The mighty Southwest Division looked like the powerhouse group of teams going into the All-Star Break but a bit of wind has been knocked out of the division since.
Dallas, New Orleans and San Antonio were the teams to beat with impressive win streaks and records against the NBA’s elite teams. Now, it’s looking like the trio is falling into the playoffs rather than rushing in full steam ahead.
Together they amassed a 51-34 record against teams set to make the post season in both conferences before the All Star Game. The Spurs built the best record in the league. Dallas could beat anyone in the NBA and New Orleans had experienced two of this season’s best winning streaks.
Things were going well in the South but things have changed in the last few weeks.
New Orleans has fallen to seventh in the West and is set to square off against the hot Lakers in the opening round of the playoffs. Defense is still their game but no offense has marred their play since they have fallen to 27th in the league in scoring with only 95 points a night. They have only scored 100 points or more five times since the break and are 6-20 this season when their opponents score 100 or more.
Essentially, it’s a case of too little depth down in the big easy, which is a problem that can infect every aspect of a team’s play. Their bench is ranked 19th in the league with only 16 minutes of play a night and are only putting up 28 points a game (17th in the league).
It doesn’t help that David West tore his ACL against the Jazz on March 24th. He was the leading scorer for the Hornets at the time and that’s not saying a lot. It’s really been a case of Monty Williams opting to start a more defensive lineup there in New Orleans but regardless of what your system is, you need scorers.
Now, it appears that Paul has tweaked something in his knee and hopefully it won’t turn out to be something serious.
Luckily, Carl Landry is finding his place in NO. He started his time there scoring in the single digits against some of the NBA’s elite teams but is starting to get comfortable in the offense.
Trevor Ariza is having a very forgettable season in his first year playing for the Hornets. He has only scored 20 or more points once this season and that was a mere 21 against the Knicks back on December 3rd (they lost that game). Call him adjusting or just call him an overrated player. Whatever he is, he isn’t helping New Orleans win with his offensive game.
They started the season off 8-0 and on top of every pundit’s power rankings. Since, they have essentially fallen off the face of the Earth outside of a few impressive stretches. Don’t expect them to cause an upset in the first round.
They are set to face off against the Lakers who are on fire right now and it’s mainly due to the heightened play of their big men. Andrew Bynum looks confident and Lamar Odom is providing increased depth for the defending champions. Emeka Okafor and the rest of the frontcourt will have their hands full defending the big guys in LA.
Let’s move to San Antonio who has the best record in the NBA at 58-19. Regardless, they have won one of their last seven games. That just so happened to come against the struggling Suns on Sunday where they entered a must-win situation having lost their previous six.
Yes, Tim Duncan did go down with an ankle sprain and the Spurs were due for their annual injury. They really lucked out when Tony Parker missed two games instead of two weeks at the beginning of March but their luck really ran out when they lost the four games that Duncan missed and the first two he returned for.
However, Duncan is getting old and it shows. He is playing fewer minutes than ever before in his career and the season has dragged on for him. He has only been the top scorer for them once this season and that was only 21 against the Thunder on New Years Day. This new run and gun San Antonio team has incorporated the big guy well but it’s obvious that they are moving in a different direction that can sometimes leave the NBA veteran huffing and puffing up the court.
It’s interesting to see a team such as the Spurs change the way they play in such a short amount of time and it’s fared well for them so far. Regardless, it has been shown that this style of play really doesn’t work for an 82 game season and playoffs. Just look at the team they ended their losing streak against.
The Phoenix Suns faded every season under Mike D’antoni and that was with a team that was in much better shape. Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash were in their prime. They had good depth with Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw and Shawn Marion as well.
The Spurs have the depth with Richard Jefferson finally finding his stroke, DeJaun Blair getting more comfortable and George Hill developing into a well-rounded scorer. They are known for building and even rebuilding quickly down there in San Antonio but this one may be too soon.
If the playoffs started today, they would be matched up against Memphis that is experiencing a resurgence of their own. They split their four games against the Spurs this season by losing the first two in San Antonio before winning the rest at home.
Surprisingly, they are playing very well without their lead man Rudy Gay and it’s mainly due to the heightened play of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Shane Battier’s return to the Grizzlies is helping out a lot as well.
We aren’t saying that the Spurs are going to lose in the first round but the Griz will give them a good run that will further wear them down. The second round wont be easy at all with possible matchups against the hot Lakers and a Mavericks team that might develop a strong taste for blood.
Additionally, there is a slight chance that they will loose that No. 1 seed to the Lakers that are only two and half games behind them. The Spurs still have to play the Hawks at home, the Lakers in LA and even face the Suns in Phoenix. Things could get interesting for this perennial playoff contender.
Next, we have the Mavs.
They look bombed out and depleted.
Injuries have plagued the boys from Dallas and that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Caron Butler was looking to have a full season in Mavs to really contribute on a contending team. Tough luck when he tore his patella tendon against the Bucks on New Years Day.
It was very untimely since Dirk Nowitzki was already missing games at the time with a sprained knee that he suffered against the Thunder on December 27th. They lost seven of the nine games he missed and the Mavs lost a key opportunity to catch up with the Spurs by losing to them twice in that time span. They began the All-Star break without the same determination and energy they had entering the season.
Since, they are 3-7 against teams set to make the playoffs and all of those loses are against teams set to make it in the West. The Mavs have slipped to the third spot in the conference and they look tired as head coach Rick Carlisle is trying his hardest to get them pumped up.
It isn’t working.
Jason Kidd is looking older and older as his minutes are staying in the 30s per game. He went 0 for 10 in their last two games from beyond the arc and just can’t keep up at times. The team has even opted to rest him as much as two of their remaining five games.
Jason Terry is set to play in all 82 games this season but even he is beginning to fade. His fourth quarter game has slumped and his frustration sparked last week when the Lakers completely embarrassed the Mavs. A fourth quarter shove by Terry against LA’s Steve Blake attracted a bit of unwanted attention from both Matt Barnes and the media in general. Since, Dallas has been called soft, a term that shouldn’t be new to anyone on the team.
Even Tyson Chandler himself admitted that the Mavericks were a team that could easily be pushed around and he knows it from his days as a Hornet. All the fight did was draw criticism and ignite the feud between Dallas and LA, which could carry on into the playoffs if the Mavs even make it to the second round
Right now, they are poised to start the playoffs againstthe Trail Blazers. An unlikely hero has emerged in Portland with LaMarcus Aldridge making a strong case for most improved player. He’s averaging 27 points against Dallas this season and we don’t expect that to let up once the playoffs begin.
Dallas will have their hands full against a surprisingly deep Portland squad. Outside of Aldridge, they will have to game plan against Nate McMillan’s myriad of options. Wesley Matthews and Andre Miller form a dynamic duo in the backcourt while Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace offer their own set of problems up front.
Every player on the Mavs will have their hands full come playoffs and their wont be any room to be tired.
Butler has stated that he will be ready for the playoffs but we need not look any further than Portland to see how players with injured knees do once the postseason begins.
Brandon Roy underwent surgery on his right meniscus after he tore it towards the end of the regular season last year. He returned to Portland’s lineup for game four against the Suns in the first round but was essentially ineffective as Phoenix won the series 4-2.
With Butler, he is returning to a team that has changed a lot since his departure. His minutes have been shared amongst Peja Stojakovic, Rodrigue Beaubois and Marion. It might take more time than is available for him to find his place back in the Mavs’ offense.