x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Things are wildest in the west in the NBA

While the play-off picture in the Eastern Conference is pretty tidy, the Western is like a movie from the genre that shares the name. It's wild.

Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder served notice to the Miami Heat should the two meet in the NBA finals later.
Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder served notice to the Miami Heat should the two meet in the NBA finals later.

In the NBA's Eastern Conference, the final one-third of the season is a formality. The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat will sort out the top two spots and six other mostly harmless teams will fill out the play-offs bracket.

Things out west, however, are considerably more interesting.

The Oklahoma City Thunder lead a jostling and dynamic pack of contenders, many of whom look capable of going deep into the play-offs. The Thunder are young, athletic, intriguing and unproven. They certainly looked of championship calibre beating the Heat 103-87 on Sunday.

However, their defence is spotty and they lead the league in turnovers, an alarming statistic.

Three veteran teams, each of whom has won a championship since 2007, are behind them: the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks.

The Spurs are likely to finish second in the West; their remaining games are all against teams carrying losing records. The Spurs are not much on the defensive end, either, but their offence is the league's best over the past month, and they have added the forward Stephen Jackson. The last time the erratic Jackson was in San Antonio, in 2003, they won a championship.

The Lakers still have Kobe Bryant, and they may be ready to raise their game now that they have a useful point guard in his prime in Ramon Sessions. And Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks remain champions until someone beats them. What makes the Western Conference fascinating is the depth of good teams. After the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers, a four-and-a-half game spread blankets the next nine teams - the Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas, Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets are within one-and-a-half games of each other. Had the season ended Sunday, the Nuggets would not have made the play-offs.

The Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers also remain in contention, creating a dynamic where nine teams are fighting for the five spots.

A hot streak over the final month could carry any of them into the final eight; a stumble could leave a pretty good team with their faces pressed against the play-offs window.

Every game matters, and the disappointment of the Timberwolves was palpable when they carried Oklahoma City into double-overtime last week before falling.

"We needed this game," said Kevin Love, who scored a club-record 51 points. "It could have been a driving force for us in these last 17 games."

The Timberwolves are just two-and-a-half games back of the west's final spot, and like nearly every team in the conference, they dream of the play-offs.

A wild finish is certain.