After the most thrilling game of the season, a look at the Western Confernce
Those who tuned into the weekly holiday that is Thursday night NBA on TNT just finished a rollercoaster ride. The first game saw the Miami Heat host, and manhandle, the Boston Celtics. Both teams came out hot, but by the third quarter the Heat had a 26 point lead. The Celtics made it interesting, closing it to 10 thanks to a 16-0 run fueled by the king of heart and hustle, Marcus Smart, and his rookie understudy, TimeLord Robert Williams.
But the Heat again blew the doors open, en route to a 16-point victory on their home court. Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson continued to be the most underrated backcourt in the league, combining for 31 PTS, 17 AST, and 10 REB, while DWade finished with 19 off the bench, and Tyler Johnson finished with 1 severed tongue.
I was content with that game, I really was. But then came the second matchup of the night, the Oklahoma City Thunder at the San Antonio Spurs. For my entire life, I’ve really considered the Spurs a boring team to watch, especially on their home court. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and young Kawhi Leanord never had the viewing attraction that say a James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, or Damian Lillard have. But things are different in San Antonio. Their personnel is NEW. They play the same two-way brand of Spurs basketball, but it’s just….younger and more fun. And quietly, Popovich again has a top 5 team in the league.
The Thunder are great too. Mostly thanks to an MVP caliber season from Paul George. It is remarkable that the Thunder are winning at a high rate in the jam-packed west, because they are THIN. Besides for Dennis Schroeder, their bench consists of rookie defensive specialist Hamidou Diallo, two-way player Abdel Nadar, and Patrick Patterson- who is quite frankly, awful. They got outscored 45-28 by the Spurs’ bench tonight.
But it didn’t matter, because their starting lineup is playing as good as anyone else in the league right now. And this is amidst the worst shooting of Russell Westbrook’s already not-so-efficient career. Despite his shaky scoring numbers, he leads all guards in assists and rebounds, and has noticeably been busting it on defense each possession. Paul George and Steven Adams are having the best seasons of their careers, offensively and defensively. The least talked about player in their core is Jerami Grant, who has been SO fun to watch on both ends, and deserves Most Improved Player votes. These guys are long, energetic, bouncy, and tough as nails.
San Antonio is just a different beast right now. Their star, Demar Derozan (who is also playing at an MVP level, which no one would admit), posted a 16-11-8 line tonight and was like the 8th best player in the game. No exaggeration. Bryn Forbes, Davis Bertans, Patty Mills, and Marco Bellinelli went FIFTEEN-FOR-SIXTEEN(!!) from three. Derrick White had a career high 24 points. Paul George had 30 points. Westbrook scored 24 points and matched that with a career high 24 assists. Jerami Grant had a career high 24 points. Steven Adams, who looked like he broke his ankle in the 4th quarter, returned and had 19 points. Terrance Ferguson, averaging 4.7 PPG and 32% from behind the arc for OKC, hit 7 of 8 threes for a career high. And oh yea, just when you thought these numbers couldn’t get any wackier, Spurs all-star big man LaMarcus Aldridge went for a career high 56 points on 33 Shots. I repeat: Ho….ly….Shit.
Thunder fans are probably sick after this loss, and will look back to it if the standings are not in their favor come May. They have a lot to complain about I’d say. This was a really weird game from the refs. Aldridge shot 16 free throws, while the Thunder shot 24 entirely. Early in the 2nd OT, Paul George pleaded for an And-1 call, where it did look like he got fouled in transition. He did not get the foul call, but he did pick up a totally unwarrnated technical foul (1 of Aldridge’s 16 FTs). They again sent Aldridge to the line to put SA up 4 late in the 2nd OT, where it looked like Jerami Grant got a clean block. This fouled Grant out at a crucial moment- and this was after they let Derrick White get away with a totally-awesome looking block on a Grant dunk attempt, where replay ultimately showed he got his hand. And then, as Paul George hit a 3 to cut the lead to 3 on the final possession, they waved it off and called a foul on the floor, giving OKC two FTs instead of a 4-point play. Reggie Miller was shocked and so was I, but the Spurs deserved this win, which they got: 154-147.
And hey, can OKC fans really complain when TERRANCE FERGUSON went 7-8 from three?
After that doozy, one must take a look at the Western Conference standings, which are tighter than a rollercoaster seatbelt.
12 teams at nearly .500 is remarkable. And the Grizzlies and Mavericks, two teams that are better than most of the Eastern Conference, sit JUST behind New Orleans.
So what do we know? Well, barring injury, Denver and Golden State will almost certainly maintain their top 2 spots throughout the season- although will probably flip-flop once the Warriors integrate Boogie Cousins, who’s averaged over 26 PPG since 2015. The Warriors can only get better, which is scary. Denver is the most interesting team in the NBA. Their center, Nikola Jokic, who has never made an All-Star game, IS an MVP candidate and very very sneakily might be the favorite (he’s gotta be ahead of Davis, George, LeBron, Curry, Kawhi etc.). Ok realistically he will finish behind the new King of the East, Giannis Antetokounpo, and the new King of Planet Earth, James Harden. But Jokic is THAT good. Analytically, he’s the best defensive center in the NBA. He’s very clearly the best passing center in the NBA, and he has that baby-bottom smooth European touch at all levels. Beside him, Jamal Murray has been phenomenal, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap are as solid as they come, and everyone they scrapped together on their bench (Jauncho Hernangomez, Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, & Monte Morris) has over-performed. At this point, Mike Malone is a shoe-in for Coach of the Year.
What is most interesting about the Nuggets though, is that they have two really good players coming back from injury: Will Barton, and the sweetheart of the NBA, Isaiah Thomas. I mean, its not every day that a team is dominating every single night, and also stashing a guy who scored 50 in the playoffs in 2017 on their bench, on a minimum contract. Then again, he’s not the only top-10 scorer from 2017 thats on a minimum contract and yet to play this season. And the other guy is 15 inches taller than him, and on the back-to-back champs. Fuck. What is wrong with you, GMs?
After Denver and Golden State, San Antonio is the next best team. They’ve lost six games since the start of December, and only one at home. I’m all in on the Spurs. Derozan and Aldridge are an immovable force, controlling the paint and mid-range at will. And the biggest takeaway from tonight’s game? It doesn’t matter how good Derozan plays. He shot 6-22 against the Thunder tonight, and it was the third highest scoring output in Greg Popovich’s entire career. Not that he’ll score 50 again this season, but Aldridge is essentially unguardable 1-on-1. If Tim Duncan was a Bentley truck, Aldridge is a high-powered Chevy. And the average NBA big man is a Dodge mini-van. I mean, what can other teams do… double him? Ask Billy Donovan, and every team that has gone to San Antonio this season about that one.
Thats just Popovich being Popovich. Former D-2 player Derrick White? Goes toe-to-toe with Russell Westbrook. Undrafted Bryn Forbes? Has scored double-figures in just about every game this season, and is 15th in the league in 3PT%. The least NBA-player looking player in the NBA, former 2nd round pick Davis Bertans (who was an add-on in the George Hill-for-Kawhi Leonard heist)? THIRD in the league in 3PT%. Old, unathletic guys, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills? LETHAL.
Point being, you really can’t double Aldridge, they’ll trade his 2 points for 3. Same thing with Derozan. There’s no one in the league better at navigating his way into the paint, except Durant. What Aldridge is to Duncan, that same comparison needs to be made from Demar Derozan to Kobe Bryant. Not a player in the world knows the ins and outs of mechanically burning a defender, besides Durant and James Harden. You can’t leave just 1 man on Derozan, he knows every move in the book to get to his spot. Look at this simple play from last week’s game vs. Boston:
A fine defender, Jayson Tatum is on Derozan island. 3 snipers line the perimeter (Belinelli, Bertans, Mills), forcing Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier to hug the line.
BOOM. 1 jab step and 4 seconds later, Derozan is 5 feet from the rim, in the area where he is automatic. Brown and Hayward drop to help Tatum, who’s in the dust- had they not, Derozan spins and rises for an easy deuce. Daniel Thies slides off of Jakob Poetl, to protect the rim. This forces Terry Rozier to drop onto Poetl. Just like that, Derozan has all five defenders, TEN eyes focused on him, like a magnet. Since the floor was so beautifully spaced to begin with, their help defense movement is more drastic, and harder to re-recover from. Now its just pick your poison.
Patty Mills. Three ball, corner pocket. 15 point Spurs lead. Nothing that Terry Rozier (one of the quickest players in the world) can do here. Nothing that Brad Stevens can instruct here, except to just let Derozan have the easy two. And all of this is with Aldridge watching from the bench. I’m not sure Derozan makes that pass last year in Toronto- or if he even has the floor spacing to begin with. It’s a slow torturing playing the Spurs, who have this masterful tuteledge and execution on both ends. I cannot believe they are doing this without their third best player, Dejounte Murray. The fact that the Spurs have Murray returning next year, a young freak in Lonnie Walker IV patiently developing, AND the money to bring in another superstar is terrifying for the rest of the league. But the Spurs have what it takes to make a run this year. Ideally, they’ll get the 4 seed, and meet the reigning champs in the 2nd round. Pop understands the Warriors system better than anyone and has the fire-power to take them to 7. Which is GREAT news for whoever meets Golden State in the WCF, likely Denver, Houston, or OKC. But again, I’m all in on this San Antonio team.
And those latter two- the Rockets and Thunder- are next in line after San Antonio. Barring injury, these teams will surely be in the playoffs, and maybe poised for a 1st round matchup. Boy, that would be special and a whole lot more interesting than the 5 game snoozer from Westbrook’s MVP season. Harden has obviously leveled up, and is pretty much the most unguardable basketball player this world has ever layed eyes on. No, Michael Jordan was not a tougher cover. No, unanimous MVP Steph Curry was not a tougher cover. Those guys were surrounded by superstars. Harden is doing this with Clint Capela as his wingman, and the rest of the team basically being guys they picked up off the street. He sort-of has the refs on some sort of weird leash that they cannot escape, but what he’s doing on the offensive end is wizardry. Nobody is safe going to H-town in the playoffs, especially not if Chris Paul is healthy.
That leaves 3 playoff spots for Portland, both Los Angeles teams, the Utah Jazz, and the Pelicans. I’m counting out Sacramento and Minnesota, which might be unfair at this point, but I do so confidently. And that sucks for those fan bases, because they could both make serious nose in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Sacramento is one of the most fun teams to watch, and while I earlier endorsed Jerami Grant, De’Aaron Fox has to take home Most Improved. He’s a future superstar, and I know its early but I’m ready to deem him the next Westbrook, with a HIGHER ceiling. Buddy Heild, Marvin Bagley, and Willie Caulie-Stein make for a salivatingly bright young core, too. Minnesota has shown signs of greatness, and I would love nothing more than to see revamped Derrick Rose back playing meaningful basketball. But I can’t see it. I hate Andrew Wiggins- Dario Saric too- they are simply awful defensive players. I can see the Twolves management blowing up some of their guys this year (looking at you, Jeff Teague). The good news for these two teams is they’ll be back in the lottery, looking at a draft class filled with more unicorns.
I’m counting Portland in, because that’s what Damian Lillard does. He wins. Every year, the Trailblazers find their way into the postseason, no matter how incompetent their front office is. CJ McCollum keeps getting better, and now Jusuf Nurkic is one of the better young centers. Portland may slide to 7 or 8 and be poised for a quick first round exit, but they’ll be there. And maybe just maybe this will be the year they turn some heads in May.
I’m also counting in Utah- yes ahead of LeBron. The Quin Snyder system is simply too good. Nobody goes to Utah and comes away with a win. The way they embarrassed Oklahoma City (and ended Carmelo Anthony’s career) last year was just the beginning. Donovan Mitchell seems to be hitting his stride. And quietly, on any given night, someone like Jae Crowder or Derrick Favors gives their opponent FITS. The Jazz are so far away from competing for a title, but they’re rock solid. They’ll be there.
That leaves 1 playoff spot for the Clippers, Lakers, and Pelicans. The thought of Anthony Davis, or God forbid….LeBron James, the King himself……not making the playoffs is blasphemous. But thats a serious reality, and it could somehow be BOTH, considering the Clippers have only lost 2 straight games twice this season. Like Utah, they’ve been rock solid. Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, and Lou Williams, are as underrated a trio as youll ever see. But I’m doing it- I’m doubting them. And I’m doubting the Lakers too. Stupid me, I know. I’ll hide in a corner when they meet for the 4-5 matchup.
New Orleans was just too dominant last year to omit. They have the experience. They have the excellent floor general in Jrue Holiday, and they have maybe the best player in the world in Anthony Davis. Those guys make the best defensive tandem in the NBA too. And to think they added Julius Randle, who’s been a monster on offense and will be at the NBA awards ceremony for the Sixth Man race. They’re struggling right now, because they can’t shoot a lick. Holiday has been awful in that regard. But it should trend upwards, especially with the impending return of Niko Mirotic. I see them securing the 8 seed and traveling to Oracle to see their buddy who they refused to pay this summer, Boogie Cousins. Or maybe they’ll go to Denver and become the first 8 seed in 13 seasons to advance (shout out Baron Davis and the OG Warriors), who knows?
Boy, this Western conference is all kinds of special. They could seriously roll out two all-star teams that could beat the EAST. No joke- here’s 12 guys who certainly will not be playing in Charlotte (barring injury).
G- Jamal Murray, CJ McCollum, Devin Booker, Lou Williams, Mike Conley, De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell (likely Klay Thompson, too)
F- Kyle Kuzma, Tobias Harris, LaMarcus Aldridge, Buddy Hield, Draymond Green
C- Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams
Thats 15 guys: 2 DPOYS, a guy who scored 41 in 3 quarters last night, a guy who scored FIFTY-SIX tonight, a guy who’s scored 70 points, and yes, another 3 guys who have scored 50. There’s Hall of Fame talent there, and the list somehow goes on. The Western Conference is basketball porn. And we are blessed to watch this shit go down every night.