With the All-Star break and trade deadline now in the books and all relevant teams firmly focused on playoff seedlings, here are five of the more interesting storylines to keep an eye on during the run to the postseason.
The Alpha Dog Fight in OKC
Who would have thought that OKC could lose last year’s MVP to injury only to have his second fiddle step up to the level where he is now raising his hand for this year’s MVP?
We’ve all done it: Durant misses some games and Westbrook shows us what he’s capable of for a month, only to be forgotten once the Durantula returns. The time for this naivety has passed. With Westbrook compiling four consecutive triple doubles over the past fortnight he has well and truly thrown his hat into MVP contention. Not only are we now seeing Westbrook as one of the league’s most dominant players, but also an Alpha Dog battle has begun in OKC.
We used to wonder why Westy would sometimes choose not to pass the ball to Durant in late games situations and condemn him as selfish or lacking in basketball IQ, but did he know something we didn’t? Was he so supremely confident in his ability to be the Alpha Dog that he knew what he was capable of before we got see to see it? Durant certainly knew…
Kevin Durant is like nothing we have seen with his size, length and scoring ability. I still believe he is the man in Oklahoma. However, with Rusty now playing at an MVP level, he will have to reassert himself if he wants to remain The Franchise in OKC.
Spurs Gaining Momentum
Don’t awaken the sleeping giant.
The Spurs have somehow managed to slip under the radar, ONCE AGAIN this season. Year after year we all promise ourselves that no matter what, we are not going to doubt the Spurs’ ability to contend at season’s end. A slowish start (as usual) and currently a low seeding (7th), has us all doing it again.
The fact of the matter is, the Spurs only concern themselves with the postseason. They steer themselves through the regular season with an uncompromised commitment to remaining healthy and if that means sacrificing some games along the way then so be it.With the Western Conference as deep as it is, finishing with a high seed this year won’t actually gain you the kind of advantage you would usually be hoping for. As it currently stands, the Memphis Grizzlies will be rewarded for all of their hard work in attaining the second seed with a match up against the defending champions. Congratulations, #GrizzNation!
The Spurs have won each of their past 5 games, on the back of some impressive performances from last year’s Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran point guard Tony Parker. In fact, the resurgence of Tony Parker has had a lot to do with the Spurs reasserting themselves as contenders, averaging 26 points and 4 assists thus far in March; well up from his 14 and 5 on the season.
Don’t be the guy doubting the San Antonio Spurs. They plan for the playoffs and will be ready to go when the bright lights of the postseason start shining.
Currently the 8th seed in the East, the Indiana Pacers have won 8 of their past 10 games and are eagerly awaiting the return of superstar Paul George. While the Hawks are sitting very comfortably 10½ games clear in top spot, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they were actively supporting either the Miami Heat to steal the 8th spot or for Indiana to work their way into 7th to avoid a second consecutive first round matchup against the Pacers.Once George returns, this Pacers team will be almost exactly the same unit as the team that won the Eastern Conference last year (minus Lance Stephenson). Under the masterful direction of head coach Frank Vogel, Indiana has battled all season to scrap out wins. Once you throw an offensive juggernaut like PG-13 back into the equation this Pacers lineup looks a lot more like a top four seed than an 8th.
I for one will be watching intently at how George returns and what this Blue Collar, Gold Swagger unit has in store come the postseason.
The Return of Blake Griffin
It’s a credit to the talent in the Western Conference that the LA Clippers are currently the 5th seed in the West.
This loaded Clippers roster has dealt with their fair share of adversity over the past 12 months; from the outing of racist GM Donald Sterling to the injury concerns of star power forward Blake Griffin this year.With Blake sidelined DeAndre Jordan has enjoyed the limelight posting some career numbers. Jordan is averaging 15.6 points, 20.1 boards, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 steals at 66% from the field over his past 10 games and is one of the main reasons the Clippers remain in contention for a top four seed.
With Griffin set to return soon the Clippers will likely reassert themselves as one of the top contenders in the Western Conference.
Much like the Spurs, I believe the Clips have the ability to take their game to the next level come the playoffs. They’ve been there before and last season’s run was dealt a massive blow with the off-court melodrama. This time around they seem poised for the postseason and, assuming they finish with the 5th seed, a matchup against the Rockets or Trail Blazers may even see them as favourites.
The MVP Race
The race for the 2014/15 MVP is a tight one. It’s going to go right down to the wire and watching the two standout contenders, Steph Curry and James Harden, battle it out down the stretch will be absolutely riveting. And to make it even better, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James have both thrown their hats in the ring over recent time, setting the table for one of the more entertaining MVP races we’ve seen in years. Sitting atop the hellish Western Conference standings, Steph Curry has led the Golden State Warriors to one of their most outstanding seasons on record.
While Curry’s season stats do not stack up when compared to Harden’s, he does hold the advantage in one key stat; the Warriors are currently 48-12 which is 6½ games clear of the The Beard’s Rockets. I’m all for rewarding winning, however, when we are talking about a 6-7 game difference between the top seed and 4th seed, I don’t believe that is enough to give Curry the advantage. Add the fact that Curry has a number of all-Star talents around him and his case for MVP begins to dwindle.
Anything can happen on the run home and we’ve seen what Steph is capable of this year, so hold onto your hats while Curry makes his push for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.Let’s face it; the Houston Rockets have caught you off guard! After their first round exit from last year’s Playoffs and the loss of Chandler Parsons in free agency, not many expected the Rockets to be sitting 4th in the West at this time of the year.
While you can definitely attribute some of this to the hard work of the Rockets’ role players (Motiejunas, Beverley, Ariza, Jones, etc) the fact is that without James Harden this Rockets team would be no better than a D-League squad. Too harsh? Well maybe a little, but you get the point.
In terms of Most Valuable Player for any given team, it seems quite clear to me that James Harden is standing alone at this point.
Remarkably, Harden has gone to yet another level so far this month, averaging 29.3 points, 7.0 boards, 9.3 dimes, 1.0 blocks and 1.8 steals across Houston’s 5 March games. He has taken his game, and the Rockets’ playoff chances, to the next level this season.
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