Clippers, Rockets playing like title contenders out West


After some highly competitive and entertaining basketball, the Western Conference standings look very similar to last week. The same eight teams are still in the playoffs as of now, and the top three teams are still OKC, San Antonio and Portland. The Clippers surpassed the Rockets for the fourth seed, and the Mavericks and Suns swapped places, with Phoenix now only 0.5 games ahead of Memphis for the final playoff spot.

The team playing the best basketball out west right now is the Los Angeles Clippers. After losing a tough game at Memphis, the Clips won at OKC, at New Orleans and at home against Houston. The win against the Thunder was thanks in large part to Jamal Crawford (36 points) and Chris Paul (18 points, 12 assists). With Paul fully recovered from his shoulder injury, Griffin having a career-year and Deandre Jordan’s emergence, the Clippers have their focus on the Larry O’Brian Trophy.

Despite the loss at LA, the Rockets have been quietly gaining on the West’s top teams, going 18-5 in the past two months. James Harden is one of the top ten players in the league (he had 43 points in three quarters versus the Kings Tuesday), Dwight Howard looks like he actually cares about winning and the team is playing with great offensive chemistry. Jordan Hamilton, who was acquired in a trade from Denver, has 28 points in his first two games, and adds depth to a very good frontcourt.

Now, on to the Thunder and Russell Westbrook. Yes, they are 0-3 since his return, including a bad loss to Cleveland. Yes, all those losses came at home. Yes, Westbrook is 14-41 from the floor with 10 turnovers in those three games. And yes, Westbrook forced some tough shots when Kevin Durant was open. However, Oklahoma City still leads the West by 1.5 games and Kevin Durant is still doing Kevin Durant things. A little rust and inefficiency are to be expected from Westbrook, whose first two games since Christmas were against the Heat and Clippers, two of the league’s best teams. He played much better against the Cavs, despite the loss, scoring 24 points and adding 9 assists in 30 minutes of play. The Thunder aren’t panicking and a three-game losing streak is an anomaly, not a cause for concern. With a win against the ascending Grizzlies, OKC can quell the talk surrounding Westbrook.

Speaking of which, there are some important matchups in the coming week: Memphis at Oklahoma City tonight; Dallas at San Antonio on Monday; LA Clippers at Phoenix on Tuesday; and Oklahoma City at Phoenix on Thursday. The games at Phoenix should be awesome to watch and are crucial for the Suns, who have dropped three straight including a blowout loss to the Jazz.

There are also three very intriguing cross-conference matchups. Golden State at Indiana and Miami at Houston on Tuesday, and then Miami at San Antonio on Thursday. In Indiana, it will be a matchup of the league’s best defense versus one of the league’s best offenses, and two of the league’s best players in Paul George and Steph Curry. Everyone knows the recent history between the Heat and Spurs, but we know San Antonio will play it off as just another game. The game I am most excited for is Miami at Houston, who are both playing their best ball of the season. I believe Houston is a title contender, and a win against LeBron, LeBron’s face mask and the two-time defending champs will certainly give the Rockets a boost of confidence come postseason time.