Posted Mar 3 2010 4:45PM
Often lost in the shuffle of conference playoffs races are those of the divisional variety. While the scramble for the top eight places on each side of the NBA map naturally garners the most attention, the division race isn't without its merit.
A division winner is guaranteed a top-four playoff seed, regardless of where the team actually finishes in the conference pecking order. That can't be underestimated when playoff brackets are hammered out. And for those who do capture a division crown -- outside of the Lakers and Celtics -- it's an excuse to hang a banner.
Of the six divisions, only two can be considered true races at this point. Orlando went into Wednesday holding a two-game lead on Atlanta in the Southeast. Those two squads, however, are the only two with a realistic shot at the division title.
The Northwest is a true battle royale. It's a sprint to the finish with four of the division's five teams having eyes on the top spot. The Nuggets, Jazz and Thunder each began Wednesday with winning percentages better than 60 percent. (Only seven other teams in the league can boast that.) And the Blazers aren't far behind.
"It's exciting that we're so close to first place in the division. The Northwest is tough, maybe the best in the league, but we can't take any time thinking about that," Oklahoma City forward Jeff Green said. "We just have to focus in on who we're playing right now and worry about that other stuff later."
The Thunder (36-23) travel to Denver (39-21) for a Wednesday night game. The outcome will have a ripple effect in the division and throughout the West. Those two teams, along with Utah (38-22) and Portland (36-27), all sit within 4.5 games of each other in the Northwest.
For a division that doesn't make a lot of geographic sense, its members sure seem to occupy close quarters in the standings.
"The Northwest Division is tough, a lot of strong teams, but we're just taking things one game at a time," All-Star forward Kevin Durant said.
The Jazz, Thunder and Blazers have comparable finishing schedules. All three have more road games remaining than home ones, and their opponents have a combined losing record. The Nuggets have an even split of home and road games and their opponents have a .500 or better record in 17 of their last 22 games.
So while divisional games would seem to matter more, considering the impact on playoff tiebreakers and the swing a team gets from beating a rival, Durant doesn't put any extra stock in those games.
"We treat every team the same, no matter their record or what division or conference they're in," he added. "I think that's what's helped us this season, our focus on the next game."
OKC coach Scott Brooks hasn't talked to his team once about the playoffs. He swears. But he's also not immune to excitement within the fan base, and realizes his guys know exactly where they are in the race.
"It's great that we're playing meaningful games in March and hopefully we still will be in April," Brooks said. "Everybody kicks it up a notch this time of year. The teams in playoff contention try to get their game even better. We're trying to do the same thing. We just have to bring great effort every day.
"As far as playoff talk, I know the fans are thinking and talking about it and that's great for them, but for all of us on the team, we're in the business of today and tonight, not tomorrow, next week or next month."
Most veterans in situations like the one Michael Finley was in wait it out. The Spurs are winning and continue to have championship aspirations even though they've struggled this season. Finley has been with the Spurs nearly five years, and despite his dropoff in production, remained a valuable and popular figure in the locker room.
But he asked to be released this week in order to sign with another contender in time for the playoffs. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was shocked by the request, but the organization granted the release, citing the respect it has for Finley.
"He's always been part of the mix," said Henry Thomas, Finley's agent. "For 15 years he's either been a starter or a significant part of the rotation. This year in a sudden fashion he wasn't any more and that was difficult to deal with. He understood the Spurs' situation and they were honest with him, and now he has the chance to move on."
The former two-time All-Star has been relegated to mop-up duty since returning from an ankle sprain in late January. Finley was averaging only 3.7 points and knocking down just 31.7 percent of his 3-pointers at the time of Monday's release.
That was a dramatic drop from his first four years in San Antonio, when he scored better than nine points per game during the regular season and playoffs. Finley played a key role on the 2007 championship team. His departure means only Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Matt Bonner are left from that squad.
Thomas understands the limited market for a 6-foot-7 swingman who turns 37 on Saturday. He expected to clear waivers Wednesday, and has reportedly piqued the interest of Boston and Utah.
"Every situation will be examined," Thomas said. "If there is a situation where he feels he has a legitimate chance to earn his way into the rotation, that will be attractive to him. I don't think he reasonably expects contending teams to just give him a spot. He just wants the opportunity."
"They talk too much. Way too much. I don't listen to things that don't make sense."
-- Pau Gasol, after the Lakers beat the Nuggets.
1. If the Western Conference playoffs started today, the matchups would be: Lakers-Blazers, Mavericks-Spurs, Nuggets-Thunder, Jazz-Suns. I'm in.
2. If the Eastern Conference playoffs started today, I'm taking a nap.
3. Warning for coaches who step out of the box: Jason Kidd.
4. The 30-day wait for waived/bought out players to return to their old team is fine. They didn't ask to be traded. They're FREE agents. Let them sign anywhere.
5. What are the odds of Michael Jordan rescuing two franchises in a lifetime? Paging Scottie Pippen.
AG: What's this run like as the starter since Chris Paul went down?
DC: It's been tough, but for the most part I've got guys around me helping me out and making my job a lot easier. I wouldn't say the onus is on me to put the team on my shoulders, but it is a lot I have to do at the point guard position.
AG: How has CP helped you?
DC: A lot of ways, as far as just managing the game and getting everyone else involved. He's talked to me about being more effective on the pick-and-rolls, defensive coverages. He's meant a lot to my success on the court.
AG: Has your development been accelerated by this chance?
DC: Even if I wasn't playing, I'd get better from the standpoint of just watching Chris play. When he first went down with an injury, I knew I had to step up and make plays at point guard.
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