After four-and-a-half months of hard fought competition, the NBA Western Conference playoff picture has invariably begun to take shape.
As usual the cream has risen to the top, though the 2012-2013 season hasn’t been without its under and over achievers.
So with only a mere month remaining before the conclusion of the regular season and beginning of the NBA playoffs (April 20) I have scoured the schedule and deciphered who will likely progress to the post-season and who they will meet on the other side.
1 – Oklahoma City Thunder 51 – 17
All signs point to the 2011-2012 Western Conference, finishing ahead of the ageless San Antonio Spurs.
However their next two games will be crucial to clinching the number one seed – meeting the Nuggets at home (who are currently on a 10 game winning streak) and the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedExForum.
Put a circle around April 4 in your calendar, with the Thunder and Spurs meeting in what could potentially split the sides. The thunder would be have to be heavily favoured though, boasting a 30-4 record in front of their home contingent.
2 – San Antonio Spurs 51 – 16
With star PG Tony Parker still at least 2 weeks away from returning from a severe ankle sprain, and the franchise scheduled to play its next 7 games against teams at least .500 or better – it seems unlikely the Spurs will challenge OKC.
However San Antonio will have the advantage of playing 5 of these 7 games with a 28-4 at home.
As aforementioned the April 4 clash with OKC will be pivotal.
3 – LA Clippers 46 – 21
I think I speak for every average-Joe Basketball fan (tell me if I’m wrong) when I make the observation that this squad actually transcends the sport. Let me explain.
For the viewer the spectacle provided by the likes of Chris Paul, Blake Griffen, DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford; and to lesser extent Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler – make the outcome of the game almost redundant.
The Clippers don’t just win, they make sure they look good in doing so. A weakness to be exploited against tough opponents, under the pressure of the playoffs? Quite possibly.
Moving on the Clippers month ahead – apart from hiring a lawyer for DeAndre Jordan for his impending manslaughter trial on Brandon Knight (pictured) – LAC have a easy run home playing 9 teams under .500 in their last 15 games.
4 – Denver Nuggets 45 – 22
Currently sitting 5th, I’ve got the Nuggets beating the Grizzlies out of the fourth seed purely based on form.
The Nuggets have won 10 straight and seem to be starting to gel well as a unit, while the grizzlies have somewhat faded from explosive season start.
Nonetheless Denver will need to use their momentum for an ominous end of season schedule, pitted against the likes of Chicago, Oklahoma, San Antonio, Utah, Brooklyn, Houston, Portland and Dallas twice in the coming month.
5 – Memphis Grizzlies 44 – 21
They may not be the greatest spectacle as a viewer, but the Memphis Grizzles have more than anything showcased their desire to win this season; no matter the cost.
A solid performance on road this season (19-13) and a force again at home (25-8), they have well and truly exceeded expectations.
The trade of Rudy Gay, may have depleted there shooting stocks somewhat, however Marc Gasol has picked up a lot of the scoring slack.
Pencil in a tantalizing first round match-up with Nuggets (whether they have the home advantage or not).
The draw in the next month is slightly more favourable to that of the Nuggets, but it is my belief that the class of Denver will prevail.
6 – Golden State Warriors 38 – 30
Is there anything they don’t do well?
The Warriors are proficient in defense with big men Andrew Bogat and David Lee on the inside; and Steph Curry on the perimeter. They can score outside with Clay Thompson; and under the basket with the lively Curry; and have added X-factor with the drafting of rookie Harrison Barnes.
Unlikely to challenge the Grizzlies and or Nuggets for 5th spot, yet is unlikely to come under fire from those below.
Lock in a match-up with the Clippers in round one.
7 – LA Lakers 35 – 32
Where to start with the Lakers? Well there back over .500 so I guess that’s a start in itself.
Thrust into the spotlight with the acquisition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the pundits overlooked the major problem in the Lakers roster.
Age. And the fact that age often lead to complications.
Injuries to Nash, Dwight, Gasol and now Kobe at various stages during the season, crippled any chance they had at contending.
However even without these mishaps, the Lakers lack speed and have been outplayed repeatedly by teams abundant in this area (Miami, OKC, Indiana, Denver, LAC to name a few).
Expect the Lakers to win around half of it’s final 14 games.
8 – Houston Rockets 36 – 31
The acquisition of James Harden from OKC was massive for this franchise. The stats tell the story– 26.4 PPG (off 0.451% shooting), 4.8 RPG and APG 5.9 – All-Star numbers, quite simply.
OKC would be going for 70 wins plus, if they had held onto Harden.
Utah and the Rockets will be vying for the finals spot, unless the suddenly Lakers capitulate (need Kobe back).
Both will be beaten in either 4 or 5 games in a series against OKC.
Rockets will prevail due to a better record and slightly favourable draw.
THE TEAM’S THAT WILL MISS
9 – Utah Jazz 34 – 32
Utah has been excellent this season. But lack a franchise player. Expect plenty of offseason action, with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap possibly moving on.
10 – Portland Trailblazers 31 – 34
Damian Lillard. That is all.
11 – Dallas Mavericks 31 – 35
Exceeded expectations. Look for a couple of major plays for Free Agents, as the Mav’s have plenty of cap space and an owner willing to pay anything for a marquee signing.
FIRST ROUND PREDICTIONS
1 Oklahoma City Thunder Vs 8 Houston Rockets
2 San Antonio Spurs Vs 7 L.A. Lakers
3 L.A. Clippers Vs 6 Golden State Warriors
4 Denver Nuggets Vs 5 Memphis Grizzlies
Callum Godde is a second-year Journalism (Sport) student at La Trobe University. Follow him on Twitter @Calgodde.