In one night, the Los Angeles Lakers went from teetering on the brink of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005, to beating the Houston Rockets, leapfrogging them in the standings and clinching the seventh seed. NBA basketball as its best.
The Western Conference playoff teams are now set and, unlike the Eastern Conference where the Heat are far and away the favorites, the West has more teams that have a legitimate shot at going to the NBA Finals. Here is how I view the eight playoff teams out West:
Contenders: Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs
The Oklahoma City Thunder dominated their way through Western Conference in 2012 before losing to the Miami Heat in the Finals. This year could be more of the same. Kevin Durant is the best player in the NBA not named LeBron and he will not slow down in the postseason. If point guard Russell Westbrook can play up to his ability, the Thunder will be tough to take down again in 2013.
While the Thunder may be favorites, the Spurs also have a claim as contenders. Veteran leaders Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been great all season, playing "Spurs" basketball that coach Gregg Popovich has built over the years. While San Antonio does not have the superstar players that OKC has, they may be the better team at playing as a collective unit.
Challengers: Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies
All season long, the Denver Nuggets have been one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NBA. The Nuggets are the forgotten team of the Andrew Bynum trade, but that trade landed them Andre Iguodala, who has been great for Denver all season. No team scored more points than the Nuggets and if they can carry their scoring ability into the postseason, they can beat anyone in the league.
While the Nuggets offensive abilities made them a challenger in the West, the defensive prowess of the Memphis Grizzlies that give them that chance. Memphis allowed the least amount of points in the NBA this season and have two players, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, who both have a chance to win the NBA's Defensive Player of Year award. If the saying "Offense wins games, but defense wins championships" holds true, the Grizzlies have a great chance.
Sleepers: Los Angeles Clippers
For basically their entire existence the Clippers have been a punch line for jokes, but since Blake Griffin and Chris Paul came together they have been anything but a joke. The team loaded up on role players in the offseason in order to create depth that can help in the playoffs. Players like Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes will need to play great for Clippers to make a run, but as long as Chris Paul is leading the show they will have a chance to surprise people in the playoffs.
Better Luck Next Year: Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors
I like the direction the Rockets and Warriors are going, but 2013 is just not going to be the year. The Lakers are going to be without Kobe Bryant and have played almost no defense all season long, so why would that change in the playoffs? It won't and the Lakers will be lucky if they can win a game.