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Can Any Western Conference Contender Knock Off Heat or Pacers?

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Can Any Western Conference Contender Knock Off Heat or Pacers?
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

It's been one of the defining storylines of the 2013-14 NBA season, right up there with franchise-crippling injuries and the tank party that wasn't.

The balance of power is out of control.

The Western Conference has a collection of world-beaters and a handful of afterthoughts. The East has officially been a two-team race since the Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose, the Brooklyn Nets lost Brook Lopez and the New York Knicks kept J.R. Smith.

The West owns eight of the league's 10 best winning percentages, a clear indication of just how lopsided this game has become:

But the West might not have as much power as you'd think. 

The East, while admittedly top-heavy, actually holds the top two spots in the Association's pecking order.

The two-time defending champion Miami Heat rule the roost until proven otherwise. If the torch was to be passed for this season alone, the Indiana Pacers would have to be the recipient.

No two teams have built more compelling championship cases, Miami for its track record and Indiana for its body of work.

The Heat have battled their annual midseason malaise and still have the NBA's fourth-best net rating (plus-6.7 points per 100 possessions). They have already established their dominance despite not showing anything close to their best hand nor even working with a full deck of cards.

The Pacers have been nothing short of the best show in the business this season. Indiana owns both the top net rating (plus-10.2) and highest winning percentage (.825). Coach Frank Vogel's team has passed nearly every test on its syllabus, splitting its first two meetings with Miami and holding a 5-2 mark against the eight teams currently in the playoff picture out West.

For all of the depth fortifying the Western Conference ranks, is there really a championship contender among them? That might come down to which of these two beasts from the East is still standing after what's sure to a be a no-holds-barred slugfest in the conference finals.

The West seems like it has six clubs with something at least resembling a championship ceiling: Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. All will have a different motivation while watching the Eastern Conference race unfold.

On paper, the Thunder have the cleanest resume among this group. OKC has the third-best net rating (plus-8.0) and sits tied for the third-best record (32-10). All of this while perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook has been sidelined by two separate knee surgeries for 17 of the team's 42 games.

Kevin Durant's had an MVP-caliber season (30.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists), Serge Ibaka's starting to figure things out (14.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks) and Westbrook's expected to rejoin the ranks around the All-Star break.

This group has upside from its youth, experience from its track record (2012 NBA Finalist) and a near nightly advantage from its athleticism.

It also should find itself near the front of the Pacers bandwagon. Neither matchup is ideal, but OKC's turnover woes (16.0 per 48 minutes, tied for seventh) could be easier exploited by the South Beach track stars than the Circle City plodders.

The Spurs, on the other hand, should be praying for a rematch of last season's Finals.

San Antonio knows that was the one that got away. The Spurs had never fallen short on the championship stage under Gregg Popovich, and they still wouldn't have if not for a miracle from Ray Allen.

They figured out how to limit LeBron James as much as humanly possible and held his production as a scorer in check (25.3 points on .447/.353/.795 shooting). They also don't have the bodies to withstand seven games of punishment from Indiana's massive frontcourt (Roy Hibbert, David West) or the athleticism to compete on the perimeter with Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill.

It would be an uphill battle in either fight for the Spurs, but their experiences (good and bad) with the Heat should keep them hoping for a championship sequel.

As for the other four teams in this race, they'll have to allow themselves to get to this stage first.

The Blazers and Warriors can create nightmare matchups with their deep arsenals of perimeter shooters. But it will take more than a hot streak to reel off 16 postseason wins.

For Portland, that means shoring up a defense that leaks more than a contender's should (105.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, tied for 26th). Even a team with this many three-point weapons is going to find itself in close games come playoff time. The Blazers will then have to manufacture the type of stops they've had trouble getting in the regular season:

Golden State has the defense to compete (99.7 defensive rating, fifth), but what should be a high-powered offense has been nothing more than mediocre (103.8 offensive rating, 14th). Obviously, all shooters will run into some rough nights, but the Warriors often tie their own hands at that end of the floor.

"I think their biggest flaw is how much they rely on their shooting," ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst wrote of the Dubs. "Sometimes they just ignore that they have legit big man threats."

The Rockets rarely forget their big man, but they're still having a hard time figuring out how to use him.

Houston's having a hard time resisting Dwight Howard's requests for more post touches, just as the Los Angeles Lakers did last season. So, the Rockets force-feed a low-post game that isn't there, at the expense of a pick-and-roll game that could be the best in the league.

"The pick-and-roll with James Harden or Jeremy Lin is devastating," CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted. "Why not run that more?"

That's a question only the Rockets can answer, and one they'll need to figure out to embark on a successful postseason run.

The Clippers might be the best team of this bunch. Or the worst. It depends on when you watch them.

L.A. is loaded with talent. Not many teams could lose an MVP candidate (Chris Paul, separated shoulder) and watch another emerge in his absence (Blake Griffin):

But the Clippers still need to prove that their new-found offensive flair will stick around once Paul returns. As good as CP3 is, he can't lift a group of ball-watching teammates to the championship podium.

Which Western Conference team poses the biggest threat to the East?

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There are potential pitfalls that exist for both the Heat and Pacers out West, but all require certain leaps of faith to believe.

That Westbrook returns to full strength, KD stays pressed down on the pedal and Ibaka demands his place near the top of OKC's hierarchy. That Popovich's crew can ward off the effects of Father Time for another season. That there is a team among the "other four" that can hold both the Thunder and Spurs off the championship stage.

Whichever team emerges from the West will have survived a three-round gauntlet. Miami and Indiana might crack their first playoff sweats in the conference finals.

There's a lot of cumulative postseason damage to deal with and a top-shelf talent gap that may already have the famed East Coast bias.

If the Heat or Pacers can still hit their top gear after waging war in the conference finals, I'm just not convinced the West will be able to keep up.

We already knew that the East was a two-team race. The path to the podium looks like it will be as well.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

 

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