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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    The wild, wild Western Conference: Tight race to the finish awaits with slim separation among teams

    Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) is defended by Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) and guard Stephen Curry during an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

    Denver — It's almost hard to picture a postseason without both LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

    And yet it very well could happen. They're both on the bubble.

    That's just the strength of the Western Conference this season. As it currently stands, James and his ninth-place Los Angeles Lakers would host Curry and the 10th-place Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament, with the loser being eliminated and the winner still needing to win another to actually make the postseason field.

    From top to nearly bottom, the West has been a grind this season. Consider this: Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers reside in fourth and 2 1/2-games out of the No. 1 seed. They're also a four-game slide away from falling into play-in territory.

    Uncertainty reigns in a conference where the Minnesota Timberwolves and youthful Oklahoma City Thunder sit atop the standings with matching 40-17 marks.

    The next several weeks are going to be a mad dash for seeding — and playoff survival.

    "The depth of the West and the amount of teams that are legit threats is as deep as it's ever been," said Phoenix coach Frank Vogel, whose team has an identical record (34-24) as New Orleans, both a half-game away from the play-in line.

    A quick refresher course on the format for the play-in tournament that takes place April 16-19: The seventh and eighth seeds will play in each conference and the winning team will earn the seventh seed into the NBA playoffs. The eighth seed still has a safety net and will face the winner of the ninth and 10th seeds to see who gets in.

    Last season, Miami lost its first game in the play-in bracket, then beat Chicago to advance. The Heat made it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to Denver in five games. The Lakers, too, were in the play-in tournament, winning their matchup, before going on a run all the way to the Western Conference finals.

    Right now, Sacramento sits in the seventh spot and would host Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. The loser would draw either the Lakers or the Warriors, with either James or Curry being knocked out — or both.

    That's still down the road, though.

    The playoff picture in the West remains way too blurry, unlike the Eastern Conference where Boston leads by 7 1/2 games over Cleveland. Miami, which resides in sixth position, is 13 games back.

    "The Western Conference has just been a bear for as long as I can remember, and this year is no exception," Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. "Great teams up and down. Very, very potent and capable teams on any given night."

    The path to the crown, of course, goes through Nikola Jokic and the reigning champion Denver Nuggets after they won their first NBA title in franchise history. Jokic is putting up MVP-worthy numbers once again, averaging 26.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 9.3 assists.

    But with Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope dealing with nagging injuries this season, Nuggets coach Michael Malone has stated he will prioritize health over chasing a particular seed.

    "I'm much more concerned with getting all of our players to the finish line healthy," said Malone, whose team is currently third. "Knowing that if we are healthy going into the postseason, I have the utmost confidence this team can go into any building in the entire NBA and win a series."

    This season may be dawn of a new era for the Warriors, who captured four titles behind the nucleus of Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Now each in their 30s, the trio is getting some younger help in the form of Brandin Podziemski and Jonathan Kuminga.

    "I look forward to coming to the gym every day and seeing all these guys," said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who recently signed on for another two years. "We have a fun mix of vets who are Hall of Famers, champions, and then these young guys who are learning and growing. It feels like the chemistry and the connection within the group is really, really strong. It makes for a fun team to coach."

    Clippers coach Tyronn Lue deserves his share of kudos for reshaping the team into a contender after the arrival of James Harden as part of a trade involving Philadelphia. Initially, the the Clippers stumbled with Harden on the court. They've found their groove, going 23-5 in December and January.

    In Dallas, Doncic and Kyrie Irving are in synch, winning seven of nine in February.

    The Timberwolves are looking to finish the regular season No. 1 out West for the first time since 2003-04, when Kevin Garnett led them to the conference finals before losing to the Lakers.

    Most important to them is consistency.

    "It will all fall into place," Minnesota guard Mike Conley said, "if we do the right things."

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