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NBA Western Conference
by Jim Feist - 04/18/2011
Start your engines! The NBA playoffs are in full swing, time for endless full court action every night as the league crowns another champion. Let's take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won eight of the last 11 NBA titles.
Lakers: The defending champs began the season raising another banner and looked to be the team to beat again. However, they were not the top team in the in the West and the Lakers limped down the stretch. Boredom? Saving themselves for the real season? The Lakers were 3-6 down the stretch in the regular season a year ago and that turned out fine for them.
There's no denying the talent and depth on this team, led by Kobe Bryan (25.5 ppg), Pau Gasol (18.8 ppg, 10 rpg), Lamar Odom (14.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg), center Andrew Bynum (11.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and Ron Artest, an outstanding defender. Artest is a 13-year veteran, yet he is only 31 years old.
A bright side for Coach Phil Jackson is that the defense has been very good all season, allowing 95.2 ppg (8th in the NBA) and 43.8% shooting by opponents (fourth). Defense is king in the NBA playoffs and sports bettors should note the Lakers are 21-6 under the total against teams with a winning straight up record.
Last week Jackson mentioned his 1991-92 Chicago Bulls, recalling they suffered a "couple devastating losses" in March and April. "I was concerned. The players said it's just the end of the season and we'll get it back when we get into the playoffs and we did. We got it back."
Spurs: A juggernaut from start to finish, the Spurs redefined themselves in many ways and had a monster season, with the best record in the West. Long known for defense under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs used an awesome array of depth to blitz opponents, ranking sixth in the NBA in scoring, just 14th in points allowed.
San Antonio still has the Big Three of 34-year old Tim Duncan (13.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg), 33-year old Manu Ginobili (17.6 ppg) and 28-year old Tony Parker (17.6 ppg). The Spurs extending their streak of 50-win seasons to 12, tied for the longest streak in league history behind the Lakers, who won 50 12 times in a row from 1979 to 1991.
The Spurs rely heavily on their bench, which leads the league in scoring for the second straight season, with Richard Jefferson (11 ppg), George Hill and role players in 7-foot Matt Bonner, Dujuan Blair and veteran Antonio McDyess.
Coach Gregg Popovich and Duncan have 4 NBA title rings and they know defense is essential in the postseason. With that said, they are 14th in field goal shooting percentage defense (similar to last year), good but not great. Two key differences are that last year they were a weak road team, barely over .500, and now they are a strong road team, in addition to having home court throughout the postseason. The Spurs are 11-4-1 ATS when their opponent allows 100 points or more in their previous game.
Mavericks: Dallas has quietly had a great season despite an aging lineup. They lost power forward Dirk Nowitzki for nine games, then lost small forward Caron Butler on New Year's Day for the rest of the season. Dallas rolls into the postseason behind 32-year old 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki (22.9 ppg, 7 rpg), 33-year old Jason Terry (15.8 ppg), 38-year old Jason Kidd (8.2 apg) and 32-year old Shawn Marion (12.5 ppg).
Dallas used to be a team that relied on offense, but the big addition this season has been 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler (10.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg), who has been a valuable rebounder, role player and shot blocker. The Mavs are 10th in the NBA in points allowed and 7-1 under the total when playing on one day of rest.
Oklahoma City: The team no one wants to play! The Thunder have a dynamite offense, No. 5 in the NBA in points led by the duo of Kevin Durant (27.9 ppg) and Russell Westbrook (21.9 ppg). But they made a mid-season trade for center Kendrick Perkins and have blossomed into a defensive/rebounding force, with Big Perk and 21-year old 6-10 Serge Ibaka (7.6 rpg). This team is 41-20 ATS after a straight up win and tops in the NBA in free throw shooting, a subtle element that helps in close games and late covers.