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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 8:40 PM

Things have gotten extremely tight in the race for the last three playoff spots in the NBA’s Western Conference. Dallas has faded, and is now in danger of missing the playoffs entirely after winning a World Championship last season. Houston, in the driver’s seat just a couple of weeks ago has now lost four straight and may not survive. Utah and Phoenix, statistical longshots very recently, have put themselves in position to steal a spot.

Wednesday’s MONSTER 14-game schedule includes all the teams fighting for the last three spots in the West. That made today the ideal time to take a look at the competitors as they prepare for the final eight days of regular season action. Who will be lined up to play Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and the LA Lakers in the first round? Who will be sitting at home watching the playoffs with the rest of us? Let’s see what might be in store.

 

6…DENVER

The Nuggets moved into the sixth seed Monday Night when they finished off a two-day sweep of Houston. That coupled with a triple overtime loss by Dallas launched Denver past the Mavericks. The wins over Houston were obviously HUGE, because both teams were life-and-death in those games. Denver rose to the occasion twice in two nights, which speaks very well for their chances of survival.

Well, their survival in terms of MAKING the playoffs. We’re not sold on this team as a first round threat. The defense has taken a step backward since Nene was traded to Washington. This is the only team allowing more than 100 points per game that’s going to be in the playoffs. Much of that is tempo. But, the part that isn’t tempo is a defense that just isn’t up to playoff standards right now.

We’re also concerned that Danilo Gallinari has taken a step backward this year. Initially after the trade from New York, he stepped up as a team leader. Now his performance comes and goes.

Left for Denver: vs. LA Clippers, at Phoenix, vs. Orlando, at Oklahoma City, at Minnesota (far from a gift schedule, but there are two home games and what should be a win if needed in the finale at disinterested Minnesota).

 

7…DALLAS

The Mavericks were very close to virtually wrapping up a spot in Utah the other night. That win plus a manageable remaining schedule would have made it tough for Dallas to fall all the way out of the playoff picture. Now they’ll have to sweat a little more.

We just don’t like what we’re seeing from this team lately outside of the courageous efforts of Dirk Nowitzki and the timely return of Delonte West. The pieces don’t fit as well as they did last year on both sides of the ball. Tyson Chandler isn’t there to scare people in the paint. Too many contributing role players from the champs are now cashing inflated paychecks somewhere else. The Lamar Odom Saga didn’t help, but he’s at least out of the way now.

Left for Dallas: (vs. Houston, vs. Golden State, at Chicago, at Atlanta…the Golden State game should be automatic given the Warriors lack of motivation lately, and the Hawks game comes after a five day layoff. It’s possible Chicago is a win too given the way they’re resting banged up players…which all means that the Mavs are still favorites to make the playoffs, even if this roster doesn’t seem ready to shine when they get there).

 

8…PHOENIX

This has been a great story, as a team known for its conditioning has managed to close strong in a season that’s exhausted so many others. We hope Steve Nash can make it back to the playoffs. We don’t see how this roster will scare anybody once the whole West is fresh again and playing at peak intensity.

Frankly, we’re not going to have much nice to say about ANY of these teams in terms of the playoffs. They would already have clinched a spot if they were legitimate threats. In a season where far too many teams are tanking for draft position, what we’re seeing at the bottom of the Western brackets is a battle between mediocre teams who aren’t tanking. The fact that they’re mediocre will keep them from mattering. But, the fact that they CARE has at least made for some entertaining basketball down the stretch. If you’re a purist, nobody’s more entertaining to watch than Steve Nash.

Left for Phoenix: vs. Oklahoma City, vs. LA Clippers, vs. Denver, at Utah, vs. San Antonio (no gifts there, though it’s possible San Antonio will lay down in the finale…the good news is that the first three are at home, and that the Suns have two chances to defeat other teams in the race)

 

9…HOUSTON

There’s always a bit of sleight of hand involved when Houston is winning. This is a smart team with hustling talent. But, it’s not a good team with playoff caliber talent. That finally jumped and bit them the last four games when they faced other contenders. The Rockets enter Wednesday’s game at Dallas on a four-game losing streak, having fallen to Phoenix, Utah, and Denver twice. Basically, the playoffs started early…and Houston wasn’t ready for the playoffs.

Seriously, if the Rockets can’t win home games against those three teams, how would they stand a chance in a best-of-seven against the likes of Oklahoma City or San Antonio?

Left for Houston: at Dallas, at New Orleans, vs. Golden State, at Miami, vs. New Orleans (good news for Rockets fans to see a bad team like New Orleans listed twice…and Golden State has been in the tank for a few weeks now…but the road games at Dallas and Miami are going to be tough at a time where there’s little margin for error).

 

10…UTAH

In a year with so many tankers, teams like Phoenix and Utah feel like comic book heroes. They’re fighting for what’s right and giving it everything they’ve got. Nothing expresses that better than Utah’s marathon triple overtime win Monday Night over Dallas. The Jazz are still mathematical longshots to make the playoffs, and have little chance to win if they qualify. But, they played 63 minutes of high pressure basketball like their lives depended on it and came out on top.

Left for Utah: at Portland, vs. Orlando, vs. Phoenix, vs. Portland (very favorable, because Portland isn’t exactly breathing fire at the moment, and Orlando will be without Dwight Howard…the Jazz may be bringing up the rear at the moment, but they have a chance to close strong and qualify as long as they get some help from the opponents of Denver and Dallas).

JIM HURLEY is looking closely at Houston-Dallas, Oklahoma City-Phoenix, LA Clippers-Denver, and Utah-Portland for big play possibilities Wednesday. But, as we told you at the top, it’s a 14-game schedule! Other matchups of interest include Orlando at Boston, Milwaukee at Washington, and New York at New Jersey because of the playoff storylines over in the East. Check the ad boxes on the home page of this website for big play bulletins in the baskets.

And, don’t forget about baseball! We’re looking again at Texas-Boston, Philadelphia-San Francisco, and Cincinnati-St. Louis for edges in marquee matchups.

Game day selections go up every afternoon right here at the website. Make a few clicks and have your credit cards handy. If you have any questions, please call our handicapping office at 1-800-323-4453. Our representatives are ready to help you create your dream package (don’t forget to ask about Triple Crown Horse Racing!)

Right now the West is Wild even at the lower seeds in the playoff picture. Wait until the postseason actually starts! Oklahoma City and San Antonio are co-favorites at the moment, but the Lakers may be finding chemistry at just the right time…and the Clippers just won two straight as underdogs from the Thunder. We don’t know yet who’s going to get the glory…but we can tell you for sure that JIM HURLEY IS GOING TO GET THE MONEY!

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