The Jazz, like many teams in the Western conference, are playing their best basketball of the year. The Lakers have a four game lead at the top of the West, but only 4.5 games separate the second seed Mavs and the eighth seed Spurs. April is upon us, leaving 6-8 games remaining for the Western conference playoff teams, many of these teams scheduled to play one another down the stretch.
This is what the Western playoff set-up looks like: Who will stay hot and who will sputter into the playoffs?
1. Lakers: Appear to be slipping after back to back losses and got whipped in Atlanta last night. Kobe is frustrated, the three point shooting is down, and the interior defense is nothing special. The Lakers have a tough game against the Jazz coming up, but get some easy games against the T'Wolves, Kings, and Clippers down the stretch. You better believe Phil Jackson will use the media's negative talk to inspire the champs and get them back on track. I don't buy the Lakers not being the team to beat.
2. Mavs: Have been great since the trade and have the most depth in the West, but could lose the #2 seed to Utah by the time Apr. 18 comes around. Not enough commitment to defense to get deep in the playoffs and with all the talent on the roster, the Mavs lack the chemistry of Utah, Phoenix, and OKC.
3. Jazz: This could the Jazz' year to reach the Western conference finals. Locking up the #2 seed will be an advantage provided how well the play at home. Boozer is on fire (in a contract year) and the Jazz are built to win playoff style basketball. The X-factor will be the health of Andrei Kirelinko to defend the superstar swingmen in the west. Correy Maggette abused C.J. Miles and so will Carmello, Caron Butler, Durant, Brandon Roy, and of course Kobe. The Jazz look bulletproof, outside of guarding a dynamic swingman.
4. Suns: Everyone has waited for the Suns to turn into a pumpkin, but Nash and Stoudamire look sharp as ever. I don't see the Suns sneaking past the first round, unless they draw the Nuggets in the first round. They will have a challenging last 5 games of the regular season (vs. SAS; @OKC; vs. HOU; vs. DEN; @UTA).
5. Nuggets: The Nuggets are limping to the finish line and it doesn't look good. The absence of coach Karl and the injury of Kenyon Martin has hurt them. Could be too much pressure for Carmello and Chauncy.
6. Thunder: This is the team with "nothing to lose" (pardon the cliche). They have a go-to MVP candidate in Kevin Durant and he's surrounded by talented players. They could get hot and make a run, but their interior defense is suspect.
7. Blazers: They've been on fire lately, but too hot and cold to win a playoff series, as they rely on perimeter shooting in the half court set.
8. Spurs: Five of the Spurs last eight opponents are teams in the playoffs, plus a tough Grizzlies team. Looks as though the Spurs will remain #8 in the West.