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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, February 14, 2015 at 7:00 PM

Though the majority of the NBA is playing “about as expected” entering the 2015 All-Star Break, two of the bigger surprises could have a direct bearing on the championship picture.

*The Golden State Warriors have reached a level of excellence many thought unimaginable in the brutal Western Conference. New head coach Steve Kerr fixed what had ailed the plodding offense of prior coach Mark Jackson…and intensified the defense even more. Too many casual followers don’t realize that Golden State has the best DEFENSE in the league when you look at a per-possession basis. Combine an explosive fast-paced offense with the best per-possession defense…and you get a team that’s 42-9 while playing in what might be the toughest conference ever.

*The Atlanta Hawks have been a huge surprise in the other half of the league. They’ve basically become “Spurs East” in a finger snap because of a head coaching change, an overall team attitude change, and the astonishing long range shooting prowess of Kyle Korver. Remember how great San Antonio look in last year’s playoffs? That’s how Atlanta has looked thus far while compiling a 43-11 record. Literally NOBODY imagined a Golden State/Atlanta championship series before the season started. Over the past several weeks, that’s become the most likely scenario.

Well, until…

Until LeBron James received some new teammates in his post-Christmas stocking that revitalized the Cleveland Cavaliers into a serious championship threat. They went from a sluggish team with no inside defense and a horrible bench to a sizzling super-team by acquiring size and shooting. Cleveland is only 33-22 in the full-season standings, sitting in the #5 hole at the moment. But, in terms of CURRENT rosters, it’s really only the Cavs who can compete with the Hawks in the East if both teams stay healthy. Frankly, this new-look Cavs team may become the Eastern favorites as they gain more familiarity with each other.

Hoping for some injury luck are Chicago, Toronto, and Washington. Milwaukee is a nice story, but teams of kids don’t go deep in the playoffs!

Why is that last group seen as a non-threat? Check out these records vs. teams at .500 or better so far.

Atlanta 19-7

Toronto 14-12

Chicago 15-11

Washington 10-16

Milwaukee 8-17

Atlanta has established superiority…and will have home court. Chicago has enough experience to make it interesting…but would probably have to beat both Atlanta and Cleveland to reach the Finals. (Note that Cleveland is 13-14 vs. quality, a record weighted down by the early unqualified roster).

Over in the West, Golden State is well clear of a very deep field. But, there’s no margin for error or bad injury news because ANY of these teams can get hot in the postseason:

*San Antonio is a proven winner, and looks to be pacing their veterans well.

*Oklahoma City is a proven conference winner and is once again playing with a chip on their shoulder. They’ve had to climb back into the playoff picture after a rash of injuries…but nobody wants to play this team when they’re healthy.

*Memphis has a roster that’s built for the playoffs, and has sustained championship-level performance over two seasons in games where Marc Gasol is on the floor (can they keep him healthy?!)

*The LA Clippers have the frontline talent to go deep, but the bench is a question mark.

*Dallas played San Antonio tougher than anyone last year in the playoffs, and still has the pieces to be a real threat.

*Houston and Portland are both up-and-comers capable of taking one or two steps forward at full strength this Spring.

Let’s run the records vs. quality for this group…

Golden State 17-7

Memphis 17-11

Houston 15-14

Portland 14-14

LA Clippers 14-15

San Antonio 13-14

Dallas 13-15

Oklahoma City is 11-18, which is polluted from all the time Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant missed. They’d surely be in that hunk near .500 at worst if they had stayed healthy.

Clearly Golden State is at the head of the class…and Memphis is reminding everyone how they excel at “playoff basketball” with those numbers.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that the championship discussion only involves the foursome of Atlanta, Cleveland, Golden State, and Memphis. But, they have most of the ping pong balls heading into the second half luck lottery that will position everyone for the postseason. As you prepare you upcoming handicapping strategies…be sure you’re thinking about those teams in particular. That quartet will likely have more playoff games than any other quartet you could come up with.

The All-Star Break is a great time to sign up for longterm service. JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK has affordable rates that take you through all of March Madness in the colleges and the NBA Playoffs in the pros. Call us in the office for complete details at 1-888-777-4155. You can do that Sunday before the first college games start, or Monday-Friday during normal business hours.

In the meantime, keep the cash rolling in with game day college basketball. BEST BETS can be purchased right here at the website with your credit card.

It’s back to big game previews in college hoops beginning tomorrow in the NOTEBOOK. Here’s what’s ahead…

Monday: College Basketball Preview…Kansas at West Virginia in the Big 12

Tuesday: College Basketball Preview… LSU at Texas A&M in the SEC

Wednesday: College Basketball Preview…North Carolina at Duke in the ACC

Thursday: College Basketball Preview…Temple at SMU in the AAC

Friday: Early Look…Iowa State at Texas or W. Virginia at Okie State in the Big 12

Saturday: College Basketball GameDay…UCLA at Arizona in the Pac 12

Yes…you spotted North Carolina/Duke in there. That’s always a must-see game! We’ll keep hopping across all the major conferences from now through the tournaments to get you as ready as possible. THE ROAD TO MARCH MADNESS was paved by JIM HURLEY!


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Jim Hurley on twitter @vsm_hurley

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