Posted Apr 5 2010 7:26PM
Seven questions for the next seven days:
Kobe Bryant left no doubt that he's ready to go the distance in his career with the Lakers. Which begs the question: Are he and his teammates ready to go the distance into June to defend their title?
Suddenly the reigning champions are looking quite vulnerable again with three losses in their last four road games and getting thumped at home by San Antonio on Sunday. Now the Lakers face a two-game back-to-back trip to Denver and Minnesota this week. The offense has bogged down, the defense is not intense and teams with athleticism (hello, Oklahoma City and Atlanta) have virtually pushed the Lakers all over the floor recently.
Do the Lakers, as Ron Artest has suggested, miss Trevor Ariza that much? Or is it Andrew Bynum? Have the Lakers missed Artest doing all of the things he was brought to L.A. to do? Has Derek Fisher finally run out of gas in his tank? Does Luke Walton's absence have too great an effect on the bench unit? Can Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom get back to the level of last spring? Will Sasha Vujacic ever get back into the good graces of the coaching staff? Are there are few more buttons Phil Jackson can push to show Jerry Buss that he's still desperately needed?
Two weeks to the playoffs and so many questions.
Was there a better story in the second half of the regular season than the Milwaukee Bucks? Was there a brighter hope for a team to come out of the lower half of the playoff bracket and score a first round upset?
Was there an uglier way for everything to come crashing down than the horrible fall taken by Andrew Bogut on Saturday night that ended his season with a dislocated right shoulder, sprained wrist and broken right hand?
The Bucks are now 18-6 since Feb. 17 and currently sitting in the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference. But while so much of the credit and attention has gone to the midseason acquisition John Salmons and the rookie sparkling of Brandon Jennings, Bogut's work in the middle (15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocked shots per game) has been consistent and outstanding.
With Bogut out, the Bucks will be relying heavily on 37-year-old veteran Kurt Thomas to clinch their spot in the postseason and carry a big load in the playoffs. If Coach of the Year candidate Scott Skiles can get the Bucks to the second round now, they should probably retire the trophy.
Maybe the Boston Celtics could just get all of the gripes out of their system before the playoffs begin. After getting fined $25,000 for, among other things, referring to Kevin Durant as "Michael (expletive) Jordan" when visiting OKC shot 34 free throws to the Celtics' 17 in the Thunder's win at Boston, Kevin Garnett and his buddies rolled over on defense against the wounded, under-manned Houston Rockets on Friday for a third straight home loss.
Despite ending the skid with a win over Cleveland on Sunday, the bickering Celtics still coughed up a 22-point lead before hanging on against the Cavs and are looking more and more ripe for first-round playoff trouble.
Holy, Orville Redenbacher!
As if the Denver Nuggets didn't already have enough to worry about with five losses in a stretch of six games that saw them plunge out of the No. 2 seed in the West, did they really need Popcorngate as a further distraction coming down the stretch?
When a former ballboy thought it would be a cute joke to fill up Kenyon Martin's Range Rover with buttered popcorn on April Fool's Day, did the power forward really have to storm back into the locker room and threaten to put his hands on whichever one of his teammates might have done it? Did Martin also have to threaten to sit out the playoffs if the guilty party didn't step forward?
Already reeling without coach George Karl, who's battling neck and throat cancer and careening without the defensive presence of Martin, who's missed 16 games with a torn patella tendon in his left knee, Denver has a grueling closing schedule with homes games against the LA Lakers and San Antonio and road trips to Oklahoma City and Phoenix among its final five.
Is there a kernel of hope the Nuggets can pull it all together before the playoffs?
If the Atlanta Hawks are going to outduel the Boston Celtics for that No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, they're going to have to do it in one of the areas where they've been weakest all season -- on the road.
Of the current top four seeded teams in both conferences, the Hawks are the only ones with a below-.500 record (17-20) on the road, having lost five of their last six outside Philips Arena. Now they'll finish up the regular season still facing trips to Charlotte, Detroit, Washington and Milwaukee.
In a week when last year's Western Conference finalist -- Lakers and Nuggets -- meet up Thursday night in Denver, the even bigger clash takes place Sunday when Cleveland goes to Orlando. Is it a sneak preview of another Eastern Conference finals showdown between the Cavs and Magic? Has the addition of Antawn Jamison closed the matchup gap for the Cavs? How much difference will Shaquille O'Neal make if they meet again in the playoffs? Cleveland has won two of the first three meetings this season and it's the Magic who need to make a statement.
Only the New Jersey Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves have fewer road wins than his Golden State Warriors. But if Don Nelson is going to pass Lenny Wilkens this season to become the winningest coach in NBA history, it will likely have to happen out of a suitcase. After beating winning in Toronto for his record-tying 1,332nd career win on Sunday, the Warriors will play three straight games on the road -- at Washington, Minnesota and LA Clippers.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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