West braces for tough postseason matchups
The West has been the better conference during the regular season, and now teams are looking for the payoff during the NBA postseason.
The conference has been so dominant that the second-seeded New York Knicks in the East would be only the No. 6 seed in the West.
Sure, the NBA playoffs will run through the defending champion Miami Heat and LeBron James, but Memphis coach Lionel Hollins says he prefers playing against the best to make his team better.
''That's why I like playing in the West instead of in the East,'' Hollins said.
But that makes it more difficult to get to the finals.
The matchups in the West should make for entertaining playoff drama, but only one survivor will play for the NBA title in June.
''We still have to play Western Conference teams in the playoffs,'' Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin said.
The West was so good that Memphis went a franchise-best 56-26 yet starts the postseason seeded fifth. They start their first-round series Saturday in Los Angeles against the Clippers who had to hold off Sacramento on Wednesday night to gain home-court advantage against Memphis.
Not only did five Western teams win at least 56 games this season, the conference also did very well against the East.
San Antonio was a West-best 25-5 against the East followed by Memphis (22-8) and the Thunder and Clippers (21-9), according to STATS LLC Inc. Denver, seeded third, struggled the most against the East and still went 19-11.
The best of the West also did very well against other good teams. Six posted winning records against teams .500 or better compared to only three in the East. Oklahoma City, the defending Western champ, went 30-17 and Denver was 31-17 - both were better than the Heat (28-13) in that category.
''There's no nights off in the West,'' Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said. ''We got 56 wins, and it's been a dogfight most nights. That's got to help us in the playoffs.''
That's what everyone is waiting to see - who will benefit the most from the battles.
And Crawford has a point: The more battle-tested teams are in the West.
Most of the top scoring teams were in the West; the East has several of the stingier defensive units.
Denver scored an NBA-best 106.1 points per game followed by Houston (106), Oklahoma City (105.7) and the Spurs (103). Miami, with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, is the only team from the East in the top 10 and finished fifth averaging 102.9 points per game.
The West also has seven of the top 10 best shooting teams, though the Heat topped that category shooting 49.6 percent.
''We all know this is the run-and-gun West side of town, and we also know there's a lot of great talent over here,'' Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said, referring to the Western Conference.
The East is known for its defensive efforts, but it was the Grizzlies who allowed a league-fewest 89.3 points per game. Memphis is the first team to hold opponents below 90 points per game throughout a season since 2005-06 when both the Grizzlies and Spurs managed that feat.
The Clippers ranked fourth, giving up 94.6 points a game while leading the league in steals. That's another statistic dominated by the West where only the Heat and Bucks reached the top 10.
Miami certainly posted the NBA's best record along with a 27-game winning streak, and the Knicks streaked to 13 wins of their own. Memphis got off to the NBA's best start at 12-2, while the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs and Nuggets all had winning streaks at least 11 games or longer.
Because the competition in the West was so close, not many players got to rest down the stretch.
Denver didn't clinch the No. 3 seed until Wednesday night, when the Clippers tied up the fourth and final seed along with home-court advantage. Memphis eliminated Utah on the last night of the regular season, while the Lakers beat Houston to clinch the No. 7 seed. The Rockets fell to eighth with the loss.
Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said the hope now is that having pushing hard until the last day of the regular season translates into a good rhythm for the playoffs.
''I think it benefits us right now,'' Randolph said.
How much the Western Conference champ benefits will be determined in June.
AP Sports Writer Antonio Gonzalez in Sacramento and AP freelance writer Clay Bailey in Memphis, Tenn., contributed to this report.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker