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Log-Jam in the West

   by Al McMordie - 04/20/2005

The NBA playoffs start this weekend. While the East is a titanic “Athens vs. Spartaâ€쳌 clash between the Pistons and Heat, the West is more wide open with several strong teams. Even more interesting are the various styles that several teams bring. Memphis has become a rugged defensive team, perhaps trying to mimic the success the Spurs have had, while Phoenix and Dallas prefer the running game to tire out the opposition. Here’s a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of the best of the West!

Spurs: Defense, defense and more defense. Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan are a cerebral duo that understand the importance of defense, especially this time of year, having won NBA titles together in 1999 and 2003. That is their calling card again, as this team allows 42% shooting by opponents and is tops in the NBA allowing 88 points per game.

Bruce Bowen is an often overlooked key to this veteran club, a strong leader and defensive stopper who does the grunt work against the other team’s ace scorer. Don't be surprised if he wins the Defensive Player of the Year award this season (after finishing 2nd last year). One edge they have on many West opponents this spring is experience, having played in a lot of big games the last six years. One weakness: their 72% free throw shooting is fifth worst in the league. For the record, the Spurs are 1-4 SU, 2-3 ATS as a dog, but that was mainly when Duncan went out with an injury.

Nuggets: Probably the most interesting team to watch as they are on a roll at 25-3 SU, 21-6-1 ATS run the last 28 games. George Karl has pushed every button correctly since taking over and has gotten this young team to play defense and believe in itself. They will be a fascinating matchup for the Spurs in the first round. The Nuggets are a stellar 30-10 SU, 27-12 ATS at home, but 18-23 SU on the road.

Mavericks: Like the Atlanta Braves, the Mavericks always seem to roll through the regular season then fold up quickly in the playoffs. They might have a better chance to go further this season. New coach Avery Johnson has gotten these guys to play some defense, allowing 43% shooting by opponents, seventh best in the league.

Dallas can still score, too, and who wouldn’t want a lineup featuring Dirk Nowitzki (26 ppg, 9.7 rpg), center Erick Dampier, guards Michael Finley and Jason Terry, and sixth-man Jerry Stackhouse? Dallas is also an impressive 28-12 SU, 24-15 ATS on the road and 9-6 SU, 11-4 ATS as an underdog. So are they ready for prime time? Dallas is 0-3 against the Spurs when Tim Duncan has played this season, losing 94-80, 107-89 and 98-95.

Rockets: It’s no secret how the Rockets want to make a playoff run: the dynamic inside/out duo of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, plus defense. Houston allows 91 points per game, fourth best in the NBA under defensive coach Jeff Van Gundy. That defense is why they were 24-16 'under' the total at home and very competitive on the road (25-15 SU, 23-16 ATS). However, they can go cold from the field at times, and finished 20th in the NBA at 44% shooting.

Suns: A team no one wants to play, of course. They hit the ground running back in November and haven’t stopped. Phoenix leads the league in scoring (110 ppg) and three point shooting (39%) behind sparkplug Steve Nash (11.5 assists per game), Joe Johnson and the frontcourt duo of Amare Stoudamire and Shawn Marion. The Suns are 0-2 SU/ATS against the Spurs when Tim Duncan has played, losing 115-94 and 128-123. The only time the Suns won, 107-101, is when Duncan and Manu Ginobili didn’t play and the Spurs still covered as a 10-point dog. I don’t want to jinx my favorite sports team (San Antonio), but the Spurs have more than held their own against the best of the West. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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