The Cavaliers, who needed overtime to beat the Blazers Thursday night, 97-92, are going to get the No. 1 seed in the East because they have a favorable schedule down the stretch that includes playing nine of their last 14 games at home -- where they have lost only once all year.
The Celtics, with all of their injuries, have no rhythm right now, and the Magic need to figure out a way to steadily feed Dwight Howard at crunch time.
Those are the two biggest reasons that neither Boston nor Orlando can catch Cleveland. Cleveland is 4.5 games in front of Boston and five games ahead of Orlando, and with the exception of Ben Wallace, the Cavaliers are the one team that is not dealing with injuries.
They have also been the most consistent of the three teams. The formula for the Cavaliers has been to play great defense -- they have been No. 1 or No. 2 in defense all season. They also hold teams to one shot because they are such a great rebounding team. Lastly, they always get a great performance from LeBron James, who had another triple-double (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) on Thursday.
It is more important for Cleveland to have home-court advantage than it is for Boston. Simply put, the Cavaliers haven't done anything together yet. They haven't won anything. Like the show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," the lifeline for the Cavaliers would be a home game. The Celtics won big games on the road last season so they are confident they can do it again.
Boston has so many guys banged up and doesn't have a lot of time left in the season to get those guys healthy and back into the lineup.
If Kevin Garnett comes back and is fine for the Celtics, this injury might be the best thing to have happened to him. He will be rested for the playoffs. The Celtics are the most complete team in the league and have more options offensively than the Cavaliers and Magic.
The Celtics aren't as deep as Cleveland, but because they have been through it before, they have a belief -- a confidence that none of the other teams have. I still think the Celtics are the best team in the NBA.
I can't get that image of Orlando getting only eight shots for Howard against Cleveland the other night out of my head. He had only one shot attempt in the last 19 minutes. The Magic rely too much on 3-point shooting and don't get enough touches for the best frontcourt player in the game. Even when they go inside, they are doing it to set up the 3-point shooters. I don't think that strategy will work in the playoffs.
Orlando will probably get the 2-seed and Boston will be the 3-seed, which sets up an interesting second round in the playoffs. The Celtics are mentally tough. They are the most mentally tough team in the league.
Also, I keep hearing so much about the top MVP candidates being LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant. I think Paul Pierce needs to get a mention. He is right there with those three in terms of what he means to his team and what he does down the stretch in games.Pierce does it from all different areas of the floor. What Kevin Garnett means to the Celtics on defense, Pierce means the same thing to them offensively. Without Pierce on offense, I don't know where that team would be. It is unfair for people to think that Garnett, Ray Allen and Pierce should split MVP votes.
ESPN analyst Tim Legler is a regular contributor to the Daily Dime
ATLANTA -- "Live by the 3, die by the 3" is the saying ... and man, did the Mavericks die by the 3 Thursday in a 95-87 loss to the Hawks.
Fighting to hang on to the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Mavs were poised to steal a win in Atlanta down the stretch -- thanks to a strong defensive second half in which they permitted just 39 points and grabbed several hustling offensive rebounds, including one where Jason Kidd went into the stands for a loose ball and smashed a monitor at the press table.
Their commendable effort was put asunder, however, by all the misses from downtown. Dallas went 0-for-10 on 3s in the fourth quarter, putting an exclamation point on a 6-for-31 effort for the game. Dallas tried only seven two-pointers in the quarter and finished with just 15 points in that fateful stanza to drop their third straight road game.
Unlike some previous efforts, there could be no complaining by Mavs owner Mark Cuban about his team's resolve in this one. They fought tooth and nail all night, with emergency starter Ryan Hollins providing 13 points and six offensive boards from the center spot and Dallas posting twice as many offensive boards (16 to 8) as their more physical opponents.
But the result didn't turn out any better. Dallas had a six-game lead over Phoenix in the loss column as recently as a week ago; that's now been shaved in half. With the Suns having the schedule advantage the rest of the way, this would have been a helpful win to put some distance between the two clubs before their showdown in Dallas on April 5.
Instead, the Mavs too often fired from distance and missed. And while they busied themselves from firing away, they failed to get easy points from the stripe. The Mavs didn't attempt a single free throw in the first half -- a fact that undoubtedly contributed to Rick Carlisle's second-quarter ejection -- and took only 13 for the game.
Meanwhile, it was another landmark win for the Hawks, who finished their seven-game homestand undefeated while knocking off four of the West's top eight teams. The Hawks clinched their first non-losing season since 1998-99 and opened up a four-game edge on the Heat in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round.
But the Mavs needed this game much more than Atlanta did -- which makes the way they lost it all the more painful.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
LOS ANGELES -- There has been little joy and barely an encouraging sign for the Los Angeles Lakers lately, as their games have turned as stale and redundant as the Day 6 season of "24." This little miniseries of three home games has revolved around a plot of unstable double-digit leads and long stretches when the Lakers have been outhustled, plus a weary-looking superstar.
As a result, the Lakers aren't looking like championship favorites or even like a solid bet to retain the top spot in Marc Stein's power rankings these days. And now they must find their momentum on the road, as they embark on a 13-day, seven-game tour of the lower half of the Eastern Conference playoff contenders.
"We'd love to have the best record in the league," guard Derek Fisher said. "We'd love to have the best record in the West. This trip can put us in position to do those things. It could be a defining moment.
"The most important think is we just continue to stay together as a team and understand that things are going to happen. You have to remain together and unified."
It can be hard to stay unified when various components of the team come up short, be it the bench letting leads slip away or the guards failing to pound the ball inside to the big men, as has been the case recently. The Lakers at least addressed those issues during a 114-106 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night. In the previous two games, Pau Gasol had 35 points in the first half and 15 points in the second half, a sign the Lakers had gone away from what worked. It was the opposite Thursday, when he scored eight in the first half and finished with 21.
And the spark off the bench came from Sasha Vujacic, whose shooting accuracy has dropped by almost 8 percentage points from last season. He made every jumper, 3-pointer and free throw he attempted Thursday to get eight points. And Luke Walton scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting, including a dunk over former teammate Ronnie Turiaf.
Hard to believe Walton could provide more highlight material than Kobe Bryant, but when Bryant had a breakaway later all he did was lay the ball in. It was part of a night of minimal lift and subpar shooting for Bryant, who was 9-for-25. That followed his 5-for-15 night in a loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday.
The Lakers' last lengthy excursion turned into the highlight of the season, when they went 6-0 with victories at Boston and Cleveland even after Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury on the second stop of the trip. Bynum won't make this trip, ruling out the possibility of so much as a walk-through with the team until April 3.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson said that from his perspective -- taking care to remind everyone this wasn't coming from a doctor, athletic trainer or physical therapist -- he thought Bynum would be back in a month, which would rule out the final 14 games and force him to get up to game speed during the playoffs.
"If we have to do that in the postseason, we just have to do it," Jackson said. "That's part of it.
"Best-case scenario is that he plays the first week in April. But on the pace he's been going at this point, it's really hard to see him in two weeks all of a sudden being ready to do that."
If there's one thing Jackson anticipates on this trip, it's fewer L.A. media members around to question him about Bynum. The players need to make improvements, or else Bynum's return won't make a difference. As Fisher said, "There are some things that even during the ups and downs you can eliminate or at least minimize. We're letting a few things slip. We're giving up extra possessions."
Those are coming in the form of opponents' offensive rebounds and steals. Those are the things that keep nagging the minds of the Lakers, even though the final score has been in their favor two of the past three home games.
"We know that we've had a great season thus far, but we want so much more," Fisher said. "That's where the frustration is coming from."
Maybe they need to shake things up and get away from L.A. It worked for Jack Bauer and company.
LeBron James, Cavaliers: He recorded his seventh triple-double of the season, his coach Mike Brown earned the 200th victory of his career and the Cavaliers tied the NBA record for fewest turnovers in a game (two).
Jason Terry, Mavericks: The league's highest-scoring reserve had an off night, going 3-for-13 from the floor, including 1-for-9 from 3-point range, on the way to an eight-point night.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"I thought Dirk was being held and pushed and got fouled repeatedly. I kept asking for a foul to be called, but it wasn't. I turned to the official and just got thrown out."
-- Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle on why he was ejected in the second quarter against the Hawks
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Using moves like this, Kobe Bryant scored 21 for the Lakers, who held off the Warriors, 114-106, to remain one game behind the Cavaliers for the best record in the NBA.
If you haven't been watching Clippers games lately, I can't say I blame you. But you're missing out on a 3-point explosion for the ages.
L.A.'s Steve Novak went 6-for-10 from downtown Wednesday night and now is 21-for-34 over his past four games -- including the game-winner at the buzzer against New Jersey on Sunday. The past 11 times he's played at least 20 minutes, he's made two or more 3s. Since Jan. 19, only Cleveland's Mo Williams has made more 3-pointers than Novak, which is pretty amazing, considering Novak has played only 21 minutes per game in that span.
In that two-month span, Novak is 77-for-171 (45 percent) from downtown while averaging a 3-point hoist every four minutes. Although he is fairly worthless on defense and can't create his own shot, his 3s are such a powerful offensive weapon that he's forced the Clips to play him anyway -- he started the second half Wednesday against Washington, and that might be a harbinger of how he will be used the rest of the way.
With one of the highest true shooting percentages (62.9) in the league and a microscopic turnover ratio (4.9 percent of the possessions he's used), along with his teammates' dreadful efficiency otherwise (they are last in offensive efficiency), getting him as many shots as possible should be among this team's highest priorities.
• The battle of rookie point guards Wednesday night between Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook was an exciting one, but Rose won it going away in the second half by shooting 10-for-10 from the field while Westbrook went out of control on several forays to the basket.
What was interesting was that Rose did almost all his damage on midrange jump shots. When he came into the league, this was supposed to be a major weakness, but it appears his stroke is coming along quite nicely -- hardly an unusual development for a player this young.
What I'd like to see next is a few more assists. Rose came into the league billed as a pure point guard, but he averages only 6.2 dimes per game; even the assists he gets are rarely the high-quality, easy-basket producing feeds you'd like to see a penetrating point guard deliver.
To see the three other Insider Gems, click here.
The Hawks completed a sweep of their seven-game homestand with a 95-87 win against the Mavericks. It was the second-longest perfect homestand in Hawks franchise history, including 13 seasons in St. Louis, four in Milwaukee and five in Moline, Illinois. The Hawks swept an eight-game homestand in 1979 (Feb. 21-Mar. 11).
• The Trail Blazers lost in Cleveland, but they did have more free-throw attempts than the Cavs, which extended Portland's streak of consecutive games shooting more free throws than their opponent to 13, tying a franchise record set in November 1982. The Blazers' streak also equals the 2008-09 NBA season high set by the Sixers (13 games, Jan. 31-Feb. 28).