Three teams, one spot, and a date with the Golden State Warriors (or, maybe, Memphis Grizzlies)
The Suns, Pelicans, and Thunder are starting to seem like, after everything, they’ve decided not to pursue the final playoff spot. Phoenix has lost four of five, including last night’s heartbreaker to the lowly Sacramento Kings—a game that ended with a Boogie Cousins buzzer-beater bouncing around the rim one, two, three, four times before dropping through the nylon. New Orleans followed a split against the Thunder with a limp showing against the Bulls; granted, Anthony Davis was injured—he’s day-to-day with a shoulder sprain—but still, scoring 72 points in a game doesn’t inspire the greatest confidence. And Oklahoma City, getting Kevin Durant back on Friday, decides to drop a game against the Pelicans, thus losing the tiebreaker should the season end with a Pelicans-Thunder tie for the eighth seed in the West.
What is going on? It seems like every time there’s opportunity for one of these three teams to make a significant step, they falter. This has been a compelling conversation ever since the injuries of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Now, though, as we approach the All-Star break, things will really start to heat up. For these three teams, the postseason is now. Each team has strengths and weaknesses, so let’s look briefly at each.
Why the Suns will make the playoffs…their most brutal stretch of the season is almost over. Phoenix is (mostly) healthy, and after Tuesday’s game against the Rockets, their last before the break, the Suns will have completed a fifteen-game stretch in which eleven of those opponents were playoff teams. In other words, rest and an easier schedule are up next.
Why they won’t…their frontcourt. Even if center Alex Len gets healthy, Phoenix has a problem up front. That’s why they acquired Brandan Wright. That’s why they’re thinking about trading Miles Plumlee. The Suns give up too many points too easily.
Why the Pelicans will make the playoffs…like the Suns, the Pelicans have a pretty easy February, but the real reason New Orleans has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs is Anthony Davis. There’s a viable argument to be made that he’s the NBA’s best two-way player, and he just nailed a buzzer-beating three to beat the Thunder. The Pellies will only go as far as The Brow.
Why they won’t…despite the talent of Davis, the Pelicans can have serious trouble scoring. Ryan Anderson is a heck of a bench option, and every once in a while Tyreke Evans can put points on the board, but this offense is dismal at times. Just look at their most recent loss to Chicago. If Davis is out, having an off night, or well-defended by an opponent, the supporting cast wilts all too easily.
Why the Thunder will make the playoffs…stop me if you’ve heard this before: because they’re finally healthy. Kevin Durant has only played in 24 games this year—fewer than half—and the All-Star break should give him the time to reach 100 percent. I’d also keep an eye on this team as the trade deadline approaches.
Why they won’t…because the Western Conference has caught up with the talent of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Scott Brooks has long appeared a better coach than he actually is, riding the coattails of his two best players. But that time may be up.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite not believing at all in Scott Brooks, I think the Thunder, down only two games, will ride Durant and Westbrook to the postseason. You could see their potential hunger in games like yesterday’s. Just minutes before the game, the Clippers announced that Blake Griffin would be out indefinitely with a staph infection. OKC attacked with a desperate viciousness we have rarely seen. If they can maintain that hunger, they’re simply too good to be beaten out by the Suns or Pelicans.