Updated: April 14, 2006, 4:13 AM ET

The West's shootout heats up

The Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs both head into the final week of the regular season with the No. 1 Western Conference seed still up for grabs, with the Spurs holding a 1 1/2 game lead. Much has been made about this and the corresponding home-court advantage in the West, but it actually isn't all that important. More on that later.

First, let's look at the Phoenix Suns, who dominated the Mavs 117-104 on Thursday en route to the win. The Suns will be the No. 2 seed in the West when the playoffs begin. But I wouldn't expect their cute brand of basketball -- yes, cute -- to bring home a title. They remind me of the woman in a red dress -- very seductive, and they seem to draw teams into their style of play.

Dallas doesn't want to play a team like this on the second leg of a back-to-back. The Suns' style was in its full glory, going up and down the court, the great passes, the fast pace, the dribbling between the legs. It's fun to watch. But come the playoffs, when the game plans will be executed at a higher level, when defense is at a premium, they're just not going to overwhelm a championship team on their talent.

I can't recall in the history of the game a team that has played this way and been crowned champion in the end. Since 1980, only seven franchises have won it all -- Sixers, Celtics, Rockets, Pistons, Spurs, Lakers, Bulls. All tough teams. People will argue the "Showtime" Lakers had that kind of flash, but at the core, that group was tough team who could grind it out in the halfcourt. The truth is, the Suns' style just isn't conducive to playoff basketball.

As for Dallas, the Mavs have also taken a path that is not the way of a champion -- talking about results and not effort. The home-court quest -- rather than a focus on effort -- should not be at the forefront. When I hear postgame remarks by coach Avery Johnson lately focusing on the results, not the work, that concerns me.

They've been called out a couple times by their coach in the media for leadership. Now this is a team that has made strides. Dirk Nowitzki's driving to the basket has been good, and they've played with moxie. But going public with criticism like Johnson has done is really something to be careful with, especially with a veteran group. Especially heading into the postseason, when you have got to be as positive as possible.

They're on a two-game skid, and I think psychologically, they're in a pickle. The Warriors have their number, whatever the reason may be. Any team that's psychologically damaged going into the playoffs is going to have a short visit in the playoffs.

The Spurs don't have a problem with focus. San Antonio, which lost to Orlando on Thursday, will hold on to the top seed, in part because getting that top seed has not been their focus. Manu Ginobili, battling a calf injury and contusions, was not rushed into the lineup in a panic in the loss to the red-hot Magic.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has kept them focused on the big picture -- which is June. Inside the champion, the thought is "we've got to win on the road anyway." Not many champions are crowned that won just home games.

Anybody should be able to defend his home court. If you can only win at home, you're not worthy of a being a champion.

So the Mavericks' (59-21) desire for home court looks tougher now. They've got Utah and the LA Clippers left to play. San Antonio (60-19) has Minnesota, Utah and Houston left. Both teams split the season series. If they finish tied, then the next tiebreaker is division record. If both teams are tied in overall record, but the Spurs lose to the Rockets, then the Mavs get No. 1 seed. If the Spurs beat Rockets, then they'd be No. 1 because they'd win the next tiebreaker, which is conference record.

Is it a coincidence that the Spurs and Pistons have the best records in the league? Let's tell it how it is . . . organized and disciplined play starts with defense. And let me tell you again about the mindset of champion. If we're going to have trouble shooting, then the other team will too -- the score will be 0-0, if that's the kind of defense it takes. That's the mindset of a champion.

ESPN analyst B.J. Armstrong won three NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls

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Shooting Star Honored

AP Photo/Mark Duncan
Jason McElwain, from Greece Athena High School near Rochester, N.Y., celebrates after being recognized at halftime of the Knicks-Cavs game in Cleveland. McElwain, who is autistic, gained nationwide fame in February when he scored 20 points in the final four minutes of his first and only high school game.


Chatting With A Warrior
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Rudy, SLO CA: do you hear many comparisons between you and Gilbert Arenas? both drafted high second round by the Warriors, similar style of play.

Monta Ellis: I hear that a lot. That's a great complement who have seen Gilbert grow into the player he is now. I know that I am going to make it the way that he did.

Matt, CA: Whats up Monta, how come you wear the number 8? Go Warriors.

Monta Ellis: The number I wore all my life was 11 but someone had that. I picked 8 because I grew up watching Kobe Bryant and I like his game.

Eric (CA): What is it like to go against J-Rich in practice everyday? Does he do a lot of crazy dunks?

Monta Ellis: It's great because if he didn't push me in practice like he does, then I wouldn't be playing like I am now. It's a great experience. I just love playing with him.

Topher (Santa Cruz): While in high school, who inspired you to take your game to the next level?

Monta Ellis: Chauncey Billups, because he does it on the offensive and defensive ends of the court.

See the full Monta Ellis chat Insider



News And Notes
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Tim Duncan is second on the Spurs' career rebounding list behind David Robinson with 10,497. Duncan also passed John Havelicek for 53 on the NBA's all-time list. ... Duncan's 22 points in the first half is his season-best. His previous best in one half was 21 during a victory over New Jersey on Jan. 10. ... Magic guard Carlos Arroyo missed his third straight game with a strained left hamstring.

• The Cavaliers, who had been 0-2 vs. New York this season, have now beaten every team in the league but Golden State. ... Stu Jackson, the NBA's vice president of basketball operations, spoke with Cleveland GM Danny Ferry on Thursday about the recent bad blood between the Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons. In Wednesday night's game, Cavs F Anderson Varejao was called for a flagrant foul on Rasheed Wallace. "I don't like the direction of the way those two teams are playing, albeit that I do like the rivalry that seems to be developing," Jackson said. "I think that part of it is good for our game as long as it's played fairly and safely." ... Jason McElwain, the 17-year-old student manager with autism who made six 3-pointers when he got into his high school's final game, visited the Cavs' locker room before the game. "Where's LeBron?" he asked before shaking hands with Damon Jones. "They could put you in the 3-point contest," Jones told McElwain, whose heartwarming story has made him a celebrity. "You could shoot a lot better than some of those other guys."

• The Suns need nine 3-pointers in their final three games to break their NBA record of 796 set last year. ... Suns F Tim Thomas sprained his right index finger in the second quarter and played with a brace in the second half. ... Dallas remains one victory shy of its franchise record for wins in a season, 60 set in 2002-03.

-- The Associated Press


King James Watch

LeBron James sat out a 91-87 win over the Knicks, resting his sprained left ankle. The Cavs' next game is Sunday against the Wiz.

LeBron Sits

Howard's Rise

AP Photo/Eric Gay
Orlando Magic forward Dwight Howard grabs one of his 13 rebounds in the red-hot Magic's win in San Antonio, 92-80. Howard has 22 points to lead Orlando.


Extreme Behavior
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Thursday's Best
Magic forward Dwight Howard: Scored 22 points as the Orlando Magic won their seventh straight game, keeping slim playoff hopes alive with a 92-80 win over the Spurs. The Magic (35-44) now are 2 games behind both Chicago and Philadelphia in the race for the final playoff spot in the East.

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Thursday's Worst
Spurs guard Brent Barry: With Spurs guard Manu Ginobili missing his third straight game with left calf and shin contusions, this was Brent Barry's chance to shine. But then he went 2-for-11 from the floor for five points.

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Quote of the Day
"Orlando did a great job. They showed why they are the hottest team in the league. I thought it was a bad performance on our part. It's a shame [Tim Duncan] was feeling good and sprightly and we wasted it because the whole team wasn't reacting.""
-- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team lost at home to the Magic despite 31 points from Duncan.

See how all 52 who played stacked up

The current NBA playoff matchups

-- Andrew Ayres



Not Relishing The Back To Back
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Dave (San Antonio): The Spurs biggest problem this year has been the second game of a back-to-back. Ten of their 18 losses have been in such situations. Throw out these games and the Spurs have the best record in the league. How significant is this? Since there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, do you think this should increase the Spurs chances of going all the way?

John Hollinger: It should help the Spurs a bit with Duncan's foot problem, but don't take it for more than it's worth because A) Most teams do markedly worse in the second of a back-to-back and B) It's a small sample of games. To put in perspective, the Mavs losing Keith Van Horn probably did more for the Spurs' chances than anything the schedule could do.

Quentin (Auburn, AL): Should Lebron play in any of the remaining games this season? If so, or if not, how many of these games could the Cavs win since they were so putrid last night when the King went to the bench in the second quarter?

John Hollinger: Let me put it this way -- I wouldn't send him back out there unless I was absolutely certain he was 100 percent. The Cavs have absolutely nothing to play for right now. I'm sure they'd like to get him at least one game before Round 1 starts though.

See the full John Hollinger chat Insider



Elias Says
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OK, it's time to say something positive about the Knicks, even though they were outscored 20-7 over the last 5:18 of their 91-87 loss to the LeBronless Cavaliers at Cleveland. So here goes: Rookie Nate Robinson scored 32 of New York's 87 points in that game, the highest percentage of his team's points scored by a Knicks rookie in just over 41 years -- since Willis Reed scored 46 points in the Knicks' 105-103 loss to the Lakers on March 5, 1965.

• Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias Insider



Green Improvement Plan
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Ryan (Boston, MA): Chad, Gerald Green looks like he'll be able to be a viable scoring option off the bench for the C's next year. With that in theory taken care of, do you think Boston will go for a player like Marcus Williams or Rajon Rondo with their pick to back up Delonte West and replace Orien Greene?

Chad Ford: Green has looked very good. The stint in the D league seems to have helped his confidence. I think a point guard is a big need ... just not sure if that's too high for Williams and Rondo. I like both, but I think they're both in the mid first round. Wouldn't be surprised to see them add Brandon Roy. Big guard who can play some point and defense. He's more ready than most of the prospects and can play in the backcourt with West.

Josh (Nebraska): Where will Redick be drafted?

Chad Ford: My guess is still Utah at No. 14. But if they trade the pick or pass on him, he'll go somewhere between 15 and 22.

See the full Chad Ford chat Insider



 

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