The NBA playoffs are not March Madness.
The less talented team rarely wins in a seven game series and the upsets the world loves so dearly are few and far-between. Due to injuries during the season, sometimes teams aren’t seeded correctly in the playoffs, but usually everyone knows which teams are in that position too. Upsets do happen, though.
As recently as last year, Chicago, who was reeling from losing Derrick Rose again, fell as the top seed to Philadelphia, the bottom seed in the East. In 2011, the West’s top seed, San Antonio, fell to the bottom seed, Memphis. In the Spurs’ defense, Memphis has gotten better and better since then and is one of the best teams in the NBA now.
The NBA Western Conference has been a two-horse race for the entire season, just like last year. Oklahoma City and San Antonio dominated on their way to the Western Conference Finals and look primed to do it again this year. This year has been different, however. Last year, the third-seeded team, Los Angeles (Lakers), were six games behind Oklahoma City and nine games behind San Antonio in the standings. This year, the third-seeded team, Denver, is only two games behind San Antonio and four games behind Oklahoma City. The fourth and fifth teams in the rankings are only one game further back. Using cycling terms, the peloton has officially caught the race leaders.
Denver Nuggets (56-25)
vs. Thunder and Spurs: 5-3 (.625)
vs. playoff-bound teams: 30-13 (.698)
The sports world was surprisingly quiet during the Nuggets’ 15-game winning streak and the fact that they are 22-3 in their last 25 games is unknown to most. Denver averages the second-most points per game (106.0), second-most rebounds per game (44.9), and third-most assists per game (24.4). Six players are averaging over 11 points per game and five players are averaging five rebounds or more. Center Javale McGee’s two blocks per game, while only playing 18.2 minutes per game is very respectable. With those numbers, McGee would have more blocks per game than leader Serge Ibaka (3.1 blocks on 31.4 minutes) if they played the same minutes. Denver’s pace on offense has also been giving teams trouble all season. This team can score from anywhere and it is ridiculous how many guys can get an open lane to the basket if anything but the best defense is played against them. The team does lack a star that can put the team on his back and late-season injuries to Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson can put Denver’s playoff run in jeopardy, however.
Memphis Grizzlies (55-26)
vs. Thunder and Spurs: 4-3 (.571)
vs. playoff-bound teams: 24-17 (.585)
The Memphis Grizzlies are the proud owners of the best defense in basketball (89.5 points per game). Few players can hold the intensity that Marc Gasol, my pick for Defensive Player of the Year (sorry, Joakim Noah), does over the entire game. The Grizzlies are one of the worst teams in points per game (26th) and assists per game (24th), but still are in a tie for the fifth-best record in the NBA. That is very impressive and it is achieved by tough defense and endless heart. Memphis also gives up the fourth-least turnovers per game and causes the fifth-most opponent turnovers. If Memphis encounters problems in the playoffs, it will probably be because the offense is not keeping up with opponents. It is also interesting to note that the Grizzlies had a worse record against the two Los Angeles teams (3-4) than they did against the Thunder and Spurs.
Los Angeles Clippers (55-26)
vs. Thunder and Spurs: 2-5 (.286)
vs. playoff-bound teams: 24-17 (.585)
After an astonishing 17-game winning streak, the Clippers looked very beatable as they continued on to go 24-20, before winning five in a row to get to where they are now. During this stretch, point guard Chris Paul watched his name go from being mentioned as a dark horse MVP candidate to not mentioned at all. Sometimes, it seems this team is more interested in making highlights than winning games. Regardless, this team is very good when it wants to be. The Clippers lead the NBA in causing opponent turnovers (15.4 per game). They also are the fourth best defense, surrendering only 94.5 points per game, and have the fourth-best point differential (6.5) in the NBA. Chris Paul is one of the smartest players in the game and is really capable at putting the team on his back in late-game situations. Plus, his 9.7 assists per game and 2.4 steals per game put him as the best in both stats among active players (Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo leads assists per game, but is injured). Forward Blake Griffin is more balanced on offense than he ever has been and is averaging 18.1 points per game and 8.3 rebounds per game. Jamal Crawford’s 16.4 points per game also has made him a legitimate “Sixth Man of the Year” contender.
-Marty F. Nemec