April 1, 2008 – Over the past month, the race for the Western Conference Playoffs has tightened to the point where teams can jump up and down, or in and out, of the postseason on a nightly basis. In fact, while four Eastern Conference teams have already secured playoff berths, no team in the West has yet to punch its ticket.

With just 16 days left in the regular season, only six games separate the first and ninth place teams in the West, and only a single game divides the postseason fate of teams seven through nine. With so much left to be decided as far as who will be in, who will be out, who will play who etc., I decided to look at one player on each of the nine teams in the race that I think will have the biggest impact on his team over final weeks of the regular season. It might not necessarily be the best player on each team, just the person I think can make the biggest difference for each team. Teams are listed in their order in the standings entering April.

1. HornetsChris Paul. Paul has emerged as viable MVP candidate in just his third season in the league and has done it all for the surprising Hornets. New Orleans gets plenty of help from Tyson Chandler, David West, Peja Stojakovic and the rest of Paul's supporting cast, but it all comes down the point guard.

2. SpursManu Ginobili. Tim Duncan is the most valuable player on the Spurs and about as reliable as they come, but Ginobili takes the team to another level when he is at the top of his game. Despite coming off the bench in two-thirds of his games this season, he scored at least 26 points six times in March.

3. LakersPau Gasol. Much like the situation with the Spurs, Kobe Bryant is the best player on the Lakers, but Gasol takes them from a good team to a great team. Not counting the game in which he injured his ankle, Los Angeles was 15-3 with Gasol in the lineup. The Lakers are 5-5 since he went down and are hoping to have him back later in the week.

4. Jazz Mehmet Okur. Okur rebounded from a slow start to the season with a strong March by averaging 17.5 points a game. With Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer continuing to supply double-doubles nearly every night, it is no surprise that Utah excelled behind Okur’s improved production. The Jazz went 12-4 in March and are in position to win the Northwest Division.

5. Suns Shaquille O'Neal. Steve Nash may be the engine that drives the Suns, but the Diesel will have a 7-foot-1, 325-pound impact on how far they go this season. Phoenix changed the look of the team when it sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Miami for O’Neal, so his play will likely determine how they finish, one way or another. He has been on an upswing of late, averaging 17.2 points and 10.3 rebounds over his last six games. His presence has also had a great effect on Amare Stoudemire, who has been putting up monster numbers with Shaq in the lineup.

6. RocketsTracy McGrady. Rafer Alston has really picked up his game over the past two months. Carl Landry has been a pleasant surprise. Dikembe Mutombo and Luis Scola have helped ease the loss of Yao Ming. But the Rockets will only go as far as T-Mac can lead them.

7. MavericksDirk Nowitzki. Jason Kidd and Josh Howard will have to carry Dallas for now, but they will need a healthy Dirk in order to avoid missing out on the playoffs. Nowitzki has missed four straight games with knee and ankle injuries and the Mavs are just 2-2 without him.

8. WarriorsDon Nelson. Tough call between Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis and Baron Davis. All three put up huge numbers and are constants in the starting lineup, but Nelson continues to mix and match the lineup based on the opponent to get the most out of his team. He has used 23 different starting lineups this season.

9. NuggetsKenyon Martin. You know what to expect out of Denver’s dynamic duo of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. Each player is good for 25 points a game and is capable of going off for 40. But Martin has rebounded from devastating injuries to emerge as a dangerous X-factor over the past few weeks. The power forward has averaged 17.7 points a game over his last nine, including a 30-point, 11-rebound outburst on Sunday.

Let's take a look back at some of the other teams and players making news in March.

Got an opinion? Drop me a line and tell me what you think.

The Best of the Rest

Rockets Make Run at History

For 22 games, the only thing that the Houston Rockets lost was Yao Ming to a stress fracture in his foot. The streak started innocently with a four-point win over the Warriors on January 29th and lasted until the Celtics ended it on March 18. By the time it was over, Tracy McGrady and Co. had posted the second-longest winning streak in NBA history by reeling off 22 straight. The final 10 wins came after Yao was lost for the season, making the streak even that more impressive. The run lifted Houston from the fringe of the playoff picture to the top spot in the West. The Rockets have gone just 3-4 since winning No. 22 in a row, but are still in the crowded mix near the top in the conference.

Celtics Weave Way Through Vaunted Triangle

The Celtics continued their storybook season by adding another accolade to the growing list. Looking to prove it can hang with the powers in the Western Conference, there was a lot of attention paid to Boston’s trip through the treacherous Texas Triangle last month. The Celtics, led by their “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, proved they were up to the challenge by sweeping their way through San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. It was the first time the feat had been achieved since 2001 and the first time the Celtics had done it since 1986-87.

The Bell Tolls for Webber

Chris Webber hoped to close out his storied career with one more playoff run, but once again his balky knees would not allow him to do so. Webber ended a brief return with the Warriors and announced his retirement from the NBA on March 26. The 15-year NBA veteran was the No. 1 pick in 1993 and won the Rookie of the Year with Golden State before going on to play with Washington, Sacramento, Philadelphia and Detroit. The five-time All-Star enjoyed his greatest success with the Kings after being traded from Washington prior to the 1998-99 season, helping Sacramento to the West Finals in 2002.

Not Quiet on the Eastern Front

The West is not the only interesting playoff race. The Hawks and Sixers, left for dead months ago, continued their late-season charge in March and both teams are currently in position to reach the postseason. The Hawks, bolstered by the midseason acquisition of Mike Bibby, have won eight of their last 10 games to build a three-game lead over the Nets and Pacers for the final playoff spot in the East. Atlanta is hoping to reach the postseason for the first time since 1999. The Sixers were also out of the playoff picture not long ago, but Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller have led them right into the middle of the playoff pack. Philadelphia entered April in seventh place, but just one game out of fifth.

Have your own thoughts on the month that was? Disagree with my picks? Send an e-mail and let me know.