Before we survey and project the developing playoff situation in the Western Conference and its top five teams, let us begin by quoting the great philosopher and trash talker Larry Joseph Bird, upon meeting his fellow 3-point contestants in 1988:
“Which one of you is coming in second?”
Because the one element that appears to be missing from this picture, aside from the Phoenix Suns, is suspense at the top of the West. That’s where once again we find the Golden State Warriors, owners of the last four conference banners, fully equipped to bring the heat in springtime again and make it five straight.
> The East: Five teams to watch come playoff time
The issue, then, isn’t whether the Warriors are monopolizing things. It’s more about determining the identity of a potential Warriors slayer and the chances of such a team causing a seismic quake of an upset.
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The discussion starts curiously enough with a team that didn’t even make the playoffs last season. Losing on the final night of the 2017-18 season has served as a motivational face-slap for the Nuggets. They have seared through 2018-19 ever since, residing either at or near the penthouse in the West and desperately wanting to be taken seriously.
For a team with a youthful core lacking in playoff experience, the Nuggets bring the swagger of a been-there, done-that contender and show plenty of staying power. They are a West-best 25-4 at home, but one of those rare losses came in a 31-point spanking the Warriors delivered on Jan. 15 that humbled the Nuggets at least temporarily. The Warriors did not, to paraphrase Nuggets coach Mike Malone, take that L on the way out the door.
However, Denver still brings plenty to the table. They have more depth with the return of Isaiah Thomas, an All-Star center (Nikola Jokic) who runs the offense, a rising star in Jamal Murray and a drastically improved defense. Most importantly, they bring a sense that they belong in the mix.
“If you don't want to give (respect) to us, so what, man? We don't care,” Malone said. “We're going to create our own respect. We're going to do what we do, and ultimately teams will take notice, people will take notice. I think you're starting to see that more and more.”
Jokic poses unique problems for the opposition. He’s a quirky center, comfortable on the perimeter, where he’s clever with back-door passes and is a semi-decent 3-point shooter (30.8 percent). He leads the NBA in post ups and uses his wide body to score in those situations, ranking third in post-up points. With the reduction of quality big men in the NBA, Jokic doesn’t have a peer in terms of all-around skills -- he’s a triple-double threat -- and the only West center with the defensive chops to make him work up a sweat is perhaps the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert.
“He’s got tricks, man,” Oklahoma City Thunder guard Paul George said. “It goes with his nickname, the Joker. He keeps you on your toes and puts on a show every night he’s out there.”
The Nuggets’ flaw is experience and maybe top-shelf mental toughness. They’re 14-14 on the road and only have Thomas and Paul Millsap as their most playoff-tested players. Overall, they’ve never been thrown into the playoff fire. That’s a significant disadvantage to take on against Golden State, especially if it should secure home-court advantage in a series.
Houston is the wildest of wild cards. They were the Warriors’ biggest threat last season, pushing them to (and falling in) Game 7 of the 2018 West finals. The Rockets began this season coping with key injuries and not so successfully at that, starting off 11-14, but have righted the ship since then.
Chris Paul is back after missing 23 games and Clint Capela is scheduled to return from a thumb injury sometime this week. Plus, the Rockets added Kenneth Faried and Iman Shumpert in mid-season deals to bring more experience and depth.
Of course, there’s James Harden, who almost single-handedly lifted the Rockets during their injuries. The reigning Kia MVP has scored 30 or more points in 31 straight games to thrust himself back into the MVP conversation. But all that burn can wear on a player as the calendar flips from April to May. Will Harden still bring heavy minutes and big shots come May and June? And if not, will Paul’s body -- which betrayed him in the 2018 West finals -- hold up to provide necessary support?
“I'm just excited for the second half of the season, getting a full, healthy roster and taking it from there,” Harden said. “We really haven’t hit our stride yet as a team.”
Oklahoma City Thunder
As a contender, Oklahoma City is another strange one. They sport a virtually unchanged roster from last season’s first-round loss to the Jazz, when George was 2-for-16 in the Game 6 ouster. OKC has since collected itself and so has George, 28, who finds himself a serious MVP contender as he enjoys a career season.
Much has been made -- and rightly so -- about how Russell Westbrook has altered his game to benefit George. Here’s Kevin Durant, of all people, on that dynamic:
“I think Paul is just going out there and playing free and understanding what his role is as a go-to scorer for the Thunder,” Durant said. “I think him and Russ have got some nice synergy out there along with their teammates. So, you're just starting to see him shine bright. I think he's always showed this stuff, but I think he has more opportunities to do so.”
Westbrook is averaging a triple-double yet again and has logged an NBA-record 11 straight triple-doubles (and counting). George has become OKC’s savior in clutch moments, ranking seventh in total clutch points. This 1-2 punch is propelling the Thunder up the standings in the West, which makes their determining factor the help. Can Steven Adams, Jerami Grant and assorted others provide the proper mix of aid for OKC to make the Warriors notice?
“We got a lot on this team right now,” George said. “I’m not sure what’s missing. Yes, we’re not in The Finals and we’re not in the playoffs yet. But what we’ve got is enough. Me and Russ can shoulder it and we’ve got enough support around us.”
There are plenty of imperfections among the rest of the field -- the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and the can-you-believe-it Sacramento Kings -- but maybe the Jazz are better built for the postseason than any of them. Utah has two arguments in its favor: Defense and Donovan (Mitchell). That should be enough for the Jazz to again reach the semifinals and, if things break their way, the conference finals.
Mitchell wasn’t an All-Star in 2018-19, but will be someday. And he can get a jump on that support with another strong postseason. He’s certainly capable of that, although after the first few months of the season, you had to wonder.
He struggled with his shot and his command late in games. In addition, Utah was hurt by a difficult early schedule and didn’t rise above .500 for good until Jan. 11. The good news for Utah is the schedule lightened up and Mitchell toughened up.
His efficiency rate improved and his reliability returned, although opposing defenses are forcing him into attacking double teams or giving up the ball. They’re wiser now and the Jazz still haven’t found a solid secondary scorer. Gobert is their No. 2 scorer but he’s more of a clean-up player who doesn’t take volume shots.
The Jazz aim to win with defense and intelligence. With Gobert among the league leaders in blocks and the Utah’s defense back on track, the Jazz rank No. 4 in Defensive Rating (105.4 points per 100 possessions).
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To summarize, which of these four stands the best chance to come in second? Since anything’s possible, we must rate the odds of one of them actually beating the Warriors. That puts the Nuggets and Rockets fairly even in that department, followed by the Thunder and Jazz.
But make no mistake, for obvious reasons, there’s an oceanic gap between that pack and the champs.
“Every year is a new challenge and different circumstances,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said. “But make no mistake, we are motivated. We understand what’s at stake.”
Three straight championships hasn’t happened since the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant-led Lakers of the early 2000s. Four in five years is the stuff of legends, and so the Warriors are seeking a chance to reside with other legendary teams. Besides, with free agency beckoning this summer, there’s no guarantee the fun times will continue much longer.
Other than Draymond Green and Durant’s dust-up and Curry’s 11-game injury absence, Golden State has had few hiccups this season. Everyone on social media had fun with the former, until reality returned and the Warriors reclaimed their place in the NBA (for the regular season anyway).
They’re healthy now and, on some nights, look legendary. They have room to grow, with DeMarcus Cousins still getting his bearings. It’s all good for the Warriors right now, and absent some unforeseen setback, how can they come up short for another Finals trip?
You can argue that, with Cousins aboard, this is the strongest Warriors team in the Steve Kerr era. A championship must bear that out. Remember, the Warriors won an NBA-record 73 games in 2015-16 … only to become the first team to blow a 3-1 Finals lead. That ruined any argument of them delivering the greatest season in league history.
One thing’s for sure: Golden State isn’t having sleepless nights over any team fighting for the right to deny them.
“Being able to hoist that trophy at the end of the season, you can’t put into words how much that means,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson. “Doesn’t matter who’s standing across from us.”
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