Posted Apr 13 2010 12:07PM
Seven questions for the next seven days:
Maybe the funniest part of the last few weeks in the Western Conference is the mad scramble at the bottom of the bracket to avoid meeting the defending champion Lakers in the first round.
Kobe, Pau, Lamar, Ron-Ron. Sure, it's a lineup with talent and experience.
But can't one make the argument that the most dangerous team in the first round of the playoffs might be the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka. Did I mention Kevin Durant? It's a lineup with the greatest asset of youth -- fearlessness.
Whether it's L.A. or Dallas or Denver or Utah or Phoenix in the first round, remember the pressure will be all on them. The OKC kiddie corp isn't supposed to advance to the conference semifinals. Then again, they weren't supposed to be approaching 50 wins this season either.
Just 17 months ago, the Thunder were 1-17 with a rookie coach who'd just been thrown into the deep end of the pool and all they were trying to do was keep their heads above water. Now they're playing solid defense, riding the talents of the best all-over-the-court big man scorer since Bob McAdoo and doing the backstroke as they float into the playoffs.
With nothing to lose and a chance to play loose, it might be time for a little healthy fear of the Thunder.
Officially, the San Antonio Spurs have given Manu Ginobili a three-year contract extension worth $38.9 million. But in reality, weren't the Spurs simply forking over all those bucks as money he already earned for saving their season?
The plan all along by the Spurs' brass had been to play out the season and then talk contract before he officially became a free agent on July 1. But with the Spurs wobbly and inconsistent through the first half of the season, it was Ginobili who finally got himself into good physical condition and almost single-handedly was the spark that got San Antonio on track over the past two months. If the Spurs manage to stay out of the No. 8 spot in the West and avoid the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, that's all Manu.
Brush up on division records, conference records, maybe which team has made more left-handed 3-pointers on alternating Tuesdays in months with 30 days. In other words, break out the tie-breakers.
As the hours tick down on the regular season, there is more bunching close together than the floor at a high school dance.
Denver, Utah and Phoenix are tied for 3-4-5 in the West. Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are tied for 6-7-8. Milwaukee and Miami are tied at 5-6 in the East. Chicago has a one-game lead on Toronto for 8th place in the East. Atlanta has a one-game lead on Boston for No. 3. Orlando has a one-game lead on the Lakers for home-court advantage in a possible Finals rematch.
It's all deliciously confusing and incredibly exciting.
It would probably require the ground to open up and swallow the entire body of voters for LeBron James not to be named Most Valuable Player for the second straight season.
But while there has been talk of the merits of 21-year-old Kevin Durant and the stellar seasons of Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, it could be argued that what Dwight Howard is doing has been -- at the very least -- slightly unappreciated.
For starters, Howard will become the first player ever to lead the league in both rebounding and blocked shots in consecutive seasons. (Blocks weren't kept as an official stat until 1973, after the retirements of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain). He is also on track to become the first quad leader in rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage and double-doubles.
The race for the individual scoring title barrels down the homestretch with the two leaders -- Kevin Durant and LeBron James -- treating the honor as if it were a ticking package.
Can you blame them? A non-center not named Michael Jordan has never won both a scoring title and an NBA championship in the same season.
Durant, currently in first place at 30.1 points per game, would become the youngest ever to win a scoring title. For James, it would be his second scoring crown.
After their head-to-head showdown win on Sunday night, now it's the Chicago Bulls with a leg up on Toronto in the battle to be the sacrificial lambs to LeBron and the Cavs in the first round of the East playoffs.
The Raptors finish at Detroit and home against New York. The Bulls finish home against Boston and at Charlotte.
Whose first round whipping might be more painful? The Bulls knowing how far they've slipped since standing toe-to-toe with Boston a year ago? Or the Raptors, who'd be playing without Chris Bosh, maybe for good?
The only things missing from the Lakers' schedule in the final week are some reggae beats and frozen tropical drinks. Truth is, ports of call in Jamaica, Aruba and the Cayman Islands would hardly be a more relaxing way to rest up for the playoffs than some finishing calisthenics against Sacramento and the Clippers, neither of which require a trip outside the Staples Center. Just what the doctor ordered for those achy knees and the painful finger of Kobe Bryant. Not to mention that Sunday loss maybe helping them avoid those troublesome Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.
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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