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NBA Stretch Run: The Best of the West

   by Jim Feist - 04/10/2009

It's been a long haul, this 82-game NBA regular season, but it's now time for the playoffs. This week it's the best of the West, the conference that has won seven of the last ten NBA titles.

Blazers: Where did these kids come from? Portland has done a great job stockpiling talent and it has come to fruition this season. 24-year old Brandon Roy is a former Rookie of the Year, leading with 23 points per game. The frontcourt is loaded with 6-11, 23-year old LaMarcus Aldridge (18 ppg, 7.5 rpg), 24-year old Travis Outlaw and 21-year old 7-footer Greg Oden.
With all that young star power, it's easy to overlook the team's leading rebounder, 29-year old 7-foot-1 Joel Przybilla. As with many young teams, they are dominant at home, but have a losing road mark. They may be the team no one wants to face in the playoffs, but that weak road record will probably hurt at some points.

Hornets: Another young team flexing its muscles. At age 23, Chris Paul is the most electrifying guard in the league, with 22.6 points and 11 assists per game. He runs fits around opposing defenses with his quickness and playmaking ability. David West (20 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Tyson Chandler (8 ppg, 8.9 rpg) are rebounding machines in the low post.
Veteran Peja Stojakovic (13.8 ppg) has stepped into a good situation and adds the outside game. They hope the addition of sixth-man James Posey will pay some postseason dividends, as he did last season with the champion Celtics and the 2006 champion Heat. After being a dominant road team last season, New Orleans has slipped this year, barely over .500. One plus is defense, allowing 94 ppg -- fourth best in the NBA.

Lakers: The beasts of the West for the second straight season. This is a huge frontcourt with 7-foot Paul Gasol (19 ppg, 9.5 ppg), 6-10 Lamar Odom (11 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and 7-foot center Andruw Bynum (14 ppg, 8.2 rpg), who is just returning from a knee injury -- just in time for the playoffs.
30-year old Kobe Bryant (27 ppg) continues to shine as one of the top players in the game, creating mismatches and is able to score from anywhere. Coach Phil Jackson has been working the last two months on improving the defense, and notice the Lakers are on a 16-4 run under the total. Keep that in mind come playoff time. LA is also 4-1 SU, 5-0 ATS as a dog and 20-6 against the spread the last two seasons as a dog.

Rockets: Houston has a physical, hard working bunch, led by 28-year old 7-foot-6 Yao Ming (19.6 ppg, 10 rpg) in the middle. Veteran Ron Artest and 6-8 Luis Scola (12.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg) are terrific role players. Houston allows 94.5 ppg, sixth best defensively in the league.
Houston traded away veteran point guard Rafer Alston to Orlando in midseason, but that was to get speedy second-year guard Aaron Brooks (11 ppg) more involved, and he's played well. They are on a 10-5 run under the total approaching the postseason, which is a good time to bring your best defense. On the other hand, the Rockets have a losing road mark.

Nuggets: Denver became so much better when they dumped Allen Iverson and added former local hero Chauncey Billups. They are hot at the right time, riding the hot shooting of Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith. The offense averages over 104 ppg, sixth best in the NBA.
But can you advance in the playoffs with a finesse, uptempo offense and little defense? The Nuggets are not a strong rebounding team and allow over 100 ppg, in the bottom half of the league. A year ago they got smoked in four-straight by the Lakers in the first round.

Spurs: San Antonio knows what it takes to play championship basketball in the postseason, having won titles in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. Defense is their calling card, allowing 45% shooting by opponents and 93.5 ppg, tops in the West. This is a veteran team with defensive stalwarts Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen.
However, they have battled injuries to sparkplug All-Star point guard Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latter who will miss the postseason. That's a tough blow. With Ginobili out, the Spurs signed swingman Marcus Williams, an NBA D-League first-team selection with the Austin Toros. They have not been playing their best ball of late, and last week lost at home to the Blazers by 12, blowing a 19-point second-quarter lead.

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