull a series upset. Now that they are fully healthy, the Jazz are on another dominant run going 5-1 both straight up and against the spread in their last six games with all of the wins coming by double-digits. The starting frontline of Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur is arguably the best in the conference and certainly one that poses problems for everybody. The leadership and production on both ends provided in the backcourt by second year point Derron Williams has been remarkable and having veteran Derek Fisher as his backup places Utah in the upper echelon at this position. Shooting guard and overall defense are the areas where this team just doesn't measure up with the big boys and those deficiencies will likely be their downfall in the end.

Houston is patiently awaiting the return of center Yao Ming and once he returns, they'll be a beast as well. It will probably take a couple weeks for Ming to get fully integrated back into the Rockets lineup but once he does, Houston will instantly become as diverse on both ends as anybody in the West. The supporting cast here has played outstanding and the forward tandem of Shane Battier and Juwaan Howard is the most unsung duo in the game right now. Guards Rafer Alston and Luther Head are providing extra offense while falling into Head Coach Jeff Van Gundy's defensive minded system. Having defensive deterrent and shot blocker extraordinaire Dikembe Mutombo in relief of Ming will make Houston even tougher. They're in a bit of a rut right now going just 3-6 ATS heading into Monday night's game at Cleveland but I expect a pointspread run out of this team a couple weeks from now and they'll be a handful in the playoffs.

With the Lakers seemingly in the six spot by default, they have a chance to weather their injuries and experiment some on defense during the remainder of the regular season. The race is at the bottom where eight teams are separated by just five games for the seventh and eighth seeds. I'm going to project Denver as the seven and I also firmly believe that they will post a 60% pointspread record (15-10) over the course of their final 25 games. This has been a good road team (13-13 SU/14-11-1 ATS) and I have to believe they'll eventually begin to consistently defend their home court. That being said, the final spot is the one where any of seven predictions can be argued and I'll take the side of the New Orleans Hornets who have an easier remaining schedule than Sacramento and are a better team than the discombobulated Los Angeles Clippers. The Hornets are young and have absolutely zero veteran leadership and very little bench but while Sacramento does not get a single home game against the Eastern Conference the rest of the way out, New Orleans gets three. I like the Kings better as a team because they have veterans who have experienced stretch runs before but in a race that figures to be unbelievably tight, the three home games for the Hornets versus the Knicks, Boston and New Jersey should give them a spot in the playoffs.

In closing, I'll leave one Western Conference sub .500 team that I feel will be a moneymaker over their final 23 games. My play on team is the Seattle Supersonics who I like right now from an ATS perspective. The frontline is active on each end of the floor, they've got a pair of premier scoring threats, their point guard play has picked up with the combo of Luke Ridnour and Ear Watson, and I like their recent direction focusing on defense (allowed 98 or less in five of their last six games). Watch for Seattle as a pointspread darling down the stretch.

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