The NBA’s Western Conference has had some clear structure and definition throughout the season. San Antonio and Oklahoma City were the co-favorites, the Denver-Memphis-LA Clippers troika was next, and the Los Angeles Lakers were the soap opera that sucked up all the media oxygen in the room with whether they could make the playoffs or not. The teams that mostly slid under the radar were Golden State and Houston. Each has solidified their playoff position. Now’s the time to ask if they’re a live dog that can challenge a favorite in the first round. Answering that question will the focal point of today’s NBA commentary.
Both teams play at a rapid pace—in fact, no one in the NBA pushes a faster pace than the Rockets, with Jeremy Lin at the controls and James Harden as his running mate. Harden has taken advantage of the opportunity to escape the shadow of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and is averaging 26 ppg, to go with six assists per game. With 44 percent shooting from the floor, Harden is doing it with a fair amount of efficiency for the number of shots he takes. More importantly, he gives Houston the superstar presence that NBA teams need if they’re going to win a big playoff series.
What Houston does not do very well is play defense, ranking a little bit below the league average in efficiency. Please note that the efficiency ranking factors in the pace of the game, so the Rockets’ up-and-down approach can’t be used as an excuse. They do rebound the ball well, led by 26-year-old center Omer Asik, who averages 12 rebounds a game. And they’re certainly not shy about gunning the three-ball. This team leads the league in three-point shot attempts—something we certainly don’t need to remind Golden State of. The Rockets buried a record-tying 23 treys in an early February game against the Warriors and Golden State was reduced to intentionally fouling to prevent a new record from being set.
My problem with the Rockets—in addition to the biggie of their defense—is the lack of quality depth. Chandler Parsons is a good secondary scorer, getting 15 ppg, but there’s not a lot coming off the bench. I love the trade this team made at the deadline to get 22-year-old power forward Thomas Robinson from Sacramento. I think Robinson, under the tutelage of head coach Kevin McHale can become an outstanding power forward in this league. But that’s for future years. Right now, Robinson is nowhere near ready to contribute significantly in a playoff series.
If you pick the Rockets to win a playoff series you’re essentially asking James Harden to almost personally carry you past a good team four times in two weeks, to stay hot from three-point range and to continue an up-tempo pace at a time when most games become more of a grind. I’m rooting for the Rockets, because as a Boston fan I feel a certain loyalty to McHale—and he’s one of my all-time favorite NBA players to boot—but it’s tough to see Houston winning a playoff series in 2013.
Now let’s go to the great sports city of San Francisco—they have the World Series champ, they have a team that came within one play of winning the Super Bowl, and the Rose Bowl winner is nearby. The Warriors’ turnaround to make the playoffs under Jackson has already marked them part of the city’s success. Is there more success in the offing?
Golden State is similar to Houston in that they play up-tempo and are better offensively, than they are defensively, but the gap isn’t quite as pronounced as it is with the Rockets. Jackson has turned the Warriors in a team that competes on the defensive end. To continue the comparison, Golden State isn’t as dependent on the three-ball, but also lags a little bit behind Houston in rebounding.
The Warriors do have legitimate stars, in power forward David Lee and point guard Stephen Curry, The inside-out combo produces 52 points a game, and you can mix in two-guard Klay Thompson and his 16 ppg. Golden State has their own talented young forward under development in 20-year-old Harrison Barnes. The North Carolina product only averages 9 ppg, but like Robinson in Houston, he has the talent to become a playoff series-altering star.
If center Andrew Bogut really gets physical down low, I could see Golden State pulling off an upset, obviously pending what matchup they draw. Bogut gets seven rebounds a game, which isn’t a disgrace, but it’s not enough for a non-offensive center who goes 7’0”. If Bogut was grabbing a dozen boards or so during the playoffs, something that would also open up opportunities in transition, this could be a scary team.
Golden State is 43-32, with Houston a game back at 42-33. The race between the two is significant, because the lower finisher will draw the #2 seed, which means either San Antonio or Oklahoma City. Which means elimination. But to play the 3-seed means that, as the bracket stands right now you get Denver. The Nuggets are noted for their lack of stars, and any one of Lee, Curry or Harden would be the best player on the floor in a series with Denver. A potential matchup with Memphis would have a similar dynamic. The Clippers have the star power, but also lack the discipline of OkC or San Antonio and would be vulnerable.
We should also note that the Warriors and Rockets have a record that would position either in the 4-spot in the Eastern Conference bracket—and likely higher if they actually played an Eastern Conference-heavy schedule. It’s one more example of the disparity between the conferences and how it hurts up-and-coming teams like these.
THE WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
The Lakers are currently holding the 8-spot, though they are three games back of Houston with just seven to play. The talk of a couple weeks ago about how Los Angeles might get to that 6-spot has gone away. Although LA’s win over Dallas on Tuesday night realistically pushed the Mavericks out of the picture and effectively turned the race for the final berth into a two-team affair with Utah, currently a game out.
Oklahoma City beat San Antonio last night and the teams are tied in the loss column for the top spot. Denver is a half-game up on Memphis for the 3-seed, though the teams are tied in the loss column, with the Clippers two games behind. Note that as a likely division champ, the Clips can’t technically be seeded lower than 4th, although if their record is worse than the 5-seed, homecourt would be given to the team in the 5-hole (currently Memphis).
If you find that confusing and bizarre, you’re not the only one. I agree with the notion of guaranteeing a division champ a certain seed. I understand if you disagree and just want to seed by record. The NBA approach of trying to split the difference is stupid and needs to go. Just pick an approach and be consistent.