All eyes in the NBA are on the Miami Heat — and with good reason. They get the Cavs tonight in Cleveland, the betting line has opened at 5 points (?), and the number of the night is 24 — the amount of consecutive victories Miami should have when all is said and done.
But enough about them … for now.
As we approach the stretch run of this NBA season, we have no shortage of interesting and competitive races for playoff berths and playoff seeding.
The Knicks and Nets are battling for a division title and the No. 3 seed in the East. The winner will likely get Boston or Chicago in the first round, and the loser probably gets the other. Although this is an interesting race, either opponent will be a dogfight for each team, so it really isn’t all that meaningful who wins the Atlantic.
Watching the bottom of the West has also been very entertaining. The upstart Rockets, the up and down Warriors, the confusing Jazz, and the underachieving Lakers are all competing for three spots.
It would be devastating for either Golden State or the Lakers to miss the playoffs, not as much for the Rockets and Jazz because of their current respective stages of development. Ultimately, any of these teams that get in will just be first round fodder for a high seed, even the vaunted Lakers with their four Hall of Famers, who will be too spent from the effort they are having to expend to get in the playoffs, but I digress.
The most meaningful playoff race remaining is the nip and tuck race going on in the West for the third seed between Denver, Memphis and the Clippers.
Both the third seed and the fourth seed carry tremendous value to the teams that get them for a variety of reasons. First of all, the team that gets the #3 seed will get to play one of the weaker playoff sisters that I referenced above. None of those teams, including the Lakers, are giving Memphis, Denver, or the Clippers a hard time.
The four seed matters a lot as well because both Memphis and the Clippers want to avoid playing a series versus Denver without home court advantage. Denver is tied for the best home record in the NBA with Miami and is playing the best under-the-radar basketball of anyone, their 13-game winning streak being overlooked because of the Heat’s mightier magic.
Denver leverages their home court advantage in a very smart way. They have built an incredibly athletic roster. They have a point guard in Ty Lawson who’s one of the faster guards in the league. The have thoroughbreds for wings in Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, and Wilson Chandler (although he separated his shoulder last night in Denver’s road win at Oklahoma City).
The Nuggets leverage these great athletes into an up-tempo running style of play that is extremely difficult for other teams to handle playing in the thin air of the mountains of Colorado. They’ve developed a true ensemble approach without a superstar. They play a nine-man rotation and on any given night, any five will close a game.
Their head coach, George Karl had them close a game earlier this week with Chandler as his center and two point guards on the floor in Lawson and veteran Andre Miller. Part of the beauty in what Denver does is their versatility. They can play effectively big or small. Memphis slowed them down last week in a game in Denver and the Nuggets still managed to grind out a win in a game in the 80s. The ultimate Achilles heel for Denver in the playoffs may be the one special thing that makes them so difficult to play in the regular season, their ensemble approach.
Karl’s biggest impediment to playoff success with this team is the big question of which player are they going to in a big spot when they need a basket.
He seems to count on his point guards a whole lot in these types of situations. The player who they were supposed to be able to count on in these spots is Danilo Gallinari, who is the one player on the Nuggets who is underachieving some with this very exciting, very good Nuggets team. The good news for Denver is that if they have home court advantage in the first round, they won’t need those big baskets because no one is beating them in the thin air.
The Clippers are an interesting case. Their success this season is largely based upon the strength of a 17-game winning streak in December. Superstar point guard Chris Paul has had an outstanding year and young star big forward Blake Griffin has improved his game markedly, especially on the defensive end. The cast of characters they have surrounded Griffin and Paul with is a diverse veteran group. Their bench in particular has been one of the NBA’s best.
It’s a well-rounded team, and as much as people complain about their head coach, Vinny Del Negro, he does a masterful job of managing their rotations and finding matchup advantages.
Matchups are where the Clippers may have problems come the playoffs. First of all, they’re definitely short a big man. They have to be careful about how much they play center DeAndre Jordan down the stretch of games because Jordan can’t hit a free throw — 40% from the line on an average of 5 free throws a game hurts the Clippers in a bad way. Lamar Odom has been drawing those minutes and is doing a good job. Odom is a good defensive player, a decent rebounder, and a wonderfully gifted ballhandler and passer. However, he can’t shoot and his presence on the floor makes the Clippers much easier to defend.
Another issue for the Clips is their reliance on Jamal Crawford.