By Norm Elrod
(CBS SF/CBS Local) — The stretch run for the NBA Playoffs begins tonight, with the Golden State Warriors sitting atop the standings. They’re the NBA Finals favorite out of the West, and seem almost destined to extend their streak of championships. But they’re not the only contender, as the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder continue to keep pace.
The rest of the West includes plenty of familiar faces, the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers among them, though none that seems capable of toppling a dynasty. One noticeable absence is the Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James, who hasn’t missed the playoffs in 13 years. They sit in 10th place, with the hungry Sacramento Kings just above them in the standings.
How does the Western Conference Playoff race look?
Golden State Warriors (41-16)
With the playoff race officially underway, the Warriors sit atop the competitive West. This may be their last chance at adding to the dynasty, or it may not. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are both among the NBA’s top five scorers, putting up 28.6 and 27.6 points per game respectively, with Curry making an impressive 44.4% of his threes. Klay Thompson adds another 21.9 points, and DeMarcus Cousins contributes 13.9 in limited minutes, as the team leads the League in scoring with 118.8 points per game. The Warriors have made the NBA Finals the last four years, winning three of the series. And they’re favored to win it all again; indeed their chances are better than those of every other team combined.
Denver Nuggets (39-18)
The Nuggets might be the biggest surprise in the West, not because they’re contenders, but because they’re contenders despite the injuries. Three of the team’s five starters, including Will Barton and Gary Harris, have missed significant time this season. However, Nikola Jokic is averaging 20.4 points per game, along with 10.6 rebounds and 7.7 assists on an offense that caters to his strengths. And their bench has stepped up, time and time again. Denver only puts up 112 points per game, worse than every other current playoff team in the Western Conference except the Utah Jazz. But they’re also among the NBA’s better defensive teams, allowing only 107.1 points per game. The defense has slipped some of late (something a healthy Isaiah Thomas won’t help), and that may affect their seeding down the stretch. Still, the Nuggets will be a tough out in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder (37-20)
Russell Westbrook isn’t quite the player he’s been in past seasons, and yet he’s still special. In his 11th season, his scoring has slipped to 21.7 points per game, over a point below his career average. But he’s leading the League with 11.2 assists, a full two assists ahead of Kyle Lowry. And he’s pulling down 11.2 rebounds, as a point guard. Paul George, the NBA’s second-leading scorer with 28.7 points per game, is now the go-to guy in OKC. Bench scoring has been an issue with the Thunder, but the addition of Markieff Morris should help down the stretch. With a one-time MVP, a current MVP candidate, and strong team defense, the Thunder may actually climb into the two seed in the West, setting up a potential rendezvous with the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Portland Trail Blazers (34-23)
The Trail Blazers find themselves in a precarious position. Climbing into a better seed seems unlikely, unless the Nuggets really fade, but slipping into a worse seed seems very possible, given the logjam just below them in the standings. Three games separate the fourth through the eighth seed, and at least one of those teams probably has a winning streak in them. The Blazers added Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter in the last couple weeks. While Kanter will be a good fill-in for Jusuf Nurkic (at least on offense), the roster boost won’t improve their fortunes much. As usual, this team will go as far as its back court can take them. Damian Lillard is putting together another stellar season, averaging 26.3 points per outing, while CJ McCollum contributes another 21 points per game. Will that be enough this season? It hasn’t been before.
Houston Rockets (33-24)
James Harden is scoring at an insane clip. His 36.6 points per game, should he keep it up, would top all but one of Michael Jordan’s seasons and put him in Wilt Chamberlain territory. It’s almost eight points more than Paul George, the NBA’s second-leading scorer. The Rockets’ iffy start, combined with injury woes, has forced Harden to put the team on his shoulders. Relying so heavily on one scorer isn’t a recipe for playoff success, however. With Chris Paul rounding back into form and Clint Capela due to return this week, Harden may finally get some consistent help. The Rockets will still have to figure out how to play something that resembles defense; their current 112.2 defensive rating puts them on par with teams destined for the lottery. Without a more team-oriented approach, that includes effort at both ends of the court, this team isn’t going anywhere.
Utah Jazz (32-25)
The Utah Jazz’s team scoring numbers — 109.2 points per game — are among the worst of any team still in the playoff hunt. And yet they’re seven games above .500 coming out of the All-Star break. They do it with defense; their 105.4 defensive rating is fourth best in the NBA. Donovan Mitchell is averaging 22.4 points per game in his second season, while Rudy Gobert hauls in 12.9 rebounds. The Jazz will enjoy one of the League’s easiest schedules down the stretch and have shown they can win the games they’re supposed to. This team could easily climb into the four seed.
San Antonio Spurs (33-26)
Any Gregg Popovich-coached team has a shot at, an in, the playoffs. His Spurs have qualified for the postseason in every season of his coaching tenure, except the first. That’s 21 straight playoff appearances. While another berth is far from assured, it’s hard to bet against that kind of history. DeMar DeRozan’s scoring numbers in San Antonio — 21.4 points per game — line up with his production in Toronto. Likewise, LaMarcus Aldridge, with his 21 points per game, remains true to form. What is out of character is the Spurs’ defense. The team’s 111.5 defensive rating on the season is nothing to write home about, but its 118.8 rating over the last 10 games is positively atrocious. Pop’s Spurs probably aren’t looking at a deep playoff run from a low seed. But in a close race, that kind of defense could keep them out entirely.
Los Angeles Clippers (32-27)
Only one Los Angeles team is currently in the playoffs, and it isn’t LeBron’s Lakers. The Clippers find themselves hanging on to the eight seed. Making the playoffs will cost them a first-round pick, and the difference may come down to just a few wins. Tobias Harris, their leading scorer before the trade deadline, is now with the Philadelphia 76ers. But Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari continue to chip in 19.9 and 18.7 points per game respectively. The Clippers can still score, and haven’t showed any signs of letting up yet. They dropped 134 points on the hapless Phoenix Suns in their last game before the break. Will the Clippers yield the final playoff spot to the Sacramento Kings, who desperately want to end their playoff drought? Or will they look to climb out of the Warriors’ first-round cross hairs?