With spring here and the regular season's end less than a month away, here's a brief look at the chase for the final two spots in the East, and the final three in the West. Barring a big collapse from teams above those seeds in both conferences, these shape up as the five battleground spots out of 16 playoff slots.
Figuring who's in and out
In the East, I think there are quite a few teams that could make it. The thing about the East is the bottom teams occupying the 7-8 playoffs spots are well below .500. And the team that gets in will be well below .500!
It's amazing to me.
East No. 7 seed -- Look for the New Jersey Nets, now 31-37 after losing to the Nuggets, 94-90, to make their way into this slot. Jason Kidd and Vince Carter are two good reasons. Richard Jefferson should be back healthy. Mikki Moore stepped in big for them -- he is at this point playing better than a backup center. If Nenad Krstic did not get injured, they'd been in solidly or even in the upper half of the East.
East No. 8 seed -- I see the Knicks filling this one. They're basically doing this year what everyone expected them to do last year. We thought they'd be .500 then. Making the playoffs is now easier.
The Knicks, who fell to 30-37 with a home loss to the Mavericks, 92-77, have won some exciting, close games. That gives them a lot of momentum during the year. Last year, they were too talented to be that bad. Last year helped this year in some ways because it took pressure off, by comparison.
So I look for those two to edge out the other contenders. The Indiana Pacers can't get it together with their new lineup. I think their big trade will eventually work out. Rarely do you make trades and know the full impact in the first few months.
As for the Orlando Magic, take away the good first part of the year and they have played consistently inconsistent. They haven't changed their play in the last month.
The Atlanta Hawks are interesting. Young and talented. There's potential there. Were it not for Joe Johnson's injury, they might have had a chance.
Anybody in the East could be a .500 team next year. But is an organization really satisfied with .500? The worst place to be is in the middle. If you're not going to make the playoffs, being in middle makes it a tougher challenge to improve through the draft.
In the West, there's three playoffs spots not anywhere close to being decided.
West No. 6 -- I look for the Denver Nuggets (34-31) to tighten its grasp. Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony can win any game all by themselves. Iverson is beginning to assert himself a little more -- he's just got to play his game. At the beginning of his time in Denver, he just tried to fit in. Not sure you can play basketball that way -- you've got to be yourself, and when he is, the Nuggets are the better for it.
West No. 7 -- Looks like the Lakers (35-32) fit here. With a player like Kobe Bryant you are never out of it. Last year he willed them in. Lamar Odom is going to get better and better. Hopefully they'll get Luke Walton back. Between Andrew Bynum and Kwame Brown they can hold down the center position. Phil Jackson's strategy and motivation makes a difference.
In his recent scoring surge, we're seeing how Kobe's competitiveness won't let him stand for his team losing. He's got the talent to back it up.
West No. 8: -- I like Golden State (32-37), a team that has won six of eight after losing to the Jazz, 104-100. I like their talent with Baron Davis being healthier now. Al Harrington's a big addition. The guy that people have slept on is Jason Richardson, who missed 22 games with a broken hand but who has had some good games lately. A potential first-round matchup with Dallas could be the most interesting series of the whole playoffs.
The other West contenders have their flaws. The Clippers (31-36) revolve around their point guard. Sam Cassell can still play, he's very talented, but he might be worn down at this point. The Timberwolves have to make a decision of keeping Kevin Garnett or going with the young players. The Hornets might have had a good chance, but the early injuries hurt them. The Kings are something of a mystery. They'll have one or two good games, then they won't look good at all.
ESPN analyst Kiki Vandeweghe, the former Nuggets GM, led UCLA to the 1980 NCAA championship game, which it lost to Louisville.
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The Nuggets won their fifth straight game with a 94-90 decision over the Nets. It marked the first time this season Denver has won a game (1-21) when scoring fewer than 99 points.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban dropped the bombshell on ESPN last weekend that he almost sold the Mavs following their loss to the Miami Heat in the finals, and he provided a little more information Tuesday night as he sat on the visitor's bench prior to his Mavericks' game against the New York Knicks.
Cuban said there were "more than three and less than 20" people or groups interested in purchasing the team, and he was most eager to sell in the month following the end of the NBA Finals, softening his stance midway through the summer after a sitdown with Dirk Nowitzki.
"I wouldn't have regretted it at all because that would have been a nice opportunity to get some things off my chest, which I would have enjoyed immensely," Cuban said.
Gilbert Arenas has had an undeniably outstanding season, but Tuesday night was another clunker. Arenas shot 4-for-16 from the floor (missing all seven of his 3-point field-goal attempts) in the Wizards' two-point loss at Portland.
That was the 15th game this season in which Arenas has shot 30 percent or less from the floor. Considering games in which a player had at least 10 field-goal attempts, only one NBA player has had more 30 percent or less clunkers this season; Mike Bibby has had 19 such games.
Phoenix clinches third straight Pacific title
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Bobcats forward Walter Herrmann, a 27-year-old rookie from Argentina, scored a career-high 19 points and pulled in 10 rebounds in a 108-100 OT win over the Cavs. Though many thought his name was Herrmann DNP, he has now reached double figures in four straight.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Zac (Oakland): Wouldn't the Warriors give Dallas a little scare if they meet in the 1st round? Nellie has an ax to grind with Cuban and seems to know how to beat these guys. But what a horrible showing by The Beach in the tourney. Too many turnovers, so I'm ready if you want to give me a hard time.
Marc Stein: A very minor scare. That series goes no more than five if they meet in the first round and it might be over in three. The Warriors just need to make sure they get there first and they have a tough closing sked. As for your Beach, can't needle you as much as I'd love to. I'd kill for a horrible showing in the tournament.
Tom (Columbus, OH): If the Cavs somehow close the season out 14-2 and finish with 55 wins and the No. 1 seed in the East, any chance LeBron jumps into the MVP race?
Marc Stein: That's the only way -- getting into the 55-win range and winning the East -- but I still don't see it. Regular-season success in the East just isn't going to wow voters, especially when the Mavs, Suns and Spurs are having the seasons they're having . . . and when LeBron's first half played to such unflattering reviews.
Fran Fraschilla and Chad Ford break down NBA prospects playing in the NCAA Tournament, including a Kansas team loaded with likely draftees. Julian Wright is an acquired taste, plays well in the post but has no jumper. Looks like a Suns-type player, Fraschilla notes. And he calls Brandon Rush "a passive superstar."
The Kings have picked a very bad time to be asking for public funds to build a new arena in Sacramento. They're a dreary, aging, spectacularly unathletic team. The lone exception is Kevin Martin, who doesn't seem to get nearly enough touches in their offense.
Am I the only one who seems to notice that Ron Artest (though very talented in his own right) completely disrupts the flow of the Kings' offense. It's been proven that they can't win playing defense but they seem to have a fighting chance with Ron Ron on the bench and Bibby and Martin taking the scoring load. Maybe I'm crazy.
-- Bill (Philadelphia)