For all intents and purposes, the NBA playoffs have started in the Western Conference. The kinda-Big Nine, (we wont include the Blazers) are separated by a measely 7 games (5 games for the first through eighth seeds), and aside from gunning for home field advantage, most need to worry about making the playoffs.
Last week, watching the Mavs-Spurs and Jazz-Hornets games you could sense that these games suddenly felt different. They no longer smacked of that dullness unique to the regular season. In the latter game, Chris Paul sank the nail-in-the-coffin free throws to chants of "MVP." Duncan got the same treatment courtesy of the San Antonio crowd. We're surely on pace to break some sort of MVP chant record. Here's L.A. for Kobe when they beat the Mavs.
The reason for this enthusiasm is that the fans are turning out to pack the arenas for these games, because the increase of intensity has been palpable to everyone. And as they turn out, the Pauls and Kobes of the world have been rewarding them (like Kobe's 22 4th quarter points in that Lakers win). It started with the avalanche of trades, the three biggest of which all sent the biggest piece from East to West: Gasol to L.A., Shaq to Phoenix, Kidd to Dallas. Meanwhile the Spurs and Warriors quietly added size and depth (Thomas and Webber respectively), Utah got itself a shooter in Korver, and Houston and New Orleans swapped scoring for a deeper bench.
And just like that, each team was energized by the added pieces, while at the same time, their competiveness was fueled by the other teams' deals. We always hear about how teams like the Spurs or Pistons - veteran, championship teams, - know to take their games to another level this time of year, but now, everyone everyone has (in the West anyway). The trades kick started an escalating cycle of intensification, further motivating each team until that intensity reached a level that normally qualifies as playoff caliber.
Kobe, after the Lakers beat the Suns: "It was a familiar energy in the building. It felt like a playoff-type of environment. It was fun to be a part of."
And Stephen Jackson after the Warriors beat the Blazers: "For us, every game is a playoff game."
There are about 20 games left in the regular season, give or take, per-team. Then there are another possible 28 games of the playoffs for the eventual conference champions. So are we to expect the kinda-Big Nine to naturally kick it up one more notch somehow? How will that shake out for the Western conference finalist? Will they be so habituated to playing at such a high level that they'll come out and absolutely demolish the East rep? Or will the opposite happen, that they'll beat each other up so much in the next four months that they'll be drained by the battle royale and thus not have enough left in the tank when the finals roll around? Because as much as the West is collectively better than the east, no one argues that the East's big three (Boston 18-7 vs. West, Detroit 16-8, Cleveland 16-12) can't hang with their western counterparts.
Just by virtue of the surplus of so many good teams, each of the kinda-Big Nine's schedule is brutal. Lets just look at a sampling, how often they have to play the top teams during their next 10 games: Every single one of these teams plays at least four out of their next ten against each other or Boston/Detroit. (Incidentally no one plays Cleveland in their next 10). Phoenix and Houston lead the way with the toughest schedules (not taking into account back-to-backs) with seven out of their next ten against top dogs. The teams (along with their current hot streak) are listed in order of the standings entering tonights' games.
SA 14-1, (10 in a row): at Denver, at PHO, Denver, at NO, at Detroit, Boston
Lakers: 16-3 (13-2 with Gasol) at NO, at Houston, at Dallas, at Utah, GS, at GS
NO 8-4: at Houston, SA, Lakers, at Detroit, Houston, Boston
Utah 16-4: at Phoenix, Denver, Boston, Lakers
Phoenix (No hotness to speak of) 10-7 (3-4 with Shaq): at Denver, Utah, SA, GS, Houston, at Detroit, at Boston
Houston 15-0: at Dallas, NO, Lakers, Boston, at NO, at GS, at Phoenix
Dallas – not hot, no matter how you slice it: 8-7 or even 12-7 if you prefer (4-4 with Kidd) Houston, Lakers, Boston, SA
Golden State 10-3: at Phoenix, Houston, at Lakers
Denver 9-4: Phoenix, SA, at Utah, at SA, at Det
Mark Cuban touched on this a couple weeks ago already, speculating that this was shaping up to be the best NBA season ever. And it's looking like he was quite prescient. "Everybody right know is fighting for their lives and fighting for a playoff spot. It was a fun game to be a part of," said Deron Williams about their win against the Mavs. Just a couple of days before that, Chris Paul threw this one out when they beat the Jazz: "When you play against the best, it brings out the best in you."
The guys from bleacher report recently covered this as well, handy charts included.