LeBron James’s greatness has become a handy tool for diehard NBA fans because anyone that questions his ability instantly shows how little they actually know about the NBA. After watching the Heat’s gutsy win over the Celtics last night, it’s become crystal clear that LeBron’s Miami squad are the best team in the Eastern Conference, and debatably the best team in the NBA. They are currently on the second longest winning streak in NBA history at 23 games, and have bested teams like the Thunder, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pacers, Knicks and Bulls along the way. There are a few variables left, namely Derrick Rose’s return, but it’s hard to see how anything or anyone can stop a third consecutive finals berth for the Heat, save a serious injury to one of the big three players.
LeBron has been at the top of the NBA for years now, but he has managed to take himself, and his team, to even greater heights through a few adjustments that play to his strengths. He has upped his three-point percentage from 33 percent his first Miami season to 38.9 percent now, while also increasing his shooting percentage from the right hand corner from 27.27 percent to a whopping 53.3 percent. He is also taking 3.4 three-pointers a game, up from 2.4 last season. While these numbers are not necessarily major factors in Lebron’s overall game, they show that he is becoming a much stronger perimeter player than he has been in the past. Gone are the times when a Dallas Mavericks’ zone could force a bad LeBron shot at the end of the shot clock. Instead, he now knows how to shoot efficiently on the perimeter while still getting into the paint on a regular basis. Heck, he can dribble out the clock and take a jumper, but now he’ll have a decent chance to make it. He’s still an interior monster, as his shooting percentage around the rim has risen yet again from 70 percent to an unheard of 72.09 percent. Oh, and did I mention that he’s averaging 8.2 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game, while getting closer to averaging a triple double? The bottom line is that LeBron is the best player in the world on the best team, and not even Shane Battier’s annoying laughter could change my mind.
Enough about LeBron, though, as I’m sure everyone understands – he’s great. Let’s talk about something more interesting, like the Western Conference playoff race. This is the most competitive and interesting of an NBA conference I’ve seen in recent memory, and perhaps in my lifetime. It boils down to three different races: the Thunder-Spurs battle for the first seed, the Clippers-Memphis-Denver battle for seeds 3-5, and the Warriors-Rockets-Lakers-Jazz Mavericks-Blazers battle for the last three playoff spots.
So the Thunder-Spurs conflict is simple enough, with the winner earning home court advantage throughout the playoffs, as well as a potential chance for home court against Miami in the Finals if they claim the best record in the league. The Spurs are 2-1 against the Thunder on the year, with the home team winning each game. They play again in Oklahoma City on April 4, which could shape up to be the most important game on either team’s schedule until the battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy begins. Between Russell Westbrook, Greg Popovich and the nature of the NBA, it’s pretty much impossible to predict how this will go down, so I will avoid that subject.
Next, we have the classic NBA battle of the Clippers, Grizzlies and Nuggets. As it stands today, the Clippers have a half game lead on the Grizzlies and Nuggets, and all three teams are playing well. This has been a pretty under-the-radar fact, but since Tayshaun Prince has joined the Grizzlies and taken over Rudy Gay’s role, Memphis is 16-5 and playing efficiently. It would appear that John Hollinger made the right move with the inefficient Gay, as the added touches for Gasol have worked quite well. “Marcy Marc” is averaging 17.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG and 4.9 APG for the month of March as well as 13.9, 9.1, and 4.5 respectively for the month of February. These have been his two best months of the season, as well as his first two without Mr. Gay. As for the Nuggets, they’re a devastating force in the paint and have won 12 straight games, and they desperately need to end up in the top two of this trio to secure home court advantage. They boast a 30-3 home record on the year, and you can be sure they’d rather continue that trend than go on the road, where they are 16-19. Last, we’ve got the Clippers. They’ve finally begun to regain some of their early season form, but they have their work cut out for them with the other two physical, hardworking teams on this list. Chris Paul needs to stay healthy down the stretch if they want home court advantage.
Last, we’ve got the interesting battle for the bottom three seeds. It would be tough to go over all of these teams, so I’ll just give my predictions. Golden State, although slumping, is a favorite of mine and I think that they have too much talent not to squeak in. They’re still learning how to use Andrew Bogut but he’s put together a few nice games, and Klay Thompson’s shooting stroke will come around. Houston has way too much firepower not to make the playoffs. They can score as fast and effectively as any team in the NBA, reminding me of an old Suns team in their score-always mentality. The last spot will come down to a battle between the Mavericks and Lakers in my opinion. The Mavs have come on strong since Dirk Nowitzki returned from injury, and their point differential is the best of the non-playoff teams. The Lakers have beat up on weaker competition for the most part in this little run here, and I think they may hit a wall. The Lakers probably get in, but I think the Mavericks will make it close. Either way, it should be one hell of a race.