Will Hornets have enough left to stay in first?
Nine teams, 12 days.
The NBA’s fiercest conference race ever has hit its stretch run with only 2½ games separating the top six teams. The San Antonio Spurs needed less than a month to go from first to sixth back up to second in the West standings, prompting coach Gregg Popovich to declare: “Seedings mean nothing.”
Provided, of course, you’re one of the eight teams fortunate enough to currently hold a seed. The Golden State Warriors, last season’s playoff darlings, were in ninth place as of Friday and might miss the postseason altogether despite winning 50 games.
“None of us has ever seen anything like it,” Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said.
Here then is a primer on each of the nine teams, what they face in the race’s final two weeks and how they’re projected to finish. A hint: The standings on April 16 might not look too different than they do today.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (45-30, 3rd Pacific Division, 9th Western Conference)
Current seeding: 9th
Games remaining: 7 (4H, 3A)
Games against Other Eight: at New Orleans, April 6; vs. Denver, April 10; at Phoenix, April 14.
One to win: vs. Denver, April 10. This is the Warriors’ one and only opportunity to assure themselves of making up ground on the Nuggets. Unfortunately for them, even a win here might not matter.
What, us worry? The Warriors have ceded the head-to-head tiebreaker to Dallas and are down 2-1 to Denver, so they’ve got problems. But what should have them most concerned is their sputtering offense. Sputtering by their standards, that is. Golden State shot only 38 percent and totaled 28 turnovers to just 22 assists while getting routed in back-to-back games against San Antonio and Dallas. The Warriors’ shots “look nice on the way,” coach Don Nelson told Bay area reporters. “Then the rim gets in the way.”
We do have this going for us: There’s also another explanation for why the Warriors shot so poorly the previous two games. They played two of the league’s best defensive teams. On Friday, they visit Memphis, which is yielding 106.4 points per game. The Grizzlies have helped more than a few teams regain their offensive rhythm.
Can we get a little help? Stephen Jackson has missed 20 of his past 23 shots, which, naturally, should have the Warriors’ upcoming opponents frightened. Jackson is one of the league’s streakiest shooters and just as likely to drop 36 points on someone. Regardless, Captain Jack needs to warm up – soon – for the Warriors to stay in the race.
Projected finish: 50-32, 9th place
DENVER NUGGETS (46-29, 2nd Northwest Division, 8th Western Conference)
Current seeding: 8th
Games remaining: 7 (3H, 4A)
Games against Other Eight: at Golden State, April 10; at Utah, April 12; vs. Houston, April 13.
One to win: at Golden State, April 10. The Nuggets can essentially put two games between them and the Warriors because a win would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker.
What, us worry? Carmelo Anthony has a tender right shoulder and was in obvious pain when fouled near the end of the Nuggets’ win over Phoenix. He’ll probably play Saturday against Sacramento, but another hit isn’t going to feel too good.
We do have this going for us: The Nuggets have one of the softer closing schedules among the West contenders. Even if they lose at Golden State and Utah next week, they still have a good chance at hanging onto one of the final two playoff seeds if they can beat Houston at home on April 13.
Can we get a little help? Kenyon Martin earned himself a one-game suspension for exceeding the league’s limit for flagrant fouls. The Nuggets should be able to survive Saturday’s home game against Sacramento without him, but he’ll earn additional suspensions if he can’t keep his elbows to himself. K-Mart’s value has never been higher to the Nuggets: In the past three games, he’s averaging 22.3 points.
Projected finish: 51-31, No. 7 seed (head-to-head tiebreaker over Dallas)
DALLAS MAVERICKS (47-28, 4th Southwest Division, 7th Western Conference)
Current seeding: 7th
Games remaining: 7 (3H, 4A)
Games against Other Eight: at L.A. Lakers, April 4; at Phoenix, April 6; at Utah, April 10; vs. New Orleans, April 16.
One to win: at Utah, April 10. The Mavericks are a much different team at American Airlines Center than on the road. Still, they’re probably going to need to win at least one of their three tough roadies, and this one against the Jazz looks like their best chance. If the Mavericks have already lost in L.A. and Dallas by the time they arrive in Salt Lake City, they’ll be feeling some pressure.
What, us worry? Dirk Nowitzki gamely returned from his ankle injury Wednesday to help lead the Mavericks to a much-needed victory over Golden State, but that doesn’t erase these two facts: He still isn’t completely healthy; and Dallas has beaten just one team with a winning record since Jason Kidd arrived.
We do have this going for us: Securing the head-to-head tiebreaker with Golden State was huge. The Mavericks have a difficult schedule, but they should be able to hold onto at least the eighth seed.
Can we get a little help? Josh Howard has been a monster ever since Nowitzki went down, averaging 30.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in the past five games. Howard had struggled to connect with Kidd ever since the latter arrived, but Nowitzki’s absence forced the Mavericks to rely him on him more. The result? Howard has reminded everyone just how important he is to Dallas’ success.
Projected finish: 51-31, No. 8 seed
HOUSTON ROCKETS (50-25, 3rd Southwest Division, 5th Western Conference)
Current seeding: 6th
Games remaining: 7 (3H, 4A)
Games against Other Eight: vs. Phoenix, April 11; at Denver, April 13; at Utah, April 14.
One to win: vs. Phoenix, April 11. The Rockets are likely going to have a tough time contending with Shaquille O’Neal while Yao Ming’s on the sideline, so the chances of them winning this one aren’t great. But if Houston surprises? A win would split the season series between the teams and could help vault the Rockets into home-court advantage for the first round.
What, us worry? Since their 22-game streak, the Rockets are 2-4 against teams with winning records. The two wins came against Golden State and Portland. The four losses were by an average of 17.8 points. What’s the better indicator of the Rockets’ strength: The history-making streak? Or what they’ve done since?
We do have this going for us: Barring them completely flat-lining in the final 12 days, the Rockets will make the playoffs, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment considering Yao’s absence. No matter who the Rockets face in the playoffs, they’re going to be underdogs. That role should suit Tracy McGrady better.
Can we get a little help? Even before Yao went down, the Rockets’ surge up the standings began when Luis Scola joined the starting lineup. Scola is a better scorer than countryman Fabricio Oberto of San Antonio, but shares the same bull-like mentality and frequently frustrates whoever he’s guarding. His biggest problem: Staying on the court. Scola has struggled to adjust to NBA officiating. If the Rockets are going to make a run at a higher seed, he’ll need to stay out of foul trouble.
Projected finish: 54-28, No. 6 seed
UTAH JAZZ (50-26, 1st Northwest Division, 6th Western Conference)
Current seeding: 4th
Games remaining: 6 (3H, 3A)
Games against Other Eight: vs. San Antonio, April 4; at New Orleans, April 8; at Dallas, April 10; vs. Denver, April 12; vs. Houston, April 14; at San Antonio, April 16.
One to win: vs. Denver, April 12. Winning their season finale in San Antonio would be huge for the Jazz given their decade-long struggles in that city. But the more important game will be four days earlier against the Nuggets. A win there could give them the Northwest Division title and an automatic top-four seed.
What, us worry? The Jazz have a brutal finishing schedule. Each of their final six games is against one of the West’s top eight teams. Of more concern: Three of those are on the road, where the Jazz are just 16-22.
We do have this going for us: Going through this gauntlet should sharpen the Jazz for the playoffs if doesn’t first kill them. The Jazz also have a tendency to play down to their level of competition, a problem they shouldn’t have to worry about the next two weeks. Said Kyle Korver: “I think the playoffs kind of do start on Friday.”
Can we get a little help? Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer aren’t going to be able to pull the Jazz through this stretch alone. Mehmet Okur must stay aggressive. His combination of size and range makes him a difficult matchup for opponents. Utah is 12-3 when he makes at least three three-pointers.
Projected finish: 53-29, No. 4 seed
PHOENIX SUNS (50-25, 2nd Pacific Division, 4th Western Conference)
Current seeding: 5th
Games remaining: 7 (4H, 3A)
Games against Other Eight: vs. Dallas, April 6; at San Antonio, April 9; at Houston, April 11, vs. Golden State, April 14.
One to win: at San Antonio, April 9. The Suns acquired Shaquille O’Neal to better match up with Tim Duncan and he’s already helped beat them once. A victory by the Suns on San Antonio’s floor – on the second night of a back-to-back, no less – could go a long way toward breaking the Spurs’ psychological hold over them should the teams meet in the playoffs again.
What, us worry? Grant Hill has missed three games because of a strained groin. He could be back as soon as Friday, but given his history any lingering injury is cause for concern.
We do have this going for us: Amare Stoudemire has become more dangerous than ever since sliding over to power forward. If opponents play off him, he can shoot over them. If they try to crowd him, he can get to the rim with a single dribble. He’s also a sharp-enough shooter to make 49 of 51 free throws over a recent four-game stretch. If his rebounding stays consistent, the Suns are a legitimate championship contender.
Can we get a little help? O’Neal has temporarily quieted skeptics who thought his arrival would hurt the Suns more than help. He’s improved Phoenix’s interior defense and rebounding, but also has been spry enough to contribute offensively when needed, recording a double-double in six of the past nine games.
Projected finish: 56-26, No. 5 seed
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (51-24, 1st in Pacific Division, 3rd Western Conference)
Current seeding: 3rd
Games remaining: 7 (4H, 3A)
Games against Other Eight: vs. Dallas, April 4; vs. New Orleans, April 11, vs. San Antonio, April 13.
One to win: vs. San Antonio, April 13. The outcome could likely determine two of the top three seeds. A win for the Lakers would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker with San Antonio. Enough said.
What, us worry? Pau Gasol’s limited by his tender left ankle. Derek Fisher’s playing with a torn tendon in his right foot. Kobe Bryant has a torn ligament in his right pinkie. Andrew Bynum still hasn’t seen game action since his knee injury and does anybody remember the last update on Trevor Ariza?
We do have this going for us: Kobe Bryant’s still the frontrunner for MVP in this corner of cyberspace, though Chris Paul isn’t far off. The difference: Even with all of the injuries, Bryant still has the Lakers within a couple losses of the West’s best record. And he’s still the league’s most ruthless competitor. After Portland closed on the Lakers in Wednesday’s fourth quarter, Bryant hit back-to-back three-pointers, the second after he was fouled. “The judgment that I kind of make is how much better do you make your teammates,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “It’s been one of Kobe’s finer years in that regard.”
Can we get a little help? As good as Bryant is, he can’t do it alone. Gasol must get healthy enough to give the Lakers a necessary inside presence. If he’s at the top of his game, the Lakers might be able to survive without help from Bynum.
Projected finish: 56-26, No. 3 seed (head-to-head tiebreaker over Phoenix)
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (52-23, 2nd Southwest Division, 2nd Western Conference)
Current seeding: 2nd
Games remaining: 7 (3H, 4A)
Games against Other Eight: at Utah, April 4; vs. Phoenix, April 9; at L.A. Lakers, April 13; vs. Utah, April 16.
One to win: at L.A. Lakers, April 13. See above.
What, us worry? Michael Finley has gotten hot just when it looked time to wish him a nice retirement. One more example why it’s dangerous to ever count out these guys. Still, is it too much to ask the Spurs’ 30-somethings to hold up in a West race this rugged then make another run to the NBA Finals? When Brent Barry hasn’t even played yet since re-signing with the team? Especially when these Spurs have been prone to long scoring droughts much more than in recent seasons?
We do have this going for us: The Spurs are once again playing their best when it matters most. More than any team, with the possible exception of Detroit, they’ve weathered these types of battles together. In Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, they also have three different players capable of taking over a game on their own.
Can we get a little help? Ginobili is enjoying the finest season of his NBA career and likely will walk away with the Sixth Man of the Year trophy. Time and again, he’s played his best in the biggest games. Parker was the MVP of last season’s NBA Finals, but Ginobili’s still the guy the Spurs want with the ball in his hands at the end of the game.
Projected finish: 58-24, No. 2 seed
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (52-22, 1st Southwest Division, 1st Western Conference)
Current seeding: 1st
Games remaining: (4H, 4A)
Games against Other Eight: vs. Golden State, April 6; vs. Utah, April 8; at L.A. Lakers, April 11; at Dallas, April 16.
One to win: at Dallas, April 16. If the Spurs stay close to the Hornets, the No. 1 seed could come down to the outcome of this game. Also of interest: Hornets coach Byron Scott might have a chance to keep Jason Kidd out of the playoffs.
What, us worry? Teams typically shorten their rotation as the playoffs approach, but even with the addition of Bonzi Wells, the Hornets don’t have much depth. With three back-to-backs in the season’s final nine days, will they have a strong-enough finishing kick to maintain their grip on the No. 1 seed? There’s also this long-held NBA adage: Teams usually have to go through – and lose – a few playoff battles together before they become a serious championship contender.
We do have this going for us: Can a player win the MVP and Most Improved Player awards in the same season? Chris Paul should rate among the top candidates in both categories. He’s led the Hornets to the top of the West – and just might keep them there – in a season in which they were considered little more than playoff contenders.
Can we get a little help? David West arrived in the NBA without a position. Five seasons later, few teams know how to guard him. Just ask the Spurs. West is averaging 23.0 points against them this season and has helped lead the Hornets to 25- and 24-point victories over their Southwest Division rivals.
Projected finish: 58-24, No. 1 seed (better division record than San Antonio)
PROJECTED FIRST-ROUND MATCHUPS: Dallas vs. New Orleans; Denver vs. San Antonio; Houston vs. L.A. Lakers; Utah vs. Phoenix.