For many basketball fans, this time of year is both a blessing and curse. March Madness is here, and college rivalries are at full tilt, but the NBA is in the final stretch, and no one can wait for the playoffs to arrive. This year, however, the race to qualify is more heated than ever. The Western Conference has been dominated front to back by the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, but the battle for the remaining six spots is going to be a close one. With only a couple weeks left, here are five teams to watch out for come playoff time.
- Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers were one of the hottest teams in the NBA before running into James Harden and the Rockets. Though a couple of stepback daggers downed the 13-game winning streak, Damian Lillard and co. have essentially locked up third seed and project to be a serious threat to any team in the playoffs. With the league’s sixth-best defensive efficiency and thirteenth-best offensive efficiency, this team is showing it can perform on both sides of the ball for the first time in years.
- Oklahoma City Thunder
Though it’s cliché, it’s long been said that in the NBA, it always helps to have the best player on the floor. With Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder can arguably have three of the best five players on the floor at any given time in a game. I’m not and never have been an Anthony fan, but I still believe he can work out how to turn into the famed Olympic Melo again. Losing André Roberson to a ruptured patellar tendon certainly hurt their chances, but one would hope that a team with this much talent could work things out regardless and hold the four seed through this final stretch.
- Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl Anthony-Towns is one of the league’s biggest conundrums. He’s possibly the most skilled ball player in the world not named Anthony Davis, but takes just 13.9 shots per game. To put that into perspective, despite being the most efficient scorer on the team (and one of the most efficient in the league), he ranks third on his team alone in field goal attempts. The loss of Jimmy Butler to a meniscus injury and consecutive surgery certainly didn’t help the Wolves, and the way they’ve coped has been both promising and frustrating. Rather than having KAT pick up the slack, Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague have all seen more attempts. But as the March 11 win over the Warriors showed, they can compete with the very best. I think the young squad will make a late push to close the regular season and be an extremely foreboding matchup for any team in the playoffs, marking the end of the longest active postseason drought in the NBA at 13 seasons.
- Utah Jazz
Putting the Jazz this low was a difficult decision to make. They’re red-hot and winners of 24 games in their last 31. Rudy Gobert has been one of the association’s best players since returning from injury, and the team is the second-best defense in the league. However, their offense ranks 16th despite losing their All-Star forward Gordon Hayward to free-agency over the summer. The rise of Donovan Mitchell has been meteoric, Joe Ingles is quietly putting together a remarkable shooting season and Coach Quin Snyder consistently gets the most out of his players. Despite all this, they’re currently sitting at the eighth seed, and the roster likely doesn’t have enough talent despite all these factors to push much higher. That being said, I hope they prove me wrong.
- Denver Nuggets
This last spot was by far the closest debate. In the end though, I believe the Nuggets are simply too talented to miss out on the postseason. Nikola Jokic is one of my favorite players and a once-in-a-generation type of talent. If he develops on the defensive end, he could end his career as a hall-of-famer. Playing alongside the ever-dependable Paul Millsap should help make up for some of this once they gel a bit more following Millsap’s recent return from injury. The roster features savvy vets like Devin Harris alongside energetic youngsters like Jamal Murray, and top to bottom is one of the most interesting and fun teams in the league to watch. If they can get things together down this final stretch, they could give the first seed a rough welcome to the playoffs.