Updated: March 29, 2007, 11:46 AM ET

Clips lead chase for No. 8

LOS ANGELES -- If headaches and exercises in futility are your idea of a good time, please feel free to parse the remaining schedules of the Clippers, Warriors, Hornets, Kings and Timberwolves to divine who will wind up with the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Crunch those home vs. away records, opponents' winning percentages, number of back-to-backs and anything else that is handy to determine who has the toughest stretch run and then declare with outright assurance that Team X gets the honor of being first-round fodder for the Dallas Mavericks.

Just know there are a few elements to consider that are far more powerful. Such as: Which team is under the most pressure to make the playoffs? Who has the most battle-tested players capable of executing when every possession could decide if their team gets to nosh on a slice of playoff pie? Which team is winning the games it is supposed to win and stealing a few above its pay grade?

Weighing all that, the Clippers are a landslide choice, with the Warriors, now trailing the No. 8 leader by 1 1/2 games, the only real threat to unseat them and the Hornets standing as a distant third if the state of California slides into the Pacific.

Who has the most pressure? The Clippers, easily. This team was supposed to be a darkhorse title contender after owner Donald Sterling, breaking form, handed out a load of big-money contracts for last season's unprecedented run to the second round.

They're not title contenders by any means, but making the postseason -- and the gate receipts that come with it -- is a vital salve for Sterling's wounded pocketbook.

The Warriors are next on the pressure meter because of coach Don Nelson. Hiring the guy who burned the franchise to the ground 12 years ago was a deal-with-the-devil move, acceptable only if he ended their feasting at the lottery banquet ever since that mid-'90s arson work.

Who has the most battle-tested players? Again, the Clippers, by virtue of last year's playoff run. The Kings are next, but that solidarity under pressure is undermined by all the issues in their locker room. You know, as in where will Eric Musselman be coaching next, where will Mike Bibby be playing next and if Ron Artest be playing, period.

Which team is winning the games it is supposed to and stealing a few it shouldn't?

This is where the Kings took themselves out of the running, with losses at Atlanta and at home to Minnesota. Beating the Suns doesn't cover both. The Timberwolves have lost to Boston, Atlanta and Seattle (twice) this month. The Hornets lost at home to the Nets but knocked off the Rockets, so they're even. The Warriors lost at Portland but walloped the Mavs the next night for a wash as well.

The Clippers have been too much of an up-and-down mess, but suffice it to say they've covered every unsettling loss with an upset win.

The most interesting element of the race is that the top three teams are all trying to milk minutes out of their most valuable players and point guards -- Sam Cassell (back), Baron Davis (knee) and Chris Paul (foot) -- and the coach who does the best job could certainly tilt the odds in his team's favor.

While the Clippers went down in what appeared to be a 92-87 nail-biter to the Rockets on Wednesday night at the Staples Center, the truth is their fate was sealed when Cassell, in uniform, spent the entire night with a heat pack strapped to his back. A Clippers' squad starved for a floor leader to organize them all season doesn't hand the baton to Jason Hart and solve its issues against a team as disciplined as the Rockets. Not at this point in the season.

The Clippers fought until the end and were done wrong by a bad call on a last-second shot by Cuttino Mobley, but that's being distracted by a smudge on the view outside your big-picture window. If it's Elton Brand and Tim Thomas vs. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady in the final minute, I know who I'm putting my money on. (Check that, the phone just rang and it may be commissioner David Stern. Let's say, "I know whose flag I'm waving.")

"I just work here," said Cassell afterward. "I could've gone."

Coach Mike Dunleavy apparently made the decision -- I didn't get a chance to ask him after the game -- to save Cassell for Friday and Saturday's back-to-back games at Sacramento and Portland.

Because, as I just explained, those are games the Clippers are supposed to win. Versus the one Wednesday night, which they weren't.

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Dunleavy: Give Us Official Challenge

Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy advocated an expanded use of instant replay after the Clippers had their chance at forcing overtime stolen by an errant officiating call in Houston's eventual 92-87 win.

"Why not give every coach a chance to challenge a call in the last 24 seconds?" he said. "All anyone should want is the chance to get it right."

Trailing 90-87 with 4.1 seconds left, Cuttino Mobley drove left around Yao Ming and collided with Rafer Alston as he took off on one foot and slung the ball in the direction of the rim. Sources say referee Steve Javie called a foul and then conferred with the other two officials, Monty McCutchen and Tony Brown, because he didn't see if Mobley took off behind or inside the three-point arc.

McCutchen, according to Mobley, told Javie that he took off inside the arc and Javie signaled a two-point shot. "Steve asked for help and his help wasn't there," Mobley said.

Confusion reigned afterward as replays indisputably showed Mobley left the floor behind the arc. The official score sheet didn't help, registering the call as a one-and-one non-shooting foul. (The Clippers were in the bonus.) A request from reporters for clarification on the call by the referee crew was refused.

-- Ric Bucher at Staples Center

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