Posted Apr 6 2011 10:57AM
You'd think that a marathon that begins before Halloween, sleds past Christmas and is chugging with the best of them on St. Patty's Day would have everything sorted out by now.
But that would just be April Fooling. With everyone sprinting -- or staggering -- to the finish line, there are still a few significant questions to answer in the final week of the regular season:
Ordinarily, expending every last ounce of energy chasing down the best overall record in the league would not be of paramount importance in San Antonio. But having led the field since early November, surely the Spurs do not want to be run down from behind now by the Lakers or Bulls. They won't openly admit it, but the recent six-game slide -- longest in the Tim Duncan Era -- put a chink of vulnerability and doubt into the Spurs' armor.
There was a dazed and puzzled look in the eyes of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. They'll likely be OK in the first round against either the Hornets or Grizzlies. But dropping into the No. 2 seed in the West could mean another messy second-round Texas tussle with the Mavs and would, of course, surrender home-court advantage in the conference finals to Kobe & Co.
What looked a couple of weeks ago like a harmless meeting with the Lakers on Tuesday in L.A. could have a rumbling effect on what happens in June.
The bottom of the playoff race in the West is more scrambled than a Sunday morning plate of eggs with Portland, Memphis and New Orleans battling maybe to the final night of the season. The Hornets have fooled everyone by hanging tough after the loss of David West. With a tiebreaker advantage over Houston, the Hornets should be able to secure a postseason spot. Whether that's 6-7-8 remains the question and New Orleans definitely has the toughest schedule.
Hornets-Grizzlies on Sunday in Memphis could decide who winds up in eighth. The Blazers have the inside track for the No. 6 seed with their only road games at lowly Golden State and Utah, but they do get the Lakers at home. The Rockets are still mathematically alive, but now it would take them winning out while the Grizzlies lose out.
Even assuming the Pacers keep the No. 8 spot in the East over the swan diving Bobcats, it could be the end of the line for Larry Bird as team president. Bird hasn't given indications that he's ready to continue on in the job and a routine wipeout by the Bulls in the first round could grease the skids for him and general manager David Morway.
The Bobcats are still alive and will likely need a back-to-back Florida sweep over Orlando at home and in Miami to have a chance. Not likely after back-to-back losses to Washington and Cleveland.
The Celtics are insisting that the latest calf injury to Shaquille O'Neal is no reason for concern. None except that he's 39 years old and has played all of five minutes since Feb. 1.
So Boston will need Jermaine O'Neal (recovering from knee surgery) to be a defensive force in the middle as they duel Miami down the stretch for home-court advantage in a potential second-round series. But before they even get that far, a finish as the No. 3 seed would pit the Celtics against a tough, scrappy Philly team that might be capable of surprise in the first round. The walk to the finish line is not easy as Boston has three road games left, including dates at Chicago and Miami. You'd think they've got to get Shaq a pre-playoff run in there somewhere.
Just when the Sixers are on the verge of clinching a winning season, making a return to the playoffs and completing an amazing in-season resurrection under Doug Collins, now they've got to hope that the last week of the season is enough time for Lou Williams' hamstring injury to heal and get him back in the lineup.
With Williams coming off the bench slashing to the basket and hitting clutch shots, the Sixers could throw more than a scare into the Celtics. Without him, they're merely first-round fodder. Without him, they could also slip behind the Knicks and back into the No. 7 seed. Showdown Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. The Sixers' training room is the place to keep an eye on over the final week.
For all that they've overcome this season, how can the Heat still find themselves between a rock a hard place? Well, it's all about playoff seeding. If they take care of business down the stretch -- including a win over Boston on Sunday -- LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh can lock up the No. 2 spot in the East. That would give them home-court advantage in a likely second-round playoff series against the Celtics, which would seem to be critical considering Boston already owns a 3-0 lead in the season series.
But the No. 2 seed could also put the Heat into a star-powered, headline-screaming first-round series against the Knicks. Nobody believes Amar'e and Carmelo are ready yet to make a deep playoff run, but they're a 1-2 combo that has the offensive power to match up against Miami. It's called a puncher's chance. Would the Heat rather avoid the Knicks as a No. 3 seed and get an opening series and a better matchup against Philly even if it means surrendering home court to Boston? It's something to keep an eye on.
There certainly is no shortage of candidates fir Coach of the Year. The smart voter might want to hold off to the very end before casting a ballot. If the Spurs get the ship right and finish with the overall No. 1 seed, how do you not choose Gregg Popovich for resurrecting what many thought was a team in decline last spring?
If the Bulls finish as No. 1 in the East, how do you note vote for rookie head coach Tom Thibodeau for installing his defensive ethos, turning Derrick Rose into an MVP contender and turning Vinny Del Negro's unfocused team into a championship contender?
How do you fail to select Doug Collins for inheriting a moribund franchise, chucking his entire offense after a horrid start and turning the Sixers into a fun-to-watch bunch and a very tough out? How do you not pick George Karl for keeping his ship from sinking during the 'Melo Drama, then transforming the Nuggets into a defensive force and the No. 5 seed in the rugged West? How do you not opt for Nate McMillan for once again making something of another season of injury soup for the star-crossed Blazers?
And, of course, how can anyone ignore Phil Jackson in his swan song getting the Lakers to 17-3 after the All-Star break and making the Spurs break out into a cold sweat?
In a season when the debate has turned into a raging inferno, shouldn't we be watching to see who burns it up right to the very end? Derrick Rose has a chance to get the Bulls to their first 60-win season since Michael Jordan was in uniform. LeBron James, after all the turmoil and all the criticism, can close out another season that looks very much like his last two MVP campaigns. Will it all come down to the nationally televised doubleheader on Sunday?
Does Rose finish with a big flourish at Orlando? Or will the Magic's Dwight Howard emphatically make his case that a dominant big man will always be the most valuable commodity on and court? And what if LeBron dazzles and the Heat get their first win of the season over Boston on national television?
Then there's still that Kobe fella. If the Lakers get to 60 wins, could he win a photo finish by a nose?
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