Updated: March 11, 2007, 10:20 PM ET

Seasons on the brink

Of the four teams in action on Thursday night, we're going to see at least two in the playoffs.

Right this way to the playoffs, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls. You've earned it. But the teams they beat, the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic, respectively, are battling some big issues.

The Magic's slide downhill gained speed in an ugly home loss to Chicago, their foul February morphing into a maudlin March. Meanwhile, the Kings' mercurial Ron Artest is currently not participating in team activities while domestic violence charges are under investigation. This comes just as the team has gotten hot enough to move into position to grab one of the West's final two spots.

If things couldn't get worse for Sacramento, Robert Horry, whose big shot sank the Kings' hopes for a title in the 2002 Western Conference finals, was back in town. Just put a "kick me" sign on every fan entering Arco Arena.

Here's a look at Thursday's combatants, with final record prediction:

Orlando Magic (29-34)

The 100-76 loss to the Bulls on Thursday was not a big morale booster. Looks more and more like it will be a four-way scrum among the Pacers, Magic, Nets and Knicks for the final two spots in the East.

The Magic went 3-9 over February. Don't blame Dwight Howard for the skid -- his numbers for the month were his best of the season, making 70.7 percent of his shots, averaging 22.8 points and 12.5 rebounds. Darko Milicic was better too, going 11.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg while shooting 50.4 percent from the field.

But it probably doesn't help that Grant Hill has missed 10 of his last 17 games before Thursday. And Jameer Nelson did not shoot over 50 percent from the field in any of the nine February losses. Howard's got an NBA worst 236 turnovers (3.8 per game). That's a lot of turnovers, but even D-Ho won't approach the season mark of 366 set by Artis Gilmore in 1978.

At least they've got two games with Boston and one with Memphis left to go.

Predicted finish: 36-46. Ninth, out of playoffs in East.

Sacramento Kings (28-33)

Maybe Artest's subtraction, for however long, boosts Mike Bibby's primacy in the big scheme of things. And John Salmons and Francisco Garcia take on added importance.

The Kings came into the San Antonio game having won four straight, then fell 100-93 to the Spurs. But the schedule doesn't seem too friendly from here on out. The Kings have a five-game swing to the East starting Tuesday in Cleveland, with the Cavs playing some excellent ball of late. Then it's a slate dotted with West powers. Not good, even with Kevin Martin's breakout season (21 ppg) in full effect.

Predicted finish: 38-44. Ninth, out of playoffs in West.

Chicago Bulls (36-28)

Kirk Hinrich, who scored all 17 of his points in the first half against the Magic, has seen his shooting percentage improve each year. Now in his fourth season, he's at 44.7 percent.

Next up for Chicago -- a home-and-home with the Celtics this weekend signaling a pretty easy schedule the rest of the way. Two games with Detroit and one with Cleveland stand out as key contests if the Bulls hope to move ahead of their current No. 5 seed.

Predicted finish: 48-34. No. 5 seed in East.

San Antonio Spurs (44-18)

The Spurs are now getting into the winning-streak acts that Phoenix and Dallas have reveled in, posting win No. 11 against the Kings on Thursday. With five of their next six at home, Duncan and Co. could be on their way to the NBA's longest win streak this season. That is, if the Mavs ever lose again. The last of those six games is a home game against Detroit on March 23. Only three games with Western elite teams left: Utah, Dallas and Phoenix.

Predicted finish: 59-23. No. 3 seed in West.

Andrew Ayres is an NBA editor for ESPN.com

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Signature Move
Manu Ginobili
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Spurs guard Manu Ginobili signs for fans in Sacramento before Thursday's game. Then he made his mark on the court, lifting the Spurs to their 11th straight win, a 100-93 decision.


Streaking Division

LV

The Spurs extended their winning streak to 11 games with a 100-93 victory at Sacramento. But San Antonio has gained only one game on the Mavericks in the Southwest Division race during its winning streak because Dallas has gone 9-0 during that time, stretching its own streak to 16 wins in a row.

This is only the fourth time in NBA history that two teams in the same division -- or the same conference prior to the divisional era -- had concurrent winning streaks longer than 10 games each. The others were the Lakers (19) and Trail Blazers (11) in February 2000; the 76ers (14) and Nets (11) in January 1983; and the Bucks (13) and Bulls (12) in November 1973.

Elias Says



Daily Dish: The Real Deals
dish

Chad Ford and Kiki Vandeweghe separate the contenders from the pretenders in the West and East playoff races.

Can Dallas get 70 wins? Are they destined for the title? Vandeweghe says this is a team built to win in the playoffs.

Daily Dish


Records At A Glance



Kirk's Cookin'

Bulls Earn First Win Over Magic


Beating The Crowd
Pat Riley
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
Ben Wallace and Dwight Howard do battle on the boards. Tiger Woods was at the game, but left at halftime. Maybe the Magic's 29 points at half had something to do with it. Chicago won, 100-76.




Extreme Behavior
Manu Ginobili

Thursday's Best
Spurs guard Manu Ginobili: Drops in 31 points in 29 minutes, sparking San Antonio to a 100-93 win over the Kings. Five 3-pointers thrown in for good measure. Pop's got to like that.

Darko Milicic

Thursday's Worst:
Magic forward Darko Milicic: Five fouls, two points. Not good. At least Darko had company -- Grant Hill did not make a single field goal, and Hedo Turkoglu was hobbled and netted a whopping two points. Stop this Magic ride, it's time to get off.

Quote of the Day
"I'm not sure if we've ever played a first half like we played tonight as far as not making shots from the field or the free throw line."
-- Magic coach Brian Hill

Complete linescore for every player

Playoff matchups if season ended now

Chad Ford's Lottery + Mock Draft

-- Andrew Ayres



The Russell Ranking
The gang at ESPN.com ranked their top all-time centers a few days ago, and since then I've received a lot of e-flak for putting Bill Russell seventh on my list.

To my surprise, Russell had the most first-place votes of anyone. I had expected him to be lower on my ballot than a lot of others, but I surmised nearly everyone would have Chamberlain, for instance, ahead of him.

I had thought the idea of Russell being on top was blown to smithereens 15 years ago when a Sports Illustrated article shattered the long-cherished idea that Russell had outplayed Wilt Chamberlain in their head-to-head matchups. Guess not.

So now I have even more explaining to do about why I ranked Russell behind not only Chamberlain, but also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Moses Malone. Russell won 11 championships in 13 years, after all, so certainly he was doing something right.

But if I had to boil down my reasoning, it would come down to two things: (1) teammates and (2) offense.

Complete John Hollinger blog




The Rising Yi
yi

Mark (Louisville): Which player has done the most to improve his draft stock recently?

Chad Ford: Yi Jianlin of China. He is putting up huge numbers in the Chinese playoffs in front of a number of top NBA scouts and execs who have been over there the last few weeks. One scout, who claims to have seen Yi over 20 times, said that he has him ranked as the third-best prospect in the draft behind Oden and Durant. He's a 7-foot skilled athletic kid with a beautiful jump shot. Sounds like another Andrea Bargnani.

Phil (LA): Chad, do you think the Lakers will drop out the 6th seed? Is the season practically over for them after the first round? Thanks!

Chad Ford: It will be tough without Lamar, but truthfully, none of the teams that are challenging them (Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Kings, T-Wolves or Hornets) are exactly lighting it up either.

Complete Chad Ford chat




You'll Go Down In History . . . Maybe
Yao Ming

If I had to bet on one active player to crack the all-time top 10 centers list, it's Yao Ming. Yao has established himself as the league's most dominant post player, ranking third only to Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki among all players in PER this season. He's a five-time All-Star whose team seems poised to contend for at least the next few seasons and, at 26, time still is mostly on his side.

The big threat at this point is injuries -- Yao missed 25 games last season and another 32 this season, and one wonders if the pounding his 7-6 frame delivers on the lower extremities is too much to take. But if the Chinese giant can stay on the court, one would think he has a window of 5-10 years where he will be far and away the game's most dominant post scorer. As a result, he has a great chance to displace Ewing eventually from the end of the list.

Complete John Hollinger center story

 

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