5-on-5: Who has the most to prove?
The playoffs are just around the corner, but there's still plenty up for grabs. A few of our best NBA minds take a look at which teams have the most to lose or gain during the final two weeks of the regular season.
1. Final two weeks: Which team has the most to gain?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Lakers.
It doesn't seem right that the team that seemingly has everything (most notably, the past two Larry O'Brien trophies) could gain the most. But if the Lakers somehow get home-court advantage throughout the playoffs they'll be assured of playing potential Game 7s in a building where they haven't lost since Feb. 3.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: The Heat.
They are deadlocked with Boston for the East's second seed, and the guys in green are unexpectedly vulnerable. Miami isn't exactly playing its best ball right now, but there's an opportunity for upheaval nonetheless. That said, LeBron & Co. will need every advantage they can get to shift the Heat-Celtics dynamic -- starting with home court.
Rashad Mobley, Truth About It: The Heat.
They are a half-game behind Boston and just two-and-a-half games behind Chicago for the top spot in the East. If they steal that spot and earn home-court advantage in the East, the Heat put themselves one step closer to becoming the first team to throw two victory parties in the same season.
Benjamin Polk, A Wolf Among Wolves: The Rockets.
If they could manage to sneak into the playoffs after losing Yao Ming by playing Chuck Hayes at center, with no All-Stars and the league's 21st-best defense, it would be some serious Rick Adelman magic. Wouldn't a first-round series between Houston and a gimpy San Antonio be interesting?
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: The Mavericks.
Dallas is just a half-game behind the Lakers in the Western Conference. If they can pull ahead of Los Angeles, the Lakers will cede home court to the Mavericks in the second round. Better than the alternative, don't you think?
2. Final two weeks: Which team has the most to lose?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Spurs.
They seemed to place a greater emphasis than usual on the regular season this year. If the No. 1 seed slips away from them at the end it would have to be disheartening. But do they want to wear out their stars in the pursuit, or keep them fresh for the playoffs?
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: The Celtics.
If the Heat are on one side of the coin, then the Celtics are necessarily on the other. Boston really can't afford to drop games at this point, but a tough schedule (six games against playoff teams remain), a temptation to rest tired legs and Rajon Rondo's odd regression create a worrisome brew.
Rashad Mobley, Truth About It: The Spurs.
The Lakers are healthy and winners of seven consecutive games, while the Spurs are banged-up and losers of four straight. San Antonio has eight games to maintain its three-and-a-half-game lead -- and home court in the playoffs -- over the Lakers.
Benjamin Polk, A Wolf Among Wolves: The Knicks, although I'm not sure if they have the most to lose or if they've already lost the most.
Either way, they play catastrophically bad defense and have managed to transform themselves from a heartwarming story of renewal into a cautionary tale. Nicely done.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: The Celtics.
Like the race between the Lakers and Mavericks, the Celtics are in a dead heat with Miami for the second seed in the East. Boston is a great team, but is it great enough to win on the road in the second round, conference finals and NBA Finals? It seems like too much to overcome.
3. Final two weeks: Which team has the most to prove?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Knicks.
They don't need to win a championship immediately to validate the Carmelo Anthony trade, but a winning record since the deal went down would be nice. They need to establish that the Carmelo-Amare combo is a solid foundation, not a couple of wobbly pillars. And can they get Stoudemire some shots in crunch time?
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: The Mavs.
The Lakers look like the best team in basketball, and the Mavs will see how they measure up in L.A. on Thursday night. However, Dallas' burden of proof goes far beyond a single game or the race to secure the No. 2 seed; in order for the Mavs to have a fighting chance against the Lakers in the playoffs, they'll need to remedy their inconsistency on both ends of the court.
Rashad Mobley, Truth About It: The Celtics.
Two months ago, Doc Rivers raved about how well his team played and practiced with Kendrick Perkins on the floor. Now that Perkins is in Oklahoma City, Rivers has labeled his team soft, Rondo seems lost and Utah's Al Jefferson both taunted and torched Kevin Garnett. The aura of intimidation has disappeared, and the Celtics have to locate it before the playoffs start.
Benjamin Polk, A Wolf Among Wolves: The Celtics.
The risk of the Kendrick Perkins deal: It could cost them the title. The reward: Um, Nenad Krstic? Twenty-five minutes per game of Jeff Green? A slightly less bare cupboard when the Big Three get old? I'm not feeling it. The Celtics are hounded by time; every moment that passes brings them closer to the end of this era. They've got a whole lot at stake.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: The Spurs.
They are on a four-game losing streak with a string of injuries at the worst possible point in the season. Meanwhile, their conference foes in Dallas, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City and Denver are finishing the season strong. Is San Antonio's record a mirage, or is this team really as good as its winning percentage suggests?
4. Final two weeks: Which team have you given up on?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: The Magic.
They were my preseason pick to come out of the East, but now I can't find any reason to believe they'll get past the second round. They've lost their past four games to the Bulls and Celtics after beating both of them in December.
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: The Hornets.
Whether they make the playoffs or not, the Hornets' season is over. It's a shame for one of the league's most surprisingly effective defenses to bow out so early, but David West's absence -- thanks to a season-ending ACL tear -- is simply too damning.
Rashad Mobley, Truth About It: The Knicks.
When the Heat struggled earlier in the season, it was not a big deal; eventually the talents of LeBron, Wade and Bosh would shine through. The struggling Knicks have Carmelo, who doesn't defend consistently; Amare, whose knees may be shot from excessive minutes earlier in the season; and Chauncey Billups, who may be too old to offset the flaws of his star teammates.
Benjamin Polk, A Wolf Among Wolves: The Suns.
I've long appreciated the Suns for their style and energy, for their passion and, especially last season, for their collegiate exuberance. But Amare, Jason Richardson and Leandro Barbosa are gone. Hedo Turkoglu and Vince Carter were boondoggles. And they still don't defend. Steve Nash and Grant Hill are still joys to watch, but they're swimming against the tide. I'm afraid the dream is over.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: Unfortunately, this answer is too easy: the Knicks.
Kindness tells me to pass off New York's recent struggles as new players in a new system needing time to adjust. But the Knicks have all the markings of a team whose roster is designed to tally more ticket-purchase victories than playoff victories.
5. Final two weeks: Which team is most intriguing?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: As it has been all season, the Heat.
They still haven't found an identity they can maintain. Can they get one in the closing games? Can they secure one of the top two seeds in the East? They're equally capable of finishing with a run that makes us say, "Watch out for the Heat" or making a couple of stumbles that make us say, "The Heat better watch out."
Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: The Nuggets.
They have been born anew since trading Carmelo Anthony, and their two-way success has been a sight to behold. As it stands now, Denver seems destined to meet Oklahoma City in the first round, and could very well send the Thunder home early. The Nuggets must continue adding to their already strong body of work, but the foundation for an upset is there.
Rashad Mobley, Truth About It: The 76ers.
They are playing hard for Doug Collins and are poised to be a tough out in the playoffs. If the playoffs ended today, they would face the Heat. Or, in two weeks, the Celtics could slip to Miami's No. 3 spot, meaning a confident Sixers team would play a Boston team searching for confidence. That's a recipe for an upset.
Benjamin Polk, A Wolf Among Wolves: The Nuggets, and don't try to convince me otherwise.
They lose their transcendent star, win 12 of 16 games and promptly become the most efficient (and the third fastest) offense in the league. They successfully play their most important minutes with two undersized point guards. It's not uncommon for all five players to touch the ball on one breakneck possession. They are the neck-tattoo champions of the NBA.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes of Hell: The Thunder.
Let's see, they made a wonderful midseason trade, are winners of nine of their past 10 games and flaunt Kevin Durant, the league's best scorer. What's not to like?
J.A. Adande is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Rob Mahoney, Rashad Mobley, Benjamin Polk and Timothy Varner are writers for the TrueHoop Network.
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