It’s starting to feel real in the NBA again

I see you over there by the coffee pot talking about whether Westbrook or Harden should be MVP.

Let’s get this out of the way. The best argument I’ve seen for James Harden deserving the MVP is this piece by Ben Golliver for SI. It pretty much confirms what most people have thought about Harden this season, he finds efficient ways to score and gets his teammates easy shots on a crazy number of possessions. I agree with most of what Golliver has to say. While it easy to get wrapped up in the insanity of Westbrook’s triple-doubles, on the whole Harden is probably more valuable to his team than any other player in the league is to theirs… and yet, no one has been more thrilling to watch this year than Westbrook. A couple of night’s ago Brodie dragged the Thunder to an improbable 14-pt comeback victory against the Mavericks, a game in which he scored scored 37 points, notched yet another triple-double hit the game winning shot. Just another night’s work for hardest working man inhoops. At this point I feel like they should just make Harden and Westbrook co-MVPs, they have both been great and made the regular season exciting from beginning to end. I salute them both.

Alright, enough with that.

Let’s talk about something important.

Let’s talk about how tonight’s Warriors/Spurs game could very well decide which squad gets the number one seed in the Western Conference and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Let’s talk about how the Cavaliers have completely fallen apart on defense and suddenly look more vulnerable than at any other time since LeBron’s return. Let’s talk about how the Lakers are finding all-new ways to lose games so they can keep their draft pick — well — ok, we don’t have to talk about that.

Last night the Warriors beat Harden’s Rockets 113–106 to tick their winning streak up to eight games. They have been playing incredible basketball as of late, and doing so without Kevin Durant. We’ve been talking so much about this year’s MVP race that almost seems like it’s been five years since Steph Curry was getting all of the media attention and being voted unanimous MVP, and it seems almost fitting the the Chef would cook up a 32 point, 10 rebound, 7 assist game against Harden, on the road. This has been a bit of a strange year for the back-to-back MVP. He’s had to sacrifice some parts of his game with Durant on board. His usage rate is down, and without the ball in his hands all the time some of his peripheral stats like true-shooting and offensive win shares have dipped. Last night was a reminder that even when Curry is having an off night (3–11 on 3s) he can still find ways to score and get his teammates involved.

The player who has stood out to me the most on the Warriors recent run is Andre Iguodala. For awhile this year it looked like Iggy was starting to make that transition into his NBA golden years, but as of late he has been fantastic. Not only did he lock down James Harden last night, holding the Beard to 5–20 shooting, but he also contributed on offense with 12 points and six assists. On this recent winning streak Iguodala has been flashing some of the same brilliance that got him a Finals MVP a couple of years ago. He’s going to be the key to the Warriors being able to play small when Durant gets back. He is going to get a lot of open looks from beyond the arch and can not hesitate to punish defenses for ignoring him. Iguodala has been shooting 40% from three in March, if that number holds throughout the playoffs the Warriors will be near-impossible to beat.

Speaking of nearly impossible beat, the San Antonio Spurs are only 2.5 games behind the Warriors in the West and are 7–3 in their past ten games with wins over the Cavs and Grizzlies in the past week. They have the best rated defense in the NBA, just behind the Jazz, and allow the second worst field goal percentage to opponents — just behind the Warriors. I’ve written a lot about Kawhi Leonard already this season, and while I don’t think he is quite up there with Westbrook and Harden for MVP contention, I do feel like he’s locked up another Defensive Player of the Year award.

We’re not going to get to see all of the match-up and coaching intricacies that will be happening in presumed Western Conference Finals series between the Spurs and Warriors tonight, mostly due to Durant not playing, but there’s no doubt the game will have a playoff feel to it. The Spurs have designed a team that wants to play bully ball against the Warriors, and without Durant’s height it will be interesting to see how effective Golden State will be when they go to a small lineup, if they do at all. We’ll see if Kawhi spends most of the night guarding Klay Thompson, or if he takes on the challenge of guarding Steph for big minutes. I’m also interested to see if LaMarcus Aldridge can finally have a big impact playing against the smaller, but intimidating Draymond Green. The Warriors are right behind the Spurs in defensive team rating, and played a great game against the three-point happy Rockets last night. San Antonio does have a couple of big advantages going into tonight’s game: they will have home court, and they get to play a Golden State team on the back end of a back-to-back. There hasn’t been any news about either team resting players, so it should be one hell of a show.

The Western Conference is starting to feel a lot more relevant lately with the Cavaliers starting to falter in the East. It’s never a good idea to count a team that employs one LeBron Raymone James out of title contention, but with the kind of defense that Cleveland has been playing lately, they will not even make it out of their conference if things don’t change for them quick. The world champs are currently 22nd in defensive efficiency and have been one of the worst teams in the league on D since the All-Star break. A lot of their woes on defense can be attributed to fatigue, the core players on this team have been two the Finals two straight years, and in trying to bolster up their roster they have brought in a number of defensive liabilities — I’m looking at you: Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, and Derrick Williams. They are just getting J.R. Smith back from a right thumb fracture, and it’s going to take time for him to work himself back into basketball shape. Kevin Love has never been a shutdown defender, and is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery he had in February. There’s a lot to love about Kyrie Irving, but he’s not going to jump off the page on defense.

This is a tricky spot for the Cavs. They have already played LeBron James way more than they would have liked this season. The King has been magnificent, putting up 25 points, 8.4 assists, and 8.1 rebounds a night in his 14th season. We will probably never see a player maintain such eye-brow raising stats on this consistent a basis in our lifetimes. The Eastern Conference is still far behind the West when it comes to top-end competition, but the ascension of the Celtics and Wizards is going to make for a tough road back to the Finals which, by the way, would James seventh in a row. I think a big part of the Cavs’ 3–1 comeback in last years Finals can be attributed to the relative ease with which they were able to get through the Eastern Conference compared to the slog that Golden State had to endure in the West. This year I don’t think things will be so easy for the champs. The lack of depth on the Cavs’ roster has done some real damage, and it’ll be interesting to see what they do to stop the bleeding once the playoffs begin.

This is the time of year when every title contender has to start getting their shit together. For the Warriors that means trying to sure up the number one seed while getting Kevin Durant back into basketball shape. The Spurs need to figure out how the hell to beat the Warriors. We just got done talking about the Cavs’ problems. As fun as it is talk about triple-doubles or 70 point games, it’s more interesting to talk about title contenders. You can start to feel the games getting a little bit more exciting lately. Playoff basketball is close, and the coffee is for closers.

Always be closing.

Part time basketball writer, full time NBA Junkie Email: giosjustin@gmail.com, tweet @justinjacobs