Quick. Name the three winningest teams in the Western Conference as we complete the first half of the schedule. The Lakers are easy. But everyone forgot to tell the Denver Nuggets they weren't supposed to make the playoffs after trading AI. And after everyone on the San Antonio Spurs got hurt or suddenly lost effectiveness, they looked like the '95 Rockets, a championship-caliber team wracked by injuries during the regular season, but Tim Duncan found another gear and Roger Mason, Jr., and George Hill have stepped up to weather the storm.
Before the season began, I hypothesized that NBA fans as a group could correctly predict 14 of the 16 playoff teams, and at this halfway point, 13 of the 16 predicted teams are in, with Milwaukee and Philadelphia taking Toronto and Washington's spots in the East, and Denver taking Dallas's spot in the West. It seems everything's still falling into place pretty much the way everyone thought before the season.
This afternoon, the Spurs come to the Cable Box at full strength for an MLK Day matinee. Since Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto are still totally useless, they might try to trade for a frontcourt partner to lighten the load on Timmy a bit, but Matt Bonner has somehow managed to avoid embarrassment and looks to hold down that role pending further developments. Either way, he's outperforming whatever they could have expected from Oberto.
Both Bonner and Duncan present a particularly tough matchup for Emeka Okafor since they can extend out to twenty feet, or beyond. Bonner shoots threes regularly, and his inside game is nowhere near as developed as Duncan's, so it might make sense to have Boris Diaw guard him, with Emeka on Duncan.
Defending the big men will be the toughest issue for Charlotte, since Gerald can guard anyone San Antonio puts at the three: a decaying Michael Finley, decaying Bruce Bowen, regressing Ime Udoka, or Manu when they go small. Raja Bell will probably have trouble staying in front of Manu, but he's pretty well suited to getting in Mason's shirt and daring him to drive by instead of hoisting away. And finally, at point, Raymond will have to hope Tony Parker's jumpers aren't falling, because he's quick enough to get in the lane on anyone if they play him too close.
Duncan and Manu can win the game for San Antonio, but if they're both shut down, forcing Parker, Mason, or others to win the game, Charlotte actually has a chance to eke out a second straight home win over a top Western Conference opponent, and a fourth win in a row.