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West playoff picture gets crowded

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jan 11 2010 10:46AM

Having missed the playoffs, the 2008-09 Phoenix Suns were thought to have had a bad season. The Shaq experiment was a disaster and Terry Porter's slow-down style had failed. But the Suns finished 10 games above .500 and had a better record than four playoff teams in the East last season.

Now, this isn't another call to change the postseason format. But it is a call to take a close look at the current Western Conference standings.

Right now, there are two teams above .500, New Orleans and Utah, who are on the outside of the playoff picture. But there are also two more teams, Memphis at 18-18 and the Clippers at 17-18, hovering around that 0.500 mark.

Since Nov. 20, both the Grizzlies and Clippers have better records than five of the current playoff teams in the West. They got off to slow starts, but have been playing well for the last seven or eight weeks.

So right now, we've got 12 good teams in the Western Conference. Four of them will miss the playoffs. And is any team other than the Lakers really safe from slipping into the lottery?

Be thankful for your League Pass subscription, because each time two of these teams meet over the next three months, it will be a critical game. For much of the Western Conference, the playoffs start now.

• Last Week: Bumps in the road for the Big Four

Hero Team of the Week: L.A. Clippers (3-0)
Zero Team of the Week: Detroit (0-3)

High jumps of the week: L.A. Clippers (+4), New Orleans (+4), Toronto (+4), Washington (+4)
Free falls of the week: Houston (-5), Memphis (-4), Chicago (-3), Detroit (-3)

East vs. West: The West leads 121-80 (0.602) in inter-conference games and was 12-4 this week.

Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
Off: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league averages through Sunday are 95.4 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 103.9 points scored per 100 possessions.

NBA.com's Power Rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Monday during the season. If you've got an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

TEAM (LAST WEEK) REC. BREAKDOWN
1 Cleveland (2) 29-10 Pace: 93.0 (28), Off: 108.1 (6), Def: 99.9 (4)
The Cavs' defense has been slipping (104.8 rating over the last six games), but they've been sharp offensively. They shot 57 percent against the Wizards on Wednesday and turned the ball over just seven times in Portland on Sunday.
2 L.A. Lakers (1) 29-8 Pace: 97.1 (7), Off: 105.3 (12), Def: 98.1 (1)
Keep a close eye on the Lakers for the rest of January. They've lost three straight on the road, where they play 10 of their next 12, including a tough Texas back-to-back this week. They also play the Magic (home), Cavs (away) and Celtics (away) this month.
3 Boston (3) 26-9 Pace: 94.3 (22), Off: 106.8 (9), Def: 98.1 (2)
As expected, the Celtics' defense has suffered (108.5 rating) with Kevin Garnett out for the last five games. There's no preserving Rajon Rondo, who has averaged more than 45 minutes over the last three, after sitting out a game with a sore hamstring.
4 Dallas (6) 25-12 Pace: 94.5 (19), Off: 105.8 (10), Def: 101.3 (8)
The Mavs were missing Josh Howard and Drew Gooden against Utah on Saturday, but it was their third sub-par defensive game of the last four. They've only dropped two straight once this season, but host the Lakers (who smoked them a week ago) on Wednesday.
5 Portland (5) 23-16 Pace: 89.9 (30), Off: 107.4 (7), Def: 103.5 (15)
It was an interesting week in Blazer-land. Back-to-back losses were followed by a loud "discussion" between Nate McMillan and Andre Miller in practice. Then they got a huge win over the Lakers and almost pulled off a big comeback against the Cavs.
6 Orlando (4) 25-12 Pace: 95.2 (15), Off: 107.2 (8), Def: 100.4 (5)
After losing four straight, Saturday's blowout over the Hawks was critical for the Magic's collective psyche. But the 15 assists on 43 field goals continued a trend of decreased ball movement, which may be why Stan Van Gundy is talking about a lineup change.
7 San Antonio (7) 22-13 Pace: 93.7 (25), Off: 108.8 (4), Def: 101.5 (9)
Tuesday's game between the Spurs and Lakers is definitely a must-watch, but it might have more oomph behind it if San Antonio didn't give up 42 points in the fourth quarter to the Mavs on Friday. Those 12 minutes kept the Spurs out of second place in the West.
8 Phoenix (8) 23-14 Pace: 98.7 (4), Off: 111.9 (1), Def: 107.7 (26)
The Suns have been improved since Christmas, but still haven't won three straight since November. Steve Nash's 30 turnovers over the last five games are the most of any five-game stretch of his career. He still runs the league's most efficient offense.
9 Atlanta (9) 23-13 Pace: 94.0 (23), Off: 108.9 (2), Def: 103.3 (14)
Though they were only two games removed from a 2-6 stretch, the Hawks had a chance to take the Southeast lead on Saturday. But they fell flat and got blown out in Florida for the second time in six days. They're looking to go 3-0 against the Celtics on Monday.
10 Denver (10) 23-14 Pace: 98.0 (5), Off: 108.8 (3), Def: 104.3 (18)
The Nuggets' last four games have all been determined by three points or less. Chauncey Billups' return helped in Friday's win over the Cavs, but the team's mediocre defense couldn't stop Tyreke Evans a night later. Carmelo Anthony is expected back Monday.
TEAM (LAST WEEK) REC. BREAKDOWN
11 Oklahoma City (12) 20-16 Pace: 94.8 (16), Off: 103.1 (21), Def: 101.0 (6)
Kevin Durant is on one of those runs. He's averaging 32.7 points on a scorching 57 percent shooting over the last 10 games. The Thunder are just 2-9 against the other seven playoff teams in the West and play two of them (Spurs and Mavs) this week.
12 Toronto (16) 19-19 Pace: 95.2 (14), Off: 108.4 (5), Def: 110.1 (30)
It's funny that the Chris Bosh trade rumors got out of control with the Raptors playing their best ball of the season. Before Sunday's loss to the Celtics, they had won eight of their last nine, and they're still within a half game of the Heat for fifth in the East.
13 New Orleans (17) 19-16 Pace: 94.3 (21), Off: 103.7 (18), Def: 105.8 (20)
The Hornets have won six straight and had their best offensive game of the season (115 points on 98 possessions) Sunday in Washington. With the Sixers, Clippers, Pistons and Pacers this week, they've got a shot at climbing into the top seven in the West.
14 Utah (14) 20-17 Pace: 94.8 (17), Off: 104.4 (14), Def: 102.6 (12)
The Utah offense had been asleep for a few weeks, but seems to have woken up. They had six guys in double-figures and four with at least four assists on the road against a good defensive team (Dallas) on Saturday. That's a good sign.
15 Miami (15) 18-17 Pace: 93.6 (26), Off: 104.0 (17), Def: 102.4 (11)
Despite Rajon Rondo's last second alley-oop on Wednesday, it was looking like a pretty strong week for Dwyane Wade and the Heat ... until Sunday's loss to the Clippers. They had as little energy in L.A. as the Hawks had in Miami on Monday.
16 Houston (11) 21-16 Pace: 95.7 (11), Off: 103.6 (19), Def: 103.9 (16)
Saturday's win over the Knicks ended the Rockets' first three-game losing streak of the season. Their only win in their last six road games was in New Jersey, but they play nine of their next 11 at the Toyota Center, where they've won seven straight.
17 Memphis (13) 18-18 Pace: 96.2 (9), Off: 105.8 (11), Def: 107.8 (27)
The Grizzlies got two out of three against the Blazers and Jazz this week, but were anemic offensively on Saturday in Charlotte. They're now 0-8, the only winless team other than the Nets, on the second night of back-to-backs. They've got another this week.
18 L.A. Clippers (22) 17-18 Pace: 94.4 (20), Off: 102.1 (22), Def: 103.1 (13)
Since getting whooped in Phoenix on Christmas, the Clippers have beat the Celtics, Blazers and Lakers, have been playing great defense (97.4 rating over six games), and have their longest winning streak (four games) in 26 months.
19 New York (18) 15-21 Pace: 96.0 (10), Off: 104.2 (15), Def: 105.3 (19)
The Knicks have yet to crack the top eight in the East, but they've got a pretty weak schedule over the next four weeks, playing Detroit, Minnesota and Washington twice each. Wilson Chandler is averaging 19.5 points on 55 percent shooting since Christmas.
20 Charlotte (20) 16-19 Pace: 93.4 (27), Off: 98.0 (27), Def: 98.8 (3)
Gerald Wallace's game-winning put-back on Saturday may have been the best instinctual play of the year. At 4-1, Charlotte is the East's best team in 2010. Interestingly, their only loss (Thursday in New York) came when they had a season-low seven turnovers.
TEAM (LAST WEEK) REC. BREAKDOWN
21 Milwaukee (23) 15-19 Pace: 95.5 (12), Off: 99.0 (25), Def: 101.1 (7)
It took only 13 games for Michael Redd to get injured again. The Bucks have actually been better defensively (-2.3 points per 100 possessions) and much worse offensively (-5.9) since Redd's return. He'll have an MRI on his left knee Monday in Phoenix.
22 Chicago (19) 15-20 Pace: 95.2 (13), Off: 96.9 (29), Def: 101.8 (10)
Having lost three straight before Saturday's home win over the Wolves (which doesn't really count), the Bulls are back on a downswing. Amazingly, they've shot better from 3-point range (46 percent) than from two (44 percent) over their last five games.
23 Sacramento (21) 15-21 Pace: 97.3 (6), Off: 105.1 (13), Def: 107.6 (25)
The Kings' schedule over the last nine games has been brutal, and they needed Tyreke Evans' game-winner on Saturday to pick up their second win in that stretch. It doesn't get much easier, as they host the Magic on Tuesday and then begin a six-game trip.
24 Golden State (25) 11-24 Pace: 103.3 (1), Off: 103.2 (20), Def: 108.2 (29)
Even if Don Nelson isn't a big fan of Anthony Randolph, most of the league is. So a Randolph injury is about the worst thing that can happen to the Warriors. A CT scan on his left ankle revealed no fracture, but Randolph will have an MRI on Monday.
25 Washington (29) 12-23 Pace: 96.8 (8), Off: 102.1 (23), Def: 106.2 (21)
Antawn Jamison or Caron Butler may not be around for much longer, but Friday's win over the Magic was evidence that the Wizards, as they currently stand, are still dangerous. Sunday's loss to the Hornets was evidence that they still can't defend.
26 Philadelphia (24) 11-25 Pace: 93.8 (24), Off: 104.0 (16), Def: 107.9 (28)
Eddie Jordan did not get much of an endorsement on Friday from Ed Stefanski. Of course, Stefanski is far from faultless when it comes to the this disaster. The Sixers wasted Sam Dalembert's 20-20 game and an 18-point lead against the Wizards on Tuesday.
27 Minnesota (28) 8-30 Pace: 98.8 (3), Off: 97.1 (28), Def: 107.2 (24)
The Yahoo! Sports report that the Wolves offered Al Jefferson for Danny Granger shouldn't be a big surprise if you've been watching Kevin Love. Defense is still an issue, but the Wolves have been much better offensively and on the boards since Love's return.
28 Indiana (27) 11-25 Pace: 99.9 (2), Off: 98.3 (26), Def: 103.9 (17)
Danny Granger returned from a 16-game absence on Friday and didn't hesitate to put shots up. He took 40 of them (20 from 3-point range) in the Pacers' two losses over the weekend. Only connecting on 13 of the 40, he didn't give his team much of a lift.
29 Detroit (26) 11-24 Pace: 90.8 (29), Off: 99.9 (24), Def: 106.9 (22)
The Pistons were in seventh place in the East and just a game under .500 before this 12-game losing streak began. The season hit a new low when they scored just 30 first-half points against the 28th ranked Philly defense on Saturday.
30 New Jersey (30) 3-34 Pace: 94.6 (18), Off: 94.7 (30), Def: 107.1 (23)
The Nets have begun to trim some of the fat off their roster, waiving Rafer Alston and Sean Williams and trading Eduardo Najera. More deals may be in the works, but probably nothing that will impact their cap situation or provide a contender with a key contributor.
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