Monday , Mar , 31 , 2008 C.Y. Ellis

Coming Down the Stretch: Who’s out of the West Playoffs?

Coming Down the Stretch: Who's out of the West Playoffs?Things have gotten a whole lot tighter in the bottom half of the Western Conference, and two weeks from now, somebody between the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets will be spending the second half of their April at home.

Before we dive into the final stretch of the regular season, let’s stop to genuflect just how competitive, exciting and talented this Western Conference has been.

OK, got that out of the way.

Unlike the junior-varsity Eastern Conference – where teams double-digit games under .500 may get in the playoffs – who gets the seventh and eighth spots in the West has a big affect on the playoff picture. Nothing that can happen in the first round of the West playoffs will surprise me because the conference is so good from top to bottom.

In the NBA Playoffs, it’s all about match-ups.

We saw it last year when the first-place Mavericks were ousted by an eight-seeded

Warriors team that simply knew how to play them.

After Sunday’s games, there is a three-way tie between the Mavericks, Nuggets and Warriors (all at 45-28) for the seventh seed of the West with nine games left.

Who will prevail?

Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks are probably the most talented of the three teams, but they’ll have the toughest road down the stretch.

What makes it toughest, obviously, is the status of Dirk Nowitzki’s ankle – his knee is hurt, too, but that’s no big deal. This isn’t Andrew Bynum or Tony Parker missing time. This is the reigning MVP and the guy who the Mavs run their entire offense for. He’s returning this week and is obviously being rushed back, and how he responds is going to make or break Dallas.

But it’s not even Dirk.

The entire Mavs offense got a facelift when Jason Kidd came over from New Jersey, and Dallas – more than anyone  – needed time to adapt to one another.

You can throw that out the window.

But of the three teams, the Mavericks are good at doing two things championship teams do: play defense (sixth in the NBA in opponent points per game and fourth in opponent field-goal percentage) and shoot free throws (first in free-throw percentage).

Of Dallas’ nine games remaining, five will be on the road and six will be against plus-.500 teams.

Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets looked like the odd team out for a while, but they’ve been rolling of late, winning five straight games and eight of their last 10.

Denver plays no defense whatsoever (26th in opponents’ points per game) but they generate a lot of turnovers (first in steals per game) and can score with the best of them.

Their inability to run a halfcourt defensive set won’t allow them to make any sort of run in the playoffs, but Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony should be good enough to carry the Nuggets for the last two weeks of the season.

Denver finishes with five games on the road and five games against plus-.500 teams (the easiest schedule of the three).

My question is this: At what point do we say A.I. is just not as good as hyped up to be? A lot of people list him as one of the top 10 shooting guards of all time, but he has one of the best players in the NBA right next to him (not to mention a pretty good supporting cast of Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin), and he barely has his team in the playoffs.

Golden State Warriors
This would be my pick for odd team out.

The Warriors are statistically the worst defensive team and the best offensive team in the NBA. But over a stretch of two weeks, I’ll take an offense with ‘Melo and A.I. over Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson.

As sad as this may sound, the Warriors were counting on significant contributions from recently retired Chris Webber because of their lack of depth in the front line. As of late, 6-foot-5, 220-pounder Kelenna Azubuike has been seeing a lot of minutes at center.

That’s not going to cut it.