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Western Conference Playoff Picture

   by ASA - 03/01/2007

The Western Conference has been very top-heavy this season with Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah, Houston and the Lakers comfortably holding down the top six spots. The fight for the final two spots in the playoffs will be a fierce one as at least four, maybe even six, teams will be competing for a birth in the postseason. Here is ASA’s look as to how the race for the playoffs will play out.

IN
Denver Nuggets: Much has been made over how slowly it has taken for the tandem of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson to produce the results that everyone was expecting. The Nuggets went just 2-7 SU (4-5 ATS) in the first nine games the pair played together but have since won back-to-back games to move back to .500 and into the seventh slot in the Western Conference.

While Anthony and Iverson surely provide matchup problems for the opposition on a nightly basis, it will be the play of the rest of the roster that will shape Denver’s near future. Nene Hilario is finally healthy and in shape and provides the Nuggets with the inside scoring threat they so desperately needed. He is averaging 19.5 points, 8.5 boards and 1.5 blocks during Denver’s current two-game winning streak and combines with Marcus Camby to give the Nuggets a strong interior presence. Denver will need to make its playoff push through the first three weeks of March as 13 of its final 18 games are on the road.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers have been one of the most disappointing teams in the NBA this season but will still end up making the playoffs, but will do so basically by default. They have the most talent of any of the teams vying for the final spot and that will be enough. Elton Brand is back playing the kind of basketball that made him a dark horse MVP candidate last year, averaging 21.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks – all while shooting 54 percent – since Jan. 1.

The passing of the trade deadline should also help Los Angeles as it eliminates the distraction of the previously never-ending Corey Maggette trade rumors. The team can now turn its full attention toward the court instead of having the incessant rumblings taking away the focus from the game. The injury to Shaun Livingston will hurt the team’s depth but Sam Cassell, while getting long in the tooth, has been through this before and is as much of an on-court coach as there is in the league. The Clippers will need to show improvement on the road, though, as they are just 8-19 SU (8-18-1 ATS) on the road this season and play 14 of their final 25 games away from home.

OUT
New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets: The Hornets have been a great story this season by overcoming a bevy of injuries to remain in the playoff hunt. Unfortunately it won’t be enough. They play harder than perhaps any other team in the league but lack the experience to make a legitimate playoff contender. The biggest deterrent will be their road-heavy remaining schedule. Thirteen of their final 24 games will be played away from home, where New Orleans is just 9-19 SU this season. There was talk of Peja Stojakovic possibly returning for the stretch run but those talks have quieted recently. Look for the Hornets to finish the season just a few games short of the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves: With every day that passes, it looks like Kevin Garnett’s frustrations with this team continue to grow. Minnesota was sitting at 20-20 and in the eighth spot in the Western Conference when head coach Dwayne Casey was inexplicably fired from his post. Since then, the Timberwolves have gone just 6-11 SU (5-12 ATS) and have lost four of their last five outright and five straight ATS. Randy Foye is going to be a very good player down the road but right now he’s not enough to offset the likes of salary cap albatrosses Ricky Davis, Mike James, Marko Jaric and Mark Blount.

Golden State Warriors: The Warriors have loads of talent. Unfortunately very little of that talent can score down low and even less can play defense. Golden State can score with anyone but also can’t stop anyone as it is last in the NBA with nearly 108 points allowed per game. Jason Richardson recently stated that Golden State’s current five-road game trip would make or break this season. Consider it broken. The Warriors have been blown out by 21 points at Milwaukee and by 30 points at Chicago. They are just 6-23 SU and 10-18-1 ATS away from home this year.

Sacramento Kings: Sacramento owns many of the same problems that Golden State possesses. The Kings have no interior presence and play little defense, but have the ability to put up huge offensive numbers. A full season with Ron Artest was supposed to mark improved defensive play from Sacramento but that has not been the case. The Kings are 21st in the league with more than 101 points allowed per game and 19th with a 46.3 defensive field-goal percentage. Kevin Martin is a great success story and Ron Artest has managed to keep himself out of trouble but Mike Bibby’s season-long slump and the lack of production from Brad Miller, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Kenny Thomas will make for a lost season for Sacramento.

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