PBT Roundtable: Who gets the last couple playoff spots in the West?

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Welcome to PBT’s regular roundtable on issues around the NBA, where our writers weigh in on the topic of the day.

Today: The conventional wisdom is in the West the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies and Rockets are playoff locks (barring catastrophe). If true, who gets those final two slots?

Kurt Helin: I think Minnesota, if they can just stay healthy, is maybe the closest thing to a lock for one of those two spots. With Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic in the paint they have a combination that pairs well together, then in the backcourt there is Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin, a shot creator and a shooter. Add in Derrick Williams, Chase Budinger and some other depth and I like that team to get a spot. The final spot could go so many ways… but I’ll take Dallas. Jose Calderon’s more conservative style and Dirk Nowitzki’s touches will limit what Monta Ellis has to do in the offense, plus they have some solid rotation guys like Shawn Marion and Samuel Dalembert. But if the Trail Blazers or Nuggets got that slot, it’s not a surprise.

Brett Pollakoff: I’ll go ahead and use this opportunity to remind everybody that the Lakers aren’t going to be as bad as many have projected. While the health of Kobe Bryant is a huge concern, the reality is that there’s still talent on that roster. By all accounts, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will both be fully healthy by the start of the season, and the team managed to sign some veteran talent at bargain basement prices in Chris Kaman, Nick Young, and Jordan Farmar. Jordan Hill is healthy as well, and if Wes Johnson is ever going to make even a small leap in production given his talent, the time is now in Mike D’Antoni’s system. As long as Kobe plays even 60 regular season games for the Lakers, I like them to make the playoffs. And I agree on Minnesota for the remaining slot in the West — there’s too much talent there if they stay injury-free not to succeed.

If you want to ride with a sleeper, give me New Orleans — Eric Gordon back, along with Jrue Holiday and (begrudgingly) Tyreke Evans make that a backcourt to reckon with.

Darus Soriano: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Jazz and the Suns claim the bottom two playoff spo…hahahaha.

Okay, seriously, I’m taking a page from both Brett and Kurt and going with the Lakers and the Timberwolves. While I think both teams will have their issues defensively, they’re the two most talented teams outside that top six and both groups are in line to have a bit more injury luck next season than they did this past one. When you combine that with the fact that both teams are well coached (yes, Lakers’ fans, Mike D’Antoni is actually a good coach) while also having a chip on their shoulders after disappointing seasons last year, both squads have the right ingredients to rack up enough regular season wins to get into the tournament.

If I were to pick a dark horse team not already mentioned, I’d go with the Kings. I really like the addition of Greivis Vasquez as another point guard to share time with Isaiah Thomas and bring some steady playmaking to that spot by creating shots for his teammates. Plus, in terms of young talent, Sacramento has several nice pieces that, if they can finally put it together (I’m looking at you, DeMarcus Cousins) could make some noise by sneaking up on some of the more established western teams and be in the race past the all-star break

Dan Feldman: I too like the Timberwolves to get one of the spots. I think the Trail Blazers have been ignored in this discussion, and I consider them the safest team to be in the mix. With a young roster and a bench upgrade, they’ll almost definitely be better. The biggest question is whether one of the high-variance teams — Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets — nears its potential and passes Portland, Between the three, I suspect one will. If I had to guess, it’s the Pelicans, but I have to pause before picking against Dallas. Rick Carlisle had a rag-tag bunch at .500 last season, and adding a healthy Dirk Nowitzki is a major upgrade.

Rhett Anderson: Los Angeles guy here, a born-and-raised Laker fan. I want them to make the playoffs, but realistically it’s difficult for me to see that happening. Kobe is still Kobe, but he’s getting older and coming off a serious injury. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol will be healthy, but Nash’s minutes are restricted by constant back pain even when healthy. I like the offseason additions (Farmar, Kaman) and Jordan Hill is developing well, but in the end it comes down to Kobe’s return. The team revolves around him, and without him at full strength in 60-65 games, a playoff spot would surprise me.

I agree with Minnesota as one of the final two, and if I had to guess from there it’s a tossup between Dallas (Nowitzki for a full season) and Denver (Faried’s development with the spotlight a little brighter now than before).

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.