With apologies to the Rockets, Blazers and Warriors, three formidable but ultimately flawed teams that will be hard-pressed to win even one round of the playoffs let alone two of them, I think the overwhelming likelihood is that the Western Conference Finals will consist of two of the three teams between the Spurs, Thunder and the Clippers. After all, two of those three will probably meet in the second round while whoever emerges as the one seed will be heavily favored in the conference semis against whoever comes out of that Rockets-Blazers-Warriors pig pile.
Just for kicks, let's look closer at what's been going on with the other Western contenders. Later we'll tackle Miami and Indiana out in the East.
First off is the Oklahoma City Thunder, the squad that will pose the stiffest test of anyone because they have three elite-level athletes. (I wouldn't quite put Dwyane Wade in this category at this stage of his career and I'm not even sure about Chris Bosh, to be honest.)
You're probably aware that the Thunder have been struggling of late, having lost six of their past 11 games, but I bet you don't know the extent of their struggles, relative to what we've become accustomed to from them. For one thing, nine of those 11 games have been at home, but the Thunder have only won five of those nine. For another, the schedule hasn't quite been a "Murderer's Row." They've played four teams below .400 in winning percentage; the Lakers twice, the Cavs and the woeful Sixers, and have gone only 2-2 in those games. They've also played fringe playoff teams in both conferences, the Mavs, Suns, Grizzlies and Bobcats, teams that are going to be one-and-done in the postseason if they make it at all, and have gone 2-2 against them as well. They've lost convincingly to the Heat --at home-- and to the Clippers, and beat only the Rockets, in a match-up they seem to own, as they're 3-0 against Houston this season, beating them twice without Russell Westbrook.
Indeed Westbrook's return to the lineup has coincided with the Thunder's 11-game slide, but the much-maligned Kendrick Perkins hurt his groin in that Heat game and has been out since, while noted defensive ace (though his individual numbers haven't shown it this year) Thabo Sefolosha has missed the past seven and may be out until the playoffs.
So, just how badly has the Thunder's defense struggled of late? Well, in these 11 games they're allowing 108.3 points-per-game, on 46.6 percent shooting, and .429 percent from threes. During this stretch they've allowed 10.9 threes a game, on 25.4 attempts. If those were their averages for the whole season, they'd rank 28th in points-per-game, 26th in field goal percentage, dead last in three-point percentage (by a mile), dead last in threes-per-game (ditto) and dead last in three-point attempts allowed.
Before these last 11 games, the Thunder were allowing 97.6 points on 43.0 percent shooting and 8.1 threes on 23.8 attempts, a conversion rate of 34.1 percent. Those numbers would rank 6th, 2nd, 20th, 27th and 3rd. (It seems slump or no slump the Thunder will give up a lot of threes with their paint-packing defensive philosophy.)
While I don't think it'd be responsible to blame all their defensive woes on Westbrook, there's no doubt that his manic, helter-skelter style does put their half-court defense in some compromised positions. He watches the ball too much, which sets up back cuts, and he gambles for steals, allowing 4-on-3s behind him. Even more damaging has been the increased reliance on youngsters like Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Roberson, not to mention foul-prone bigs Steven Adams and Hasheem Thabeet and graybeard Derek Fisher. It also hasn't escaped my notice that Kevin Durant has gone full-on James Harden since the All-Star break in an attempt to conserve energy. Aside from Serge Ibaka, who's a plus defender on the Thunder right now?
The other thing that I found interesting is that coach Scotty Brooks sat Westbrook against the Mavs (perhaps wisely) since it was the first game of a back-to-back and they're still trying to be cautious with him after he's missed so many games with multiple knee surgeries. The Thunder still have five more back-to-backs on the season, and nine of their final 15 will be on the road, including visits to Toronto, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, the Clippers and Indiana, as well as a home date with the Spurs. You also wonder if at some point Brooks will feel the urge to rest Durant, who will crack the 2,500 minute mark at Chicago Monday night and leads the league in minutes played.
There's no doubt that the Thunder can right their ship and win it all, especially if they find themselves matched up against the Pacers in the Finals. They put together a 22-4 run with Westbrook before he was shutdown after their Christmas day win over the Knicks and had another 10-game winning streak without him over the second half of January. One wonders though if the team wasn't subconsciously deflated by the beat-down the Heat handed them, on their home floor, and a collective "what's the point?" mentality didn't enter the locker room. It's going to be asking a lot for these guys to discover their defensive mojo on the fly when Perkins and Sefolosha return, and unlike the Eastern Conference they won't have the benefit of a warm-up series in the first round. It would still be a massive upset, of course, for them to lose to Dallas or Memphis, but I have to think the Thunder are praying they get the Rockets or Blazers in round two, as opposed to the Warriors or Clippers.
[Postscript: The Thunder won at Chicago, 97-85. They didn't play particularly well, but the garbage Bulls offense missed about a million open threes. Brooks played Durant 42 minutes, because of course he did.]
Speaking of the Clips, it's hard to tell what, if anything, Big Baby Davis has had to do with their 11-game winning streak since he's averaged 3.6 points and 2.7 boards for them, in 13.4 minutes a night since he was acquired. His offensive rating of 92.1 is practically unplayable, but he's offering a team-best 88.8 defensive rating, playing mostly against overmatched second units. He's only played 41 minutes with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, per NBAWowy.com, and just seven minutes of those 41 have come in fourth quarters, so I'm not sure that Doc Rivers is ready yet to replace DeAndre Jordan with him for crunch time. Regardless it's all but certain that teams will give Baby a steady diet of all-you-can-eat open jumpers in the playoffs.
Danny Granger meanwhile has supplied 8.6 points on 42.6 percent shooting (a ghastly 30.4 from three) in seven games, though the numbers look a lot better when you go deeper, as he's managed a 106.4 offensive rating and a 97.5 defensive mark. It doesn't appear at all that Granger has any crunch-time future for LA either, the one time he played down the stretch was against Phoenix after Blake Griffin fouled out. Matt Barnes seems to be entrenched in their closing-time lineup, especially with J.J. Redick out, perhaps for the season, with a back injury.
We tend to think of Barnes as a defensive specialist, but that hasn't been the case with him at all this season. Just the opposite, actually, as he's second on the club, behind Redick, with a 112.0 offensive rating and dead last among rotation players with a 104.3 defensive rating (yes, even worse than Jamal Crawford.) Rivers' closing lineup is definitely one with an offensive bent. It's hard to argue with the results, though. Jordan-Griffin-Barnes-Crawford-Paul have been destroying the league, with a 19.6 net rating over 208 minutes. Substitute Darren Collison for Crawford and it's a 17.3 net rating over 182 minutes. Substitute Redick and it's a 21.1 net rating over 23 minutes.
In fact, the quartet of Paul-Barnes-Griffin-Jordan are a clean 20.0 net rating in 475 minutes, regardless of whoever plays fifth Beatle for them. That's kind of scary. The only Spurs quartet that's played significant time together that even approaches that is their "foreign legion" of Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills off the bench, with a 22.0 net rating over 208 minutes, but obviously they're not closing games. (The foursome of Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Kawhi Leonard-Danny Green are at 11.9 net rating together in 425 minutes but it's been climbing, a ridiculous 34.3 during their 10-game winning streak. Alarmingly, none of the numbers with Ginobili teamed with other prominent players have been remotely as impressive.)
Our one solace, aside from the fact that besides the win at Oklahoma City that started Lob City's current streak the only other toughies have been home wins over Houston and Golden State, is that the Spurs did beat the Clips in their last meeting, on the road, without Leonard, Parker or Tiago Splitter. Their bench outscored them 41-20 in that one, with Mills leading the way with 25, though it's hard to say how relevant that was as both teams started some funky lineups. Belinelli had 20 in a cameo starting role while Crawford had 25 for LA in place of Redick.
The big takeaway I had from that game was the masterful job Green did on Paul and the Clippers' lack of a stud wing scorer challenges LA a lot in that regard. If Paul gets really hot they can always throw Leonard on him, denying not only space to get his shot off but even passing lanes with his length. A potential match-up with the Spurs looks similar to the 2005 Western Conference Finals, where San Antonio was content to let Amar'e Stoudemire score and just shut down everyone else. I have to think the Clips are hoping to avoid the Spurs and take their chances in an athletic shoot-out with OKC instead.
[Yup, I'm 2-for-2, as the Clippers lost at Denver. The Griffin-Paul-Jordan-Barnes quartet had a solid 10.4 net rating for the game, in a huge 24 minute sample size.]
Also, on a personal note, as I've mentioned a few times throughout the year, I will be moving to San Antonio this summer, mid-July to be specific, to cover the 2014-15 Spurs for PtR. However, I will still need a regular day job to pay the bills and keep the lights on. If you're a business owner in the area or work at a place where you think I'd be a good fit, whether it's an office, a restaurant (I'm a waiter now) or wherever, please don't hesitate to let me know and make the proper inquiries with the proper people. Obviously I'm not looking to get rich or anything, but I need to make a livable income and also have enough flexibility in the job that they won't make me work at night during Spurs home games. That's kind of non-negotiable.
So if you ever thought to yourself, "Hey, Erler kind of seems like a lovable nut, I wonder what he'd be like to work with." here's your chance to find out. Thanks in advance for all your assistance with this.