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Trend Watch: Clippers and Rockets making contender statements

By Royce Young | NBA writer

Chris Paul made it official: He's back with the Clippers. (USATSI)
The Clippers are making a push. (USATSI)

The calendar is about to hit March, which means the official stretch run of the NBA season. Each team is looking at about 25 games left and while the playoff picture is still cloudy, we have a pretty good idea about who's good and who's not.

Checking a few building trends:

Are the Clippers the Thunder's top threat in the West?

Your first, and strongest, piece of evidence was the impressive 125-117 win in Oklahoma City on Sunday. That puts the Clippers at 2-1 against the Thunder this season, and while the most recent game was with OKC working Russell Westbrook back into the lineup, it was obvious the Clippers could give them fits.

Chris Paul is obviously the maestro that makes things go, but Blake Griffin's emergence as a solitary superstar in his own right is enough for teams to truly fear the Clips. Jamal Crawford adds that isolation wing scoring, J.J. Redick can shoot it (when he's healthy), Matt Barnes brings toughness, and DeAndre Jordan has the rebounding and lob game covered.

Everyone wonders: Can the transition game translate to the postseason where things slow down? Well, Sunday's game against the Thunder was a good example of how the Clippers might win a playoff game. In the first half, they rolled up 27 fast break points, secondary breaking off everything and giving the Thunder a lot of problems. The Clippers were playing fast and loose, getting up and down the floor and firing away early in the shot clock.

The second half, the game slowed, and the Clippers had just seven fast break points. But they still executed in the halfcourt, got to the free throw line, and made a bunch of shots.

The Clippers sit second in offensive efficiency at 109.1 points per 100 possessions, and 12th in defensive at 102.6. For Doc Rivers, the challenge is going to be figuring out which lineups he needs on the floor when. He can cross off three positions -- Paul, Griffin and Crawford -- but depending on situation and matchup, Rivers will have to sort out his lineups.

But are the Clippers firmly in the Western Conference title discussion? Of course. They've been there all season, but now, they're closing the gap even more.

Hold on there -- what about the Rockets?

Oh yeah. The Rockets. Winners of 10 of 11, and owners of the third best record in the West. And wouldn't you know it, they play the Clippers tonight!

The Rockets' lone loss in the last two weeks was an overtime thriller against the Warriors on the road, but mixed in, they've topped the Spurs, Suns, Wizards and Mavericks. Plus the Cavs, Bucks, Wolves, Lakers and Kings.

So maybe it's not the most impressive stretch to establish their contendership, but there's no question the Rockets are coming together. Dwight Howard is averaging 22.6 points on 64.1 percent shooting plus 12.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in his last 10 games. He's owning the paint and building obvious pick-and-roll chemistry with James Harden.

And Harden. Fresh off 43 through three quarters against the Kings, he's put on his scoring boots, averaging 33.8 in his last five games. The Rockets are going to fight two battles in actually battling for the Western Conference finals: 1) They've got to make perimeter shots and 2) they have to defend a little more consistently. They've risen to ninth in points allowed per 100 possessions, but they still have a tendency to get into shootouts and rely on their scoring.

So, the question is: Who's more the threat to the Thunder between the Clippers and Rockets? I say Clippers, if only because the Thunder have a stronger recent history of handling Houston. But with the Spurs getting Kawhi Leonard back tonight and winning seven of 10 themselves, the top four spots in the West could feature four teams all capable of winning it all.

The Thunder are 0-2 with Russell Westbrook

OK, a few quick thoughts about this. No, they are not better without him. Yes, they are better with him.

The two games the Thunder lost were to the Heat and Clippers, two very good teams. Westbrook or not, there's no guarantee the Thunder win either of those games. He's rusty -- particularly with his handle -- but he's also dealing with a minute restriction that's made his time on the floor a bit forced and awkward.

Against the Clippers, he took two awful shots, but that's all anyone ever remembers with Westbrook. Instead they overlook the ridiculously good setup plays he made in possessions before that, or the fact he drilled a big game-tying 3 just a few minutes earlier.

The advanced numbers don't back Westbrook up as much this season as they have in the past, and the fact Kevin Durant and the Thunder played so well without him hurt his previously rebuilt reputation. But Westbrook is vital to the Thunder's success, particularly in the postseason.

With home games ahead against the Cavs, Grizzlies, Bobcats and 76ers, all this talk will likely be forgotten soon. So get it all out of your system now.

How many more games with the 76ers win?

They've lost 11 straight. Playing the Magic tonight, this is a pretty good opportunity to break that. But then again, they just got rocked by the Bucks.

Without two of their best players anymore (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), the Sixers truly have about as bad a roster as you'll ever see. They have 25 games remaining. The longest losing streak in NBA history is 26 games, set by the 2010-11 newly LeBron-less Cavs.

Can the Sixers catch them? At this point, I have a hard time picturing them winning another game. I'll believe it when I see it.

 
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