The West has overpowered the East this year in overall quality. But let's look at seventh and eighth playoff spots in the West.
Picking the last two out West
What we see are teams featuring records reminscent of the East stragglers. There's several candidates from the proud West who could squeeze in, possibly being .500 or below. The winner of those two spots has the likely fate of facing Dallas and Phoenix, respectively.
With Denver and the L.A. Clippers now in the seventh and eighth spots, even though it may not be pretty, I believe they will remain secure in those places when the final regular-season game is played April 18.
So given Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah, Houston and L.A. Lakers as the solid top six, let's take a brief look at the contenders for the final two spots:
• Denver Nuggets (28-28) -- Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson will not be denied the opportunity to create serious matchup problems in this year's playoffs. AI had 34 points in Denver's 111-101 win Wednesday over the visiting Magic. In 13 of the last 14 games, 'Melo had been the leading scorer. The Nuggets have 26 games left and face one tough hurdle -- starting March 20, the Nuggets play 13 of their last 18 on the road.
•Los Angeles Clippers (28-29) -- Elton Brand came back from back spasms and had a nice 31-point, 12-board game against the Warriors on Saturday. He looks reenergized for his playoff run. Even Shaun Livingston's season-ending injury will have a major impact, the Clips have too much experience to yield their spot to a team currently below them.
They will know how to win crucial games this time of year. A six-game road trip, including stops in San Antonio, Houston and Chicago, from March 13-21 may prove ultimately decisive to their playoff hopes.
They now have a modest three-game win streak going after taking down the Sonics 96-91.
• New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets (28-30) -- As hard as they play, with the emergence of Tyson Chandler and one of the NBA's brightest point guards in Chris Paul, the Hornets are not deep enough to capture a spot. The absence of Peja Stojakovic, their leading scoring threat, certainly doesn't help. It does help that David West is averaging 24.2 ppg over their last four games, including a double-double in Wednesday's 107-100 win over the Hawks.
They also have the toughest schedule in March of those contending for a spot. They also wrap up their season with three road games.
Almost all the other West teams aren't out of it yet: Golden State (26-33), Sacramento (25-32), Portland (24-34), Seattle (22-35). Memphis (15-44) is, barring a miracle.
ESPN analyst Allan Houston made the NBA finals with the No. 8 seed Knicks in 1999.
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AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Members of the Boston Celtics stand for a moment of silence in honor of former Celtics guard Dennis Johnson. Johnson, a five-time All-Star who won two NBA titles in Boston, died last week.
The hottest center in the draft these days is a freshman, but his name isn't Greg Oden. Yes, Oden will likely be the No. 1 pick in the draft. But Stanford's Brook Lopez is actually putting up bigger numbers of late.
Lopez, along with his twin brother, Robin, was considered an elite prospect coming into Stanford. But scouts thought the brothers were at least two years away from the NBA. An early-season injury to Lopez didn't help his stock early on. But ever since a remarkable 18-point, 11-rebound, 12-block game against USC in late January, the 18-year-old 7-footer has been on fire.
Over the last four games, Lopez is averaging 23 ppg, 8.3 rpg on 53 percent shooting and drawing serious looks from NBA GMs and scouts. A month ago, no one had Lopez as a likely first-round pick this season (although most scouts had him pegged as a lottery pick down the road). Now? A quick survey of NBA scouts and executive over the weekend found that Lopez was in the Top 10 on the draft boards of everyone I spoke with.
While no one believes he has the upside of Oden or Washington's Spencer Hawes, big men rise on draft day and Lopez looks to be a hot name if he declares.
Phoenix suffered its first, and only, road loss against an Eastern Conference team (99-94 to Philadelphia) in its last such game of the season, finishing with a 14-1 interconference road record, the best in NBA history. The previous NBA record was an 11-1 mark by the 1982-83 Sixers.
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Shaq's best game of season
AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan buries his face in his hand during the final seconds of his team's 92-83 loss to the Miami Heat.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Darko Milicic's agent, Marc Cornstein, talks about his client's second chance in Orlando, the lack of playing time in Detroit and the effect of not getting a contract extension with the Magic.
Jason (Baltimore, MD): What would you try to do with Chris Bosh if he were one of your clients? He seems to have problems with big men who are as quick as him (like Elson the other nite in San Antonio. Bulking him up, it seems, would take away the speed that makes his game special.
David Thorpe: Players will always have problems against some -- Michael Jordan used to talk of the challenge in facing Mitch Richmond. Bosh is king against most. I think he can add range to his jumper.
David Thorpe: I'd lean to Bosh -- only because of Amare's knee.
March 1, 1978
John Drew of Atlanta committed 14 turnovers in a game at New Jersey, an NBA record. Jason Kidd of the Phoenix Suns tied the record by committing 14 turnovers against New York on November 17, 2000.
March 1, 1981
-- Peter D. Newmann