The Western Conference is providing one the greatest playoff races in NBA history.
Only 6 games are separated between the top nine teams in the west, and every team is jockeying for playoff position. One win could put a team in first place, but a few losses can easily push a team out of the playoffs.
It time to take a look at what each team needs to do to make the playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers (45-20)
10 home games
7 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Rockets, Hornets, Jazz, Spurs, Mavericks twice, Warriors twice
The Lakers were sentimental favorites to win the championship. Without Pau Gasol, however, the team will struggle just trying to secure a top playoff spot.
The Lakers clearly missed Gasol’s interior presence in their loss against the Hornets Friday night. Having to rely heavily on perimeter shooting, the team shot only 38 percent and hit only nine of 30 three-point attempts. The lack of interior defense allowed the Hornets to shoot 48 percent and hit 11 of 24 three-point attempts. The Hornets’ big men David West and Tyson Chandler were able to score 26 points and grab 34 rebounds.
There is no mercy in the NBA, and teams are breathing down the Lakers’ necks. The Lakers currently have a share of first place, but are only ahead of the eighth place Warriors by four and a half games. If Gasol’s injury is serious, a short losing streak could easily push the Lakers into bottom four of the playoff standings, and maybe out of the playoffs.
Houston Rockets (45-20)
7 home games
10 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Celtics, Lakers, Hornets, Jazz, Spurs, Suns twice, Warriors, Nuggets
At one point in the season, the Rockets were 24-20 and were in tenth in the west. 21 consecutive wins later, the Rockets are sitting atop of the Western Conference, showing they should be a major playoff contender.
Winning 21 consecutive games is an incredible accomplishment and merits recognition. Their true test comes this week, when they go on a brutal five game stretch against the Lakers, Celtics, Hornets, Warriors and the Suns. The Rockets will have trouble keeping the streak alive, but if the Rockets can win at least three games, it would silence any remaining critics questioning if they are a legitimate playoff team.
The Rockets could easily lose the next five games, but Tracy McGrady and his team are playing at an extremely high level, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they easily sweep through the NBA’s elite teams.
New Orleans Hornets (44-20)
7 home games
11 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Celtics twice, Pistons, Lakers, Jazz, Mavericks, Rockets, Warriors, Magic, Cavaliers
The Hornets continue to prove that they are a legitimate force in the Western Conference. After crushing the Spurs by 25 points Wednesday, the Hornets beat the Lakers by 10 Friday night and have consistently beaten the best teams in the NBA. Chris Paul is having an MVP-like season and looks to keep his team atop of the conference.
Things don’t get easier for Hornets, when they play 10 of their last 18 games against strong playoff teams. David West, the team’s second leading scorer and rebounder, will also be a concern when he left Friday’s game with a lingering sprained left ankle, and Chris Paul also has a mild sprain. The Hornets have been mostly healthy all year, but they can ill-afford to have injuries now.
The Hornets are still second in the Southwest division, but the Spurs and Mavericks are right behind them and are ready leap the Hornets for playoff positioning.
Utah Jazz (44-24)
10 home games
4 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Lakers, Rockets, Hornets, Spurs twice, Mavericks, Nuggets
The Jazz are currently fourth in the Western Conference, but they are in perfect position to move higher in the standings in their quest to secure home court throughout the playoffs.
After the Jazz’s surprising road win over the Celtics, they flopped against the Nets Saturday night. Still, the Jazz play 10 of their last 14 games on at home, where they are 28-3. They also have the easiest schedule among playoff teams, with only seven games against elite teams.
The Jazz are very balanced on offense and defense, and their key players are playing very well at the right time. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer have been a dominant duo as of late, Mehmet Okur is averaging 20 ppg over his last 11 games, and Kyle Korver continues to provide excellent perimeter shooting.
The only concern is how well the Jazz will play on the road in the playoffs, which is why it is important for the Jazz to secure home court throughout the playoff. Now is a better time than ever to play their best basketball.
San Antonio Spurs (44-22)
9 home games
8 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Celtics, Lakers, Rockets, Jazz twice, Suns, Mavericks, Warriors
After winning 11 straight games, the Spurs have lost five of their last six, including a disappointing loss to the Sixers Saturday night. Despite the slump, the Spurs are only one and a half games behind first place, but they will need to play better if they want to get home court and be ready for the playoffs.
Tim Duncan has continued to play well in his last five, averaging 21 ppg and 10 rpg, and Tony Parker has been consistent, but Manu Ginobli and the bench will have to play better much better. The bench is only averaging 13 ppg over the past three games, and the defense has been shaky during their slump, giving up 100 points in four of their last six contests.
The Spurs picked the wrong time to play their worst basketball, but they are still the best team in the NBA until they are dethroned. They have continually proven critics wrong in the past, but if they want to repeat as champions for the first time, they will have to win against a very difficult Western Conference.
Phoenix Suns (44-22)
7 home games
10 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Celtics, Pistons, Rockets twice, Spurs, Mavericks, Warriors, Nuggets twice
The Suns appear to have fully incorporated Shaquille O’Neal with the team’s philosophy, and it has finally translated into wins.
The Suns improved to 7-6 with a dominant win over the Kings and are riding a four game winning streak. It’s still too early to call the trade a complete success, but the Suns have had quality wins over the Celtics, Spurs and the Warriors, and four blowout wins over lesser opponents. Amare Stoudemire has been a monster offensively, and the Suns have shown much better defense in recent games. The Suns play their next two games against easier opponents until they hit a three game stretch against the Rockets, Pistons, and Celtics.
Shaq has played exceptional basketball, and has helped anchor a solid half-court offense and a better interior defense. The Suns are only one and a half games behind the Lakers in the Pacific Division, so now is as good a time as ever to make a move and grab the division.
Dallas Mavericks (43-23)
8 home games
8 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Celtics, Lakers twice, Hornets, Jazz, Spurs, Suns, Warriors twice, Nuggets
After a tough stretch against the west’s elite teams, the Mavericks are back on track against some of the Eastern Conference’s weakest teams. The Mavericks have pounded the east opponents, winning four straight games by more than 19 points.
Since acquiring Jason Kidd, the Mavericks improved to 8-5 with a victory over Pacers. The Mavericks also added Tyronn Lue to bolster the backcourt and bench. Dirk Nowitzki continues to play extremely well with Kidd, and the offense has been very efficient, recording more than 30 assists over the past three games. Josh Howard has played well recently and looks more comfortable playing with Kidd. Howard and Jason Terry will have to step up their play if they want to make a serious playoff run.
The Mavericks will need to take advantage of having four of their next five games at home, where they have been dominant going 29-4. They are still seventh in the standings despite their win streak, but are only two and a half games behind first place, and they will get their chances to move to the top spot.
Golden State Warriors (41-24)
8 home games
9 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Lakers twice, Rockets, Hornets, Spurs, Suns, Mavericks twice
The Warriors are having one of their best seasons in franchise history, yet they remain in eighth in the standings. They are still only four games out of first place, but with most of the west teams playing well, it will be difficult for the Warriors to move up in the standings.
The Warriors have played very well, winning eight of their past 10 games, thanks largely to the great play of their explosive backcourt trio. The Baron Davis has been brilliant during that stretch, scoring 30 or more points in four of those contests and has been clutch in many late game situations. Stephen Jackson has been a deadly three-point threat while Monta Ellis continues to be an unbelievable force on the floor. The Warriors will have a big test at the end of next week, when they host the Rockets Friday, and then play back-to-back games against the Lakers over the weekend.
The Warriors may not be able to move that far up in the standings, but they don’t need to. After last postseason’s monumental playoff upset, they have proven that they are team to be reckoned with regardless of where they end up in the standings.
Denver Nuggets (39-26)
7 home games
10 road games
Remaining Notable Opponents: Pistons, Rockets, Jazz, Suns twice, Mavericks, Warriors twice
The Nuggets have ridden off the play of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony all season, but it may not be enough to help the team make the playoffs.
The Nuggets are only two games behind of the Warriors, but have a very tough schedule remaining. The Nuggets have eight games against NBA’s elite teams, and 10 games on the road, where they are a dismal 12-17.
The Denver organization’s failure to make a move at the trade deadline could ultimately cost them a spot in the playoffs. They had an opportunity to acquire former All-Star Ron Artest, which would have given them a third scoring option and an excellent perimeter defender. However, they were unwilling to give up Linas Kleiza, and it is proving to be a costly move this season.
Iverson and Anthony are a pair of the most dynamic players in the NBA, but are looking for help from the rest of the Nuggets team. J.R. Smith has provided a spark off the bench, providing instant offense and three-point shooting, while Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby have provided the interior presence.
It’s now or never for the Denver Nuggets. They still have a great opportunity to make the playoffs, with a pair of games against the Warriors. Unfortunately, the Nuggets are still a very poor defensive team, allowing 104 points per contest, and are a very poor road team. With the majority of their games on the road, the Nuggets will wondering what they’ll need to do in the offseason.