Updated: Jan. 31, 2006, 10:49 AM ET

Four teams eyeing final berth

Did the Minnesota Timberwolves just deal themselves into the playoffs? How do Kobe and Co. fit in the picture? Is Artest enough to push the Kings into playoff contention? With about 37 games left to play, let's take a look at how the race for the Western Conference's eight playoff spots is shaping up.

Locks
San Antonio (35-10) -- Still the cream of the crop in the West despite not firing on all cylinders. Tim Duncan's foot and Manu Ginobili persistent injuries are a concern but Tony Parker is playing the best basketball of his career. If Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley find their niche in the playoffs, they will be in the Finals.

Phoenix (28-16) -- An incredible coaching job by Mike D'Antoni and another MVP caliber performance by Steve Nash has kept the Suns on the heels of the Spurs despite not having Amare Stoudemire. When he returns, with the additions of Boris Diaw, Raja Bell and James Jones, this team will give the Spurs all they can handle in the Western Conference Finals.

Denver (25-21) -- I know it sounds crazy to call a team four games over .500 a lock, but they will pull away from the pack and win their division now that they are healthy. Marcus Camby is arguably the best center in the conference. With him anchoring the defense, and with the emergence of Carmelo Anthony as one of the best clutch players in the league, Denver will be dangerous.

Dallas (34-10) -- Dirk has been Dirk. Jason Terry picked up where he left off in the playoffs. And Avery Johnson actually has the Mavs at least caring about the defensive end of the floor. They can beat anyone on any given night. They will be in a dogfight with the Spurs for the Western Conference's best record. If they get it, they could get to the Finals.

Memphis (26-18) -- The most underrated team in the league. By far. They are one of the top 5 defensive teams in basketball. They have great balance. They have depth. Losing Damon Stoudamire, however, will hurt Bobby Jackson's productivity as he logs heavy minutes. Great move by Jerry West to pick up Chucky Atkins to help in that area. Eddie Jones has been a difference maker with his defense and character.

Los Angeles Clippers (25-17) -- If they ever have all of their pieces at their disposal, this is a dangerous team. Elton Brand has been their rock as usual and Corey Maggette, Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley provide plenty of punch. Chris Kaman, Daniel Ewing and Chris Wilcox provide a nice supporting cast.

Likely
Los Angeles Lakers (23-20) -- Kobe Bryant's greatness wills them to win, but his dominance of the ball prevents Lamar Odom from being a consistent partner. When Bryant is rolling, the Lake Show can beat anyone, but they are the NBA's youngest team and their deficiencies up front will keep them slightly better than average.

Fighting For The Last Spot
Utah (21-24) -- They exemplify what a team is all about. Andrei Kirilenko is one of the most unique players on the planet and rookie point guard Deron Williams is poised beyond his years, but he appears to have hit the rookie wall and has lost favor with Jery Sloan. They compete, are well coached, and unselfish, but they don't have enough talent. Bottom line, no team would want to play them in the first round.

Golden State (20-23) -- They have one of the top 5 backcourts in the NBA, but their bench is abominable. They are in free-fall mode and Mike Montgomery doesn't know what to do. They should have made a serious move for Ron Artest to be taken as a legitimate playoff contender. Eventually, when you have to play your starters 42 minutes every night to survive, fatigue sets in. After a great start, they are heading in the wrong direction.

New Orleans (22-22) -- Byron Scott has done a great job making this group of youngsters believe they can win now. Chris Paul should be the unanimous selection for Rookie of the Year, and David West is having a breakout season. They are a fun team to watch.

Minnesota (21-22) -- KG and Wally Szczerbiak's lack of togetherness finally forced Kevin McHale to move Wally World to Boston. The T-Wolves get Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, Justin Reed and Marcus Banks in return, making them a lot younger and more athletic. They will improve defensively and Davis gives you everything Szczerbiak did on the offensive end. I like the deal. It could be the shakeup this team needed to get in.

Lottery Bound
Sacramento (18-26) -- Getting Artest for Peja was a steal. He will give them a defensive stopper, toughness and the only legitimate post up player on the team. Mike Bibby has been putting up numbers and Brad Miller and Bonzi Wells are solid. If Artest can resurrect his career, that window of opportunity might not have officially slammed shut.

Seattle (18-26) -- They are the one wild card in the West because they underachieved tremendously under Bob Weiss. Perhaps Bob Hill can get this group playing defense and sharing the ball again. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis give you enough offense most nights.

Houston (15-29) -- What a disaster. First, Yao goes out with a toe. Then, it's T-Mac with a back injury. What's left after that isn't enough to be competitive. It might be for the best. They will have a chance to get younger and more athletic with a lottery pick.

Portland (16-27) -- They are starting to play better now that Nate McMillan has gone to an all-Maryland Terrapin backcourt, and they could get close to that 8th spot, but I doubt it. The Blazers struggle to get to 90 most nights and that means you have to be great defensively, which they aren't.

Talk back to The Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: January 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28-29 | 30


New Pack Member

The newest Wolf, Ricky Davis, drives against ex-Wolf Wally Szczerbiak, right, and Al Jefferson, left, in Minnesota's win over Boston. Davis finished with nine points, but ex-C's Mark Blount (16) and Marcus Banks (20) did the most damage to Celtic pride.


Some Kandi Land Strategies
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Eric (Washington, DC): Are the Celtics done dealing? Seems like the Kandi Man cap relief won't mean much to the C's in the big picture. What can they get for his expiring contract and one of their extra No. 1's? Or maybe even Gerald Green?

John Hollinger: I doubt Kandi's contract will get you much. Remember, he can only be traded in a one-for-one deal between now and the deadline.

As for the Celtics, I've wondered since the moment I heard about this deal if it meant Pierce would be traded. The way Boston is set up right now they're forced to use Pierce as their stopper on the wings against the Wades, Hamiltons and Jameses of the world, and I don't think that will fly. That has me wondering if a Pierce trade is the next move on Danny's agenda.

Josh (Chicago): Are the Pistons the best TEAM ever? And don't tell me the 72 win Bulls, I'm talknig about complete starting 5 here, without the best player of all time in the mix.

John Hollinger: If you're saying what I think you're saying, then the answer may be yes. No egos, no agendas, just a completely seamless unit where everybody's reading from the same script. They're just a joy to watch this year.

Nikki (MPLS, MN): John- Isn't kicking out some dude like Chris Andersen for (most likely) using marijuana a little extreme? Especially since drugs that actually increase performance (as opposed to hindering performance) are given some leeway?

John Hollinger: It wasn't marijuana, it was one of the more heavily penalized drugs as defined by the collective bargaining agreement (cocaine, LSD, methamphetamine), which is why he was banned immediately (Incidentally, no word yet on which it was, and due to confidentiality rules we may never know). I don't understand the distinction in penalties here -- last I checked marijuana and steroids were just as illegal as those other drugs, so the sanction should be the same.

See the full Hollinger chat Insider



News and Notes
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U.S.A. Basketball Wants Billups
It appears, barring any unforeseen snag, Chauncey Billups will have a spot on the U.S. men's basketball team -- if he wants one. "We want him to play," said Jerry Colangelo, who is in charge of assembling the team that will play in the World Championships this summer, potentially another qualifying tournament in the summer of 2007 and in the Olympics in 2008. Colangelo said he planned to speak to Billups today. -- Detroit News

Jackson Benched, Atkins Starts
Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello shook up the roster in an attempt to help steer the team out of its losing ways. He changed point guards, moving Bobby Jackson back to the bench and elevating the recently acquired Chucky Atkins to the starting spot. & Fratello told Jackson that he preferred to use his energy and point production off the bench. The switch is designed to relieve Jackson of running offensive sets and allow him to run off screens and shoot more. -- Memphis Commercial-Appeal

Read the entire Intelligence Report on ESPN Insider Insider


Motion: Home Court Watch
The Spurs beat the Jazz, 79-70, moving a half-game in front of the idle Dallas Mavericks for the best record in the Western Conference at 35-10.

San Antonio Keeps Balance



How West Won It

Hornets forward David West, center facing camera, is mobbed by teammates Chris Paul, right, Speedy Claxton (5) and J.R. Smith, left, after hitting the game-winning shot with 0.1 seconds left in their 94-93 win over the Bucks.


Extreme Behavior
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Monday's Best
David West, Hornets forward: Not only bagged the game-winner, but tallied 24 points and 15 rebounds in the win over the Bucks. Averaging almost 17 points and 8 boards per game. Will Xavier's finest grow into a 20-10 guy?

nok

Monday's Worst
Gordan Giricek, Jazz guard: When you spend 15 minutes on the court against the defending champs, hoisting up ten shots and making but one is not the way to go. Jazz fall to Spurs, 79-70

Quote of the Day

hamilton
"I didn't like it. I loved it."
-- Kevin Garnett, sizing up the point play of newcomer Marcus Banks (20 points, six assists) in the 110-85 spoiling of Wally's return to Minny.

See how all 157 who played stacked up

-- Andrew Ayres



Board Scores Need Work, But Suns Winning
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As you look at the standings in the Western Conference, the fact that Phoenix is 28-16 and in first place in the Pacific Division makes you stop and think.

The Suns, who play the 76ers Tuesday, were supposed to struggle to stay above .500 without Amare Stoudemire. Well, guess what? We were wrong. Even after the first glance of the team's statistics you still wonder how their doing it. The Suns are being outrebounded by four per game. No big deal you say. Three out of those four are on the opponents' offensive end of the floor. That adds up to a lot of second-chance opportunities.

Also, Suns opponents are making (768-1,073, 71.6 percent) almost as many free throws as the Suns have attempted (640-804, 75.1 percent). That is the result of the Suns' relying so much on their perimeter game.

So how are they doing it? Well, last year's Coach of the Year (Mike D'Antoni) might be doing an even better job this year. Last year's MVP is having a better year statistically than last. This year Nash is averaging a career high 19.1 ppg and 11.5 assists, on pace to become the first player since Magic Johnson (1990-91 season) to average at least 19 points and 11 assists per game.

The hits just keep on coming. Shawn Marion (21.5 ppg, 12 rpg, 1.95 bpg), Boris Diaw (11.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.9 apg), Raja Bell (14.2 ppg), Leandro Barbosa (13.3 ppg), Eddie House (10.4 ppg) and James Jones (10.1 ppg) are also having career years.

What's in the water in Phoenix? Don't forget that this Suns team led the league in scoring last year (110.4 ppg). This year they still lead the league, but they only average 106.3.

Finally, the Suns have already played five overtime games (1-4), four of which were multiple OT games. Two double OTs and two triple OTs. Just think if they had won more of those. They would be nipping at the heels of the Spurs and Mavericks for the best record in the West.

Yes, this team is still going to try and outscore you. If the Suns can continue to work on and improve their defense and Amare is able to come back at full strength, this year's team should give San Antonio or any other team a good run for the Western Conference title.

-- Will Perdue



Elias Says
shaq

• Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady played together Monday for the 15th time this season, but it was not enough to lift the Rockets to victory. Houston is 9-6 when both Yao and McGrady have appeared this season, 0-5 when neither player has appeared, and 6-18 when one or the other has played (0-8 with Yao and without McGrady; 6-10 with McGrady and without Yao).

• Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias Insider



Behind Birdman's Drug Suspension
shaq

Chris Andersen eventually became one of 34 members of the Class of '97 at Iola High School, and after a year and a half of community college, he ditched his letter of commitment to Clyde Drexler's University of Houston Cougars and decided to go for the money by playing professionally in China, where he faced Yao Ming before hardly anyone in America had heard of him.

Andersen eventually played minor league ball in North Dakota and New Mexico before the Nuggets saw him in a summer league tryout. Known as "The Birdman," he was a hit with the free-spirited home fans in Denver and later New Orleans and Oklahoma City, and gained some national fame (or shame), by missing his first seven attempts at the dunk contest in Denver last year. (A year earlier, he spiked his hair for the dunk contest in L.A.)

Full Chris Sheridan blog Insider

 

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