- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Fearless Prediction: Eight teams will actually qualify for the Leastern Conference playoffs.
Fearless Prediction II: One of the following 11 tournament hopefuls will actually show up for the NBA Finals.
Anything else you want to know … you're just going to have to wait.
More than 60 games have been played, but almost nothing has been decided. Especially in the Least, where only four (really sorry) squads have been eliminated from playoff contention.
The best we can offer for now is a team-by-team examination of where the members of this not so dreamy XI stand and some of games they'll have to play over the five-plus weeks that remain. All for the probable privilege of getting stomped in the title round by a one-footed monster from Hollywood.
The bonus is that every game left has playoff implications, since teams are generally playing within the conference this late -- and playing in a Least where even a 1-15 record since the All-Star break doesn't totally eliminate you from the race.
"That's huge," said Toronto's Antonio Davis, who led a players-only meeting after last Thursday's loss in Dallas to try to make that clear to the battered Raptors. "We're not out of it. We have to go out and beat the Washingtons, who we play again. We have Miami. We have Charlotte. We still have an opportunity to erase some of this bad and then look back and say, 'Yeah, it was really bad,' but we weathered the storm.' "
The jayvees' down-the-stretch storm forecast, er, breakdown follows. In alphabetical order:
No one would dare suggest that the Pierce/Walker/O'Brien Celtics belong in the same sentence as the Bird/McHale/Parish C's. After seven straight seasons out of the playoffs, even Antoine Walker admits that the Green People would surely settle for simply getting there.
Good news is, these guys will. You had to wonder when they lost the first four games after that momentous escape against the Lakers at the buzzer -- and right after their big trade -- but Boston's response to that blip is five straight wins and counting. The Celtics have thus reclaimed a top-four spot in the conference, and, at 36-27, have already matched last season's win total.
From here, 11 of 19 are at home -- with 13 of those games against teams still in playoff contention. So it won't be the easiest run-in. Not with forthcoming visits from four potential division winners: New Jersey (Wednesday), Dallas (March 29), Milwaukee (March 31) and the Lakers (April 5) .
Confidence, though, should no longer be a problem. Newcomers Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers are blending in nicely now. And for a team so obsessed with scoring and 3-point launching, the Celtics keep their coach sane by playing some decent D (fifth in defensive field-goal percentage at .428).
Stay or go, bound for Mardi Gras or backed up on Tobacco Road, the future isn't the immediate concern in the locker room. It's the present. The stretch-run schedule specifically.
Eleven of the Hornets' 19 remaining games are at Charlotte Coliseum. In the first 30 games there, surrounded largely by unoccupied seats, the Hornets have only won 12. They're a virtual lock to have the worst home record of a playoff team in history. Assuming they make it.
It gets worse. Of those 11 remaining home dates, only the last three come against teams eliminated from playoff contention: Atlanta, Cleveland and Chicago from April 10-17. Before that, it's a helping of Utah-Phoenix-Milwaukee-Indiana-Orlando-Sacramento-Miami-Washington.
Of course, if they continue to lead the East in road wins, perhaps the Hornets can hang onto No. 8 no matter how poor (and lonely) they continue to look at home. Which would feed right into Paul Silas' anything-can-happen playoff mindset, fueled by the memory of that spanking Charlotte gave Miami last spring.
One more Western swing looms for the Pistons, four games from March 18-22 after starting the trip Saturday in Milwaukee, and that itinerary has to be at least a tad disconcerting. It was a similar five-gamer out West back in November, all five ending in defeat, that torpedoed Detroit's 14-6 start.
The away opponents this time, after the Bucks, are: Nuggets, Jazz, Suns and Lakers. Ben Wallace, consensus favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, gets better every day … but how Detroit copes probably depends on how Jerry Stackhouse feels, since Stack is suddenly hobbling at the worst possible time.
Just as he was starting to earn widespread kudos for his selfless play -- compared to the old Stack known for simply gunning Detroit to victory or defeat -- a bruised right hip has clearly hobbled the All-Star snubee. They've lost three of the past four games, entering Wednesday's home date with Cleveland, with Stackhouse failing to lead Detroit in scoring in the last three of those matches. Passing more or not, that's not standard Stack.
And Rick Carlisle obviously needs a healthy Stack, even with that high-scoring bench Jon Barry just dubbed "The Alternatorz."
Donnie Walsh doesn't make bad trades, and no one thinks his latest bold exchange won't work. Brad Miller has undeniable value to the Pacers, passing for an All-Star candidate by East standards at center, and Ron Artest is a player almost every team likes for his defensive acumen alone.
Indy .500 is still their identity. In the first 10 games after the big swap, the Pacers -- surprise, surprise -- went 5-5. That's after going 41-41 last season, and after checking in at 26-27 when they made the Jalen Rose deal with Chicago.
At least there's still time for Coach .500 (Isiah Thomas) to break the cycle and, more importantly, clinch a playoff berth. Ten of the final 18 games are at home, and the road dates aren't too intimidating. After a visit to Minnesota on Friday, the Pacers' remaining travel obligations take them to Charlotte, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, Toronto, Washington and Cleveland. Only the Magic from that group, at present, is more than a game over .500 at home.
Can't ask for much more this time of year.
The question no longer concerns whether the Heat will rise from the ashes of 5-23 to stretch Pat Riley's playoff streak to 20 seasons without a miss. Anyone you ask today will tell you they knew all along that Team Riles would make this recovery.
So the burning question instead becomes: Will the Heat have anything left for the post-season once they get in, as the world predicted?
You have to ask, and not just because of Alonzo Mourning's vulnerability. No less a concern is the simple reality that Riles' Heaters simply haven't been a good playoff team in his time there. Four times in Riles' six Miami seasons, the Heat was ousted in the first round.
This time, at least, the Heat will enter the tournament stage as the proverbial Team No One Wants To Play, as opposed to a team with Finals delusions. Surely you've heard that the Nets are already worried about grinding with Miami in the halfcourt.
Now to see how high up the 1-through-8 ladder the Heat climbs. Twelve of Miami's final 20 games are at home, with 15 of those games against teams that still have playoff life. As long as Zo and Co. continue to lead the league in stingy defense, ranking No. 1 in points allowed (88.1) and second in defensive field-goal percentage (.422), the quality of opposition shouldn't stop them from getting in. They're that hot.
Furious George Karl has no one to be mad at but himself these days. His comments about Doc Rivers were out of line on several fronts and the timing wasn't fortuitous, either. The Bucks plainly don't have the wiggle room or energy to expend on anything else but figuring out why their season has been so disappointing.
If not for the freefalling Raptors, the Bucks would be nosing out Philadelphia for the top spot in our Big East Underachiever rankings. They're an inexplicably woeful 10-14 since Jan. 22 and they're wasting the easiest schedule in the league.
Milwaukee's last road game against a Western foe was -- no joke -- Jan. 8. At that point, 40 of the next 50 games had the Bucks facing Eastern opposition. The failure to capitalize is proving particularly costly now, with Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell all hobbling (Cassell especially) and the team's confidence draining away after 11 losses in the past 17 home dates.
The Bucks' only significant victory in recent memory is beating out Minnesota for Greg Anthony. The opportunity is still there to win the Central Division, with games against the Pistons on Saturday and at Detroit in the April 17 season finale, but the schedule is no longer the issue. It's Milwaukee's psyche, which Karl has been hammering at since training camp. Things could just as easily get uglier before they get better.
New Jersey Nets
You could call this a team in crisis, after its recent run of four straight defeats, until you pause to remember the past 20 years. As an NBA franchise, the Nets have won one playoff series. That came in 1984, in a memorable upset of the defending champs from Philly, and you know how the rest of Micheal Ray Richardson's career played out. The suffering since has been even worse -- worst of all the tragic loss of Drazen Petrovic -- and continues today, on a daily basis, with the Jayson Williams saga generating bolder headlines than anything the team does.
Byron Scott is more than wise to downplay any panic. No, last week's trip wasn't good at all, but are road losses to the Lakers, Suns, Blazers and Sonics so shameful? Without Todd MacCulloch? The Nets miss their Canadian lumberjack more than you know, especially with Jason Kidd hitting first real skid of the season (30.8-percent shooting, with only two free-throw attempts, on an 0-4 trip) to dent his MVP campaign.
Just remember that 10 of the Nets' last 19 games are at home, where they're 25-6. And five of the nine roadies remaining are against sub-.500 opposition, with only one Western foe left (at Minnesota on March 31).
The East's top seed is still theirs to lose. Not a sentence Nets historians have heard very often.
After a recent drubbing in Boston, where his club surrendered 130 points, Doc Rivers scrawled a post-game message on the grease board: 21 14H 7R. Much as that might look like the sort of zip code you'd see on a parcel to England, it was simply Rivers' way of reminding his lads that 14 of Orlando's final 21 games were at home.
It's down to 12 of 19 now, after weekend victories over Washington and Toronto, but 11 of those 19 still come against teams with losing records. In other words, call it maybe the first helpful break of Rivers' season, after losing Grant Hill to ankle failure again … and then losing the privilege of scribbling Mike Miller's name onto the board and into the starting lineup for the next few weeks.
It can't be a good sign that Rivers had to scurry down the hall to convince Dee Brown to leave his Magic management position for at least 10 days and temporarily unretire. Then again, every time it appears Rivers' team is finally going to vanish from playoff contention, the Magic wins a few in a row.
Since no one in this group has a more favorable finishing kick -- Denver on Friday, Cleveland on April, at Atlanta on April 16 -- expect Doc's banged-up kids to hang in there. Just like ownership.
Then again, don't rule it out.
In this anything-goes conference, it shouldn't surprise anyone if the Sixers ultimately claim a top-four seed and homecourt advantage in Round 1. They're still not at full strength -- are they ever? -- but have overcome the frequent absences of Aaron McKie and Derrick Coleman to go 7-1 since slipping a game under .500 at 27-28.
The Sixers' schedule hell, remember, came before the All-Star break, when they played 28 of their 41 road games before the Kobe Bryant boofest at the FU Center. After Wednesday's visit by Sacramento, Philly will only see one other Western Conference opponent (Phoenix on April 3) while playing 10 of the final 19 games at home.
Included in that stretch run: A home-and-home with New Jersey (March 27 and at the swamp March 30) and another with Milwaukee (April 7 and away April 9). By the time those showdowns are done, it might be tough to quibble with AI.
Sounds about right, eh?
After 13 straight losses, funk's a good word to describe the Raptors' plight. Never close to living up to their pre-season billing as conference favorites, the Raps did at least reach 29-21 before this shocking collapse. Carter, meanwhile, has played hurt to try to rescue the organ-eye-zation, but that hasn't stopped anyone from ripping Air Canada for his inability to halt the slide. Even though it's clear that Carter's knee/quad/back ain't right, preventing him from producing the sort of funk that sells sneakers.
The rest of blame is being aimed at the venerable Lenny Wilkens, who's fighting the perception that he's lost the team and/or the creativity needed to lift it out of despair. All of which threatens to bring an ignominious close to Wilkens' Hall of Fame career.
And if you're thinking the schedule might save these guys, it doesn't look like it. Nine of Toronto's 16 remaining games are at home, but most of the visitors passing through customs will be just as desperate as they are for one reason or another. Sacramento, Washington, Miami, Indiana, Charlotte and New Jersey are on the guest list, with road games pending at Minnesota (March 19), Philadelphia (March 31) and Milwaukee (April 16).
At the behest of Doug Collins, Michael Jordan is scheduled to make the six-game trip starting Wednesday that will take the Wizards to LA (Clippers), Seattle, Portland, Golden State, Denver and Utah. Yet he'll be making the journey as a spectator, and hence helpless against the losses that figure take Washington right out of the playoff chase.
Since losing MJ to a knee scope, the Wiz is 2-6. They've dropped four straight games by a combined 18 points and don't expect to see Jordan back until March 24 in Toronto at the earliest. That would leave 13 games, including home dates with Dallas (March 31) and the Lakers (April 2), to make a late playoff charge. By which time Washington could be 10 games under .500.
But even if you weren't too excited about Unretirement II back in October -- hello! -- you still wouldn't have wished it to end this way. Not with Jordan seemingly so close to a playoff berth that, given the inexperience and other shortcomings around him, arguably would have ranked up there with everything else MJ's done.
Looks like he'll have to settle for teaching the 19-win Wiz of last season how to work and be winners. Until the summer, of course, when Jordan vacillates about whether to round off his career at 40. That much we can predict without a lot of hesitation.
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular
contributor to ESPN.com.
21hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann