NBA Playoffs: Three Teams, Two Spots In West
by Jeremy Martin
With three weeks left in the NBA regular season, the race for the seventh and eighth seeds in the West is heating up. There are three teams fighting for the honor of making the NBA playoffs -- and likely getting bounced from the first round by Phoenix or San Antonio.
When the season started out all three of these teams were supposed to be higher up in the food chain. Now they will have to battle it out right down the wire to extend their seasons past April.
As of this writing Memphis and Denver are in the best position at the seventh and eighth spots, respectively, with identical 39-31 records. Minnesota is on the outside looking in as they stand 2 ½ games behind the Nuggets for the eighth spot.
The following will provide a look at these three teams and Doc's Sports will give our prediction on who will reach the NBA playoffs and who will be taking an early vacation. The Lakers could be included in this list as well but after dropping eight straight recently their season is essentially over.
Memphis Grizzlies: This team won 50 games last season and most prognosticators had them performing close to that level again this time around. It hasn't worked out that way, however, and the Grizzlies have notched only 39 wins as of this writing. Memphis has a tenuous hold on the seventh seed in the West.
This team has worked through a lot of adversity this season. Memphis started off the 2004-05 campaign 5-11 and had to work hard to get back in the playoff mix. The Grizzlies had to adjust to a different style when Head Coach Hubie Brown unexpectedly retired early in the season. Mike Fratello was hired soon after and the team immediately responded to its new leader. Memphis also had to deal with extensive injuries to key players like Pau Gasol and Stromile Swift.
You have to give this team credit for bouncing back after their horrible start. Despite being one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA, the Grizzlies have clawed their way back into the mix and out of these four teams they have the most solid position in the No. 7 spot. This team is very strong defensively, which is a credit to Fratello. Even when its stars were on the bench, this team still played fundamental basketball and won some games it probably shouldn't have simply by keeping the other team away from the basket.
The Grizzlies have lost four straight, however, and they will have to pull it together if they want to keep their position. The No. 7 seed could be a nice spot this season if the Spurs finish No. 2 and Tim Duncan misses considerable time in the NBA playoffs.
Outlook: Memphis has a chance to make up some of the ground it lost in its current slide in the coming week and a half as the team faces a relatively easy lineup of opponents that includes teams like Milwaukee, the Lakers, Toronto and Charlotte. After that it gets a little dicier. The Grizzlies embark on a four-game road trip that includes stops in Dallas, Houston, Denver and San Antonio; all teams that would be in the playoffs if the season started today. When Memphis returns home two nights later it will once again face the Spurs, in a possible preview of the first round. The Grizzlies finish the season at home against Dallas.
Playing the last six games against playoff teams is a tough way to fight for your playoff lives. We think when it is all said and done the Grizzlies might be watching the NBA playoffs on television. Two games against the Nuggets will be crucial.
Denver Nuggets: This is another team that struggled at the beginning of the season, started to play better down the stretch and also one that has had a coaching change.
After a poor start to the season that caused their coach, Jeff Bzdelik, to be fired, George Karl has come in and completely turned this team around. Before Karl came aboard, the Nuggets were 17-25. Since his arrival they are 22-6 including a win last night in Utah.
Karl has helped this very talented team gel. Carmelo Anthony hasn't quite lived up to the expectations that everyone had for him after a great rookie season but Karl has helped him get over the "sophomore jinx" and to mesh with some great complimentary players such as Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and Andre Miller.
This team had a recent setback against Phoenix - a possible first-round opponent -- on Tuesday. But Memphis lost to the Bulls on the same night so the Denver loss wasn't a major blow to its playoff position. The Nuggets could have moved into the No. 7 spot with a win over the Suns.
Outlook: This team is playing very well and we have no doubt they will clinch one of the final two playoff spots. Next week will be a big test as they have road games against Memphis and Minnesota. Two games against Portland and New Orleans look like easy wins if this team keeps playing the way it has. We think that Denver will wind up with the No. 7 spot. The Nuggets will play five of its last seven at home and that bodes well for a team fighting for playoff position.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Yet another team that had to endure a coaching change as they transitioned from Flip Saunders to Kevin McHale close to midseason. This squad is probably the biggest disappointment in the NBA this year as many had them penciled in to represent the West in the NBA Finals.
But contract squabbles, injuries, lack of team chemistry and other general distractions contributed to an underachieving season. It is ironic that when this team meets the Lakers tonight in Los Angeles, both teams will be fighting for their playoff lives (the Lakers are all but mathematically eliminated). These were two of the top teams in the West last year. But the Lakers have an excuse: they had a major roster overhaul during the offseason. Minnesota came into this season with the same core roster that played so well last year.
This team has been playing much better, however, and they still have a legitimate chance for the NBA playoffs.
Outlook: The Timberwolves are getting hot at the right time and they can take advantage of Memphis' current downswing and tough schedule if they continue to play well.
Starting tonight at Staples Center against the Lakers, Minnesota has a tough three-game road stretch that includes stops in Phoenix and Sacramento. After that it faces a relatively easy slate that includes two games against Utah as well as meetings with Atlanta Golden State and New Orleans.
After the current road trip the Timberwolves' toughest games will be against Denver and Seattle, which are both at home. This team closes out the regular season at home against the Spurs in what could essentially be a play-in game for the NBA playoffs as well as a possible first-round matchup preview. We think Minnesota will edge out the Grizzlies for the eighth and final spot.
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