The run to the playoffs continues in the NBA, with the Clippers running to the front of the pack on an eight game winning streak in a tough Western Conference. The Heat and Pacers have played uninspired basketball going through the motions in the East, as the latter half of the conference has their eyes on the NBA draft. All this and more in your weekly round-up, March 10-16, 2014:
SAN ANTONIO LOOKING FORWARD
Surprise, surprise, the closer the schedule gets to playoff time, the better the San Antonio Spurs are playing. Last year’s NBA runner-up is playing white-hot basketball right now, winners of 10 straight. More impressive, the Spurs are perhaps the most balanced team in the NBA. San Antonio is a top 10 team offensively in points per game and defensively in points allowed while passing the ball as well as any team in the league. It’s been years now that pundits and fans have questioned how much gas is left in the Spurs’ tank, and time and time again the team marches into the playoffs. Last week the Spurs defeated two playoff teams in Portland and Chicago and will get to feast on Los Angeles and Sacramento before playing Golden State this week. The schedule outside of the Warriors sets up very nicely to add to San Antonio’s two game cushion over Oklahoma City for the one seed in the Western Conference. Just like any other year, the Spurs are likely in it for the long haul and if history is any indication, they haven’t played their best basketball yet.
IS LOB CITY FOR REAL?
The Clippers ditched head coach Vinny Del Negro after a disappointing playoff bounce to what was, at the time, one of the best regular season runs in franchise history last year. Doc Rivers has kept building momentum in LA in his first year as head coach, bringing out the best season in Blake Griffin’s career and another All-Star performance by Chris Paul, who’s averaging a double-double this season (18.5 ppg, 11.0 assists). Griffin has been the true superstar in Los Angeles, but don’t overlook the outstanding season for DeAndre Jordan, who like Griffin, was mostly known for his highlight reel dunks, has rounded out his game, averaging nearly 14 rebounds a game. Jordan started off the week with a monstrous 17 rebound performance against Phoenix, 10 points and 11 rebounds against Golden State and finished the week off with a double double against Cleveland, nabbing 11 rebounds to go along with 15 points. Jordan has become one of the most intriguing centers in the league. The Clippers are still the league’s most potent offense, even with teams like the Warriors nipping at their heels, but will it be enough come playoff time? Last year, the Clippers were one of the most exciting teams to watch but seemed to lack the toughness and focus to win a playoff series last year…this year, they’re a middling team on defense, 15th in rebounding and 14th in points allowed. Will their firepower be enough to push the Clippers over the hump? They’re one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now, with one of the league’s best coaches, but they don’t have the playoff experience of teams like San Antonio or Oklahoma City who are well on their way towards a strong second half push and finish. It’s often said that defense travels and with an offense as strong as the Clips, you might not even need a good one, just a defense with a pulse. Players like Jordan stepping up and continuing his strong play on the boards will be crucial if the Clippers want to secure the one seed and move to the conference finals.
MIAMI AND INDIANA MUDDLING ALONG
The Heat went 2-2 last week, with another loss to Brooklyn and a stunning loss to Denver at home. Moving the schedule back further, the Heat are just 5-5 in their last 10 games. LeBron James has slowly started to regain consistency after his post-61 point game slump, starting last week strong with 23 points against Washington on a night that saw him go 3-4 from behind the arc along with 8 assists. James didn’t crack 20 against Brooklyn, bringing back fears he still isn’t at his best, but the team’s play as a whole has been just as concerning. Miami has been unable to topple the Pacers atop the East and the two still seem dead set on a collision course in the playoffs. Luckily for Miami, Indiana has been playing just as uninspired. The Pacers had lost four straight before ending last week with three consecutive wins. With both teams showing signs of mortality, does this open up any sort of window for a surging Chicago Bulls team to do the unthinkable this postseason? The Bulls meet the Pacers this week in Indianapolis. Chicago’s Joakim Noah is currently one of the best players in the NBA, averaging 23 ppg and 11 rebounds. The Bulls were tested early last week with a loss against San Antonio, but picked up an impressive win against Houston…could Chicago be a spoiler this spring? They’re severely undermanned on offense, but have one of the league’s best defenses and a coach who has the team playing hard night in and night out. Anything is possible, but if Indiana and Miami continue to coast, it may leave just enough room for Chicago to slide in and crash the party.
MVP RACE OVER?
Kevin Durant is averaging over 30 points per game this season and hasn’t scored less than 25 games since January 2nd. Let that sink in for a moment. Despite the Thunder’s so-so play the last week, KD has all but secured the MVP trophy in 2014. Before his scoring slump, the race between LeBron James and Kevin Durant for this year’s MVP trophy was as entertaining as anything we had seen in years, perhaps decades, between two NBA superstars. Since James has hovered around 20 ppg since dropping 61, Durant has continued to absolutely demolish league defenses. His current streak of 25 point games puts him in elite company along names like Michael Jordan and Oscar Robinson. Durant’s efficiency rating is a monstrous 30.30, and he’s still shooting the three ball at 40%. As impressive as this season has been, it might be the Thunder’s finish down the stretch that says more about KD than the MVP trophy. LeBron is not only a former MVP, but two-time NBA champion and there is a very real chance the Heat make the NBA Finals again this season. Oklahoma City has a much tougher challenge as the Clippers, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors are all legitimate threats to win the conference. Can Durant put the team on his back and win the big one? Would his MVP season be any less spectacular if the Thunder are bounced out of the playoffs early again this season?
MUST WATCH GAMES THIS WEEK:
Monday, March 17 – Oklahoma City @Chicago
Saturday, March 22 – San Antonio @ Golden State