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Whatchoo Talkin' 'Bout Willis?

One of the great things about having a day with no NBA games (though those things are few and far between) as we did Monday is we get some interesting stories.

For example, yesterday, the Dallas Mavericks made history by signing Kevin Willis to a 10-day contract. That's 44-year-old Kevin Willis. He's the oldest player in the league, easily surpassing Dikembe Mutombo, who is 40 (no jokes, please).

That's Kevin Willis who played his first NBA game on Oct. 26, 1984, when Diff'rent Strokes starring Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson was still on the air.

That's Kevin Willis, who started his career before 59 current NBA players were born including LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and, of course, the league's youngest player, Andrew Bynum, who was born 10 days (Oct. 26, 1987) before Willis started his fourth season in the league.

Willis' signing has historical parallels. In 1965, the Kansas City Athletics signed the great Satchel Paige, aged 58, 12 years after the legend retired. Paige pitched three innings, gave up a hit and struck out one in the one game in which he pitched. That's strong if you ask me. Last year in the NFL, kicker Morton Andersen played in 14 games for the Atlanta Falcons at the age of 46.

Willis, if he does take the floor, won't be the oldest NBA player ever. That honor belongs to Matthew (Nat) Hickey, coach of the Providence Steamrollers in 1947. Hickey, at the age of 46, looked down the bench, saw no one better than he and inserted himself into the contest. He played that one game, going 0-for-6 from the field, 2-for-3 from the line and five fouls.

What does Willis hope to accomplish in his time on the floor?

""Play five or 10 minutes when need be and keep the guys locked in," he told the Dallas Morning News. "This is the time when you really got to focus even more than in the regular season."

Hopefully, Willis keeps drinking from that Fountain of Youth (where I come from, it would be Bubbler of Youth) and one day catches Hickey for history.

Most Improved

As part of yesterday's Rookie Rankings, I listed the five most improved teams this year in order to show how Brandon Roy (and LaMarcus Aldridge) is not only putting up nice numbers, but has made the Blazers a better team as well. In the interest of full disclosure, here's the complete list of teams improved and worsened ...

2006-07 2005-06
WLPCTWLPCTDIFF
Houston45260.63434480.4150.219
Toronto38320.54327550.3290.214
Utah46240.65741410.5000.157
Portland29420.40821610.2560.152
New York30400.42923590.2800.148
Dallas58110.84160220.7320.109
Phoenix53170.75754280.6590.099
Chicago42300.58341410.5000.083
Atlanta27450.37526560.3170.058
Charlotte26450.36626560.3170.049
Golden State33390.45834480.4150.044
Minnesota30390.43533490.4020.032
Orlando33380.46536460.4390.026
Washington37320.53642400.5120.024
L.A. Lakers38320.54345370.549-0.006
NO/Okla. City32380.45738440.463-0.006
Cleveland42280.60050320.610-0.010
Denver35340.50744380.537-0.029
Seattle27420.39135470.427-0.036
Indiana31380.44941410.500-0.051
San Antonio50200.71463190.768-0.054
Philadelphia28420.40038440.463-0.063
L.A. Clippers34360.48647350.573-0.087
Miami38320.54352300.634-0.091
Boston21490.30033490.402-0.102
Sacramento30400.42944380.537-0.108
Milwaukee25440.36240420.488-0.125
Detroit45250.64364180.780-0.138
New Jersey32380.45749330.598-0.140
Memphis17540.23949330.598-0.358

A couple of notes:
Last night's games caused a flip-flop in the top two spots and bumped Utah from fifth to third.
Portland is the fourth most improved team in the league, but they're currently 5 1/2 games out of a playoff spot in the West.
New Jersey is second from the bottom, but they're currently in the eighth spot in the East.
Detroit is third from the bottom (on pace to lose 12 more games than last season) and holding the top spot in the East.
Despite their injuries, the Lakers are on pace to fall just short (44.5) of their win total of last season.


Time For The Pistons To Dance

Lack of upsets thus far in the NCAA tournament got you down? Not enough mid-majors pulling off improbable wins over schools from the power conferences? Had Duke to go all the way in your office pool?

Yeah, I know how you feel, except for the Duke bit. But fret not, loyal NBA.com readers: Cinderella still knows how to dance, she's just all grown up and donning red and blue.

No, the Detroit Pistons chances in games vs. Phoenix (10 ET, NBA TV) and Dallas (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) this weekend aren’t the same as, say, little Jackson State’s vs. Florida today. They’re more akin to Michigan State’s when it matches up with North Carolina tomorrow.

(Note: current Pistons players come from both camps – Lindsey Hunter played ball at Jackson State and Rasheed Wallace is of Tar Heel lineage.)

The Spartans are the only Big Ten team with a winning record in games vs. ACC schools in the annual Challenge between the two conferences, so they must know they have a chance against one of this year’s national title favorites.

And, while many NBA fans consider it a mere formality that an Eastern Conference squad must advance to the Finals where they’ll lose to Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio (take your pick), the Pistons know they can play on the level with those pacing the league. Detroit’s one of only three Eastern Conference squads (Cleveland and Miami are the others) with a winning record vs. the West.

“We ain’t scared of nobody,” Wallace told the Detroit News. “They’ve got to be scared of us.”

Well, I wouldn’t go quite so far, Mr. Wallace, but your team has played solid ball against the two this season. On Dec. 7, the Pistons marched into the American Airlines Center and thumped the Mavs 92-82. On New Year’s Eve, they were beat on their home court, 108-101, by the Suns.

This weekend, only 39 hours and 1,670 air miles stand between two of the most challenging and important contests in the Pistons’ 2006-07 season.

“They're regular games to us,” Wallace said to the Detroit Free Press. “We're not looking at how other teams are playing now or nothing like that. We're just concerned about our locker room.”

Well, the Pistons should also be concerned about that hole-in-the-wall place they call their visitors’ locker room. It’s tiny. It’s cramped. It’s a nauseating shade of yellow. It’s the perfect accommodations for a King – James, that is.

In addition to giving the Pistons tremendous confidence down the stretch, a win in Phoenix to close out a five-game West Coast swing and then a home win over the Mavs would do wonders for them should they meet either in June and it would also keep Cleveland at least two games back in the race for East’s top seed.

“We pretty much feel we’re playing pretty good basketball,” Antonio McDyess told MLive.com. “And to be tested with those type of teams gives us a level of where we’re at, at this point.”

The Cavaliers, too, will be tested by to best the West has to offer, facing the Northwest Division-leading Jazz on Sunday and hosting Dallas on Wednesday. If the Cavs fall four games back, they could find themselves in a familiar situation.

A year ago, the Cavs had the Pistons on the ropes and, were it not for a Game 7 at The Palace of Auburn Hills, James and Co. could have been moving on to the Conference Finals.

That’s a place they’d like to get this season, but that road leads through Detroit – at least for three games. The Pistons could make that four, if they take care of business against the Suns and Mavericks.



The Game

It's the game of the year to date. The 52-10 Mavs host the 49-14 Suns at the American Airlines Center tonight (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). All season long, these two teams have been outdoing each other with winning streaks that last for weeks. And all season long, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki have been the top candidates in the Race for MVP.

They've met twice already, both classic games won by the Mavs...

Nov. 9 -- Dallas 119, Phoenix 112 (in Phoenix)
It was the Mavs' first win of the season and the beginning of a 12-game winning streak. There were six lead changes and three ties in the fourth quarter and it was tied with a minute and a half to go, but Dallas got the stops down the stretch to pull it out. The Suns were without Raja Bell, but Leandro Barbosa scored 30 points on 9-of-15 from the field in a starting role, while Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki combined for 65 points for the Mavs.

Dec. 28 -- Dallas 101, Phoenix 99 (in Dallas)
Nowitzki hit a jumper over Shawn Marion with 1.3 seconds on the clock to win it for the Mavs. Four players had double-doubles, not including Terry, who finished with 35 points and eight assists. It was Game 8 on the Mavs' 13-game winning streak that spanned December and January.

They'll meet once more (Sunday, April 1, in Phoenix) in the regular season and they could very well meet in the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year.

Obviously, there has been a lot written about this primetime matchup...

Sorry Lakers-Heat, Mavs-Spurs and Bobcats-Hawks. This is now the premier rivalry in the NBA, according to Jerry Brown of the East Valley Tribune...

They have the two best records in the NBA and own the league's two longest winning streaks — both of which rank among the all-time best — this season.

Their superstars are the two, clear-cut candidates for the Most Valuable Player award.

In the past two playoff runs, each team has ended the other's season — winning the deciding Game 6 on the enemy's home floor. Both have front-row, in-your-face owners who live and die with every possession and official's whistle.

Throw in the Steve Nash factor — one team let him go but still thrived, while the other used him to revive its franchise — and there isn't a better rivalry in basketball than the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns.

Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic says tonight's game is huge for the Suns ... unless it isn't.

Their matchup against the Dallas Mavericks will be televised nationally. Analysts will predict that it could be a precursor to the Western Conference finals, the best two teams battling for supremacy.

If the Suns win, they will feel like they proved they could triumph in Dallas, something they have not done since last May. If they lose, no big deal. There's still time to improve.

While Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic wants you to watch out for Leandro Barbosa...

Tracy McGrady just called Barbosa the fastest kid he has ever played against. Steve Nash just anointed him a "real weapon," adding that Barbosa's recent growth spurt is "very, very exciting."

The net effect is simple: The Suns now feature two players who can't be guarded. And in this mad race in the Western Conference, Barbosa suddenly has become a wild card.

Greg Boeck of USA Today is also writing about the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year...

Leandro Barbosa says his goal is simple. He wants to get better every day. And faster?

"Why not? It's God. This is what he has given me."

The Brazilian Blur — "Speedy Gonzalez" is what Shawn Marion calls him — is the whippet-like wild card the Phoenix Suns will throw at the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas tonight in a showdown of the NBA's best teams.

Monday's loss the Warriors was a bit of an anticlimactic end to what was a successful stretch of games for the Mavs, which Art Garcia's of the Star-Telegram reviews...

The Mavericks aren't unique to viewing the 82-game marathon as series of steps in preparation for the playoffs.

But as one of the few teams knowing a championship is a very real possibility, the Mavs' standards are somewhat higher when it comes to measuring progress.

"We've got a lot of things to work on," coach Avery Johnson said without an ounce of hyperbole.

And I love this Avery quote from Garcia's notes...

"We're a little bit better than our 0-4 start..."

Of course, this historical season didn't start off quite right for the Mavs, but as Arash Markazi of SI.com writes, it only took a few minutes to get them on track...

While the genesis of this season's Mavericks might have started in June, the real turning point for this team occurred before a mid-day practice in Phoenix on Nov. 9. It seems like ages ago now, but when Mavericks players picked up the morning newspapers at the Ritz Carlton that day they were in last place with a 0-4 record. It was the first time in franchise history the team dropped its first four games and they were coming off a 103-85 drubbing by the Clippers in Los Angeles.

And the Mavs' blowout loss to the Warriors will likely have them a little more focused tonight, because there was plenty wrong on Monday, as Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News writes...

One thing you can definitively say about the Mavericks is that when they lose a game, they leave nothing to doubt.

None of these nail-biting losses at the buzzer for them. Just thorough tail-whippings like the one Golden State laid on them late Monday night in a game that bled over into Tuesday morning.

Still, it's all about June for Dallas, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic...

When the Suns take the court tonight in Dallas, the Western Conference title banner they wanted will hang behind their bench. Even though it was their first banner in 19 years, another would not satisfy the Mavericks now.

Like their fans, the Mavericks see the streaks, Dirk Nowitzki's MVP campaign and Josh Howard's All-Star emergence to be virtually meaningless without a championship.

Sefko also looks back a few years and wonders how "the skinny German and scrawny Canadian" have become the two leading candidates for MVP...

But here they are, ready to take the court tonight at American Airlines Center with barely a month left in the season. And just about everybody in the league agrees that the only way Nash won't win his third consecutive MVP honor is because Nowitzki will win his first. Did anybody see this coming way back when?

And while tonight's game could affect MVP voting down the road, there's also the issue of the No. 1 seed in the West (the Suns would be within 2 1/2 games of the Mavs with a win), as Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune writes...

The biggest game of the NBA season so far will live up to its billing only if the Suns win.

If not, the Dallas Mavericks will have a five-game lead for the league's No. 1 record — and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs — virtually wrapped up.

Still, even if the Suns don't come through, fans nationwide will get a glimpse of some topics of interest.

Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register says that Dirty and Nasty are doing just fine without each other, even though they're still the best of friends...

There is no discussing whether they like each other. They did before, and they still do.

After Nash left Dallas as a free agent in July 2004, Nowitzki was named godfather to Nash's twin daughters three months later. On the Friday before the All-Star Game last month, Nash was on hand with Nowitzki at the wedding reception for Nowitzki's sister.

Bob Young of the Arizona Republic has the tale of the tape...

You have the team with the best record and one with the second-best record in a possible preview of the Western Conference finals.

You have a budding rivalry - each has knocked the other out of the playoffs the past two seasons.

And you have the friendship between two stars and past teammates, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, who are competing for the league's Most Valuable Player award.

So, who will win?




The Chase

With the Mavs' current streak at 16 and their record at a crooked-looking 51-9, it's time to start talking 70 wins again.

Eddie Sefko wrote about it on Tuesday...

Going 20-3 is possible, but not likely, given that the Mavericks have 14 of the remaining 23 games on the road, including tough visits to the Los Angeles Lakers, Detroit, Cleveland, Phoenix and Denver.

With the rugged road ahead, they probably have to run the table at home to have any chance at 70.

More from the AP...

The Mavs are failing to savor what they've already accomplished, from being the sixth-fastest team with 50 wins to having the fourth-best record after 60 games to going 10-0 in February, marking the first perfect month in franchise history and the first in the league since the 1996 San Antonio Spurs, a club that featured a left-handed point guard named Avery Johnson.

Ackerman and Isola go through the remaining schedule on NBA Radio (Audio).

Of course, the Mavs retained their top spot in this week's Power Rankings.

Only one team has won 70 before; The 1995-96 Bulls went 72-10. The Pistons were on pace to do it through 45 games last year before they fell off track.

Dallas would need to go 19-3 the rest of the way to do it, which is within reason if you consider that they've gone 37-3 over their last 40.

Here's a little more math for ya...

Their current winning percentage is .850, which translates to 69.7 wins over an 82-game season. So, technically, they're on pace to go 70-12.

But since they opened the season 0-4, the Mavs are 51-5, which is a .911 winning percentage. That translates to 71 wins over a 78-game period. So, you could say that they're on pace to go 71-11.

They're also 37-2 in their last 39 games, which is an incredible .949 winning percentage. That translates to 20.9 wins over their last 22 games. Add 21 to 51 and you get 72. So, you could say that they're on pace to go 72-10.

They're also 24-1 in their last 25 games, a winning percentage of .960 (I didn't have to use the calculator for that one - you can tell I like math). A .960 percentage over 22 games is 21.1 wins, also giving them 72 wins total.

Finally, their winning percentage over the last 16 games is ... you don't have to love math to get this one ... 1.000. A 1.000 winning percentage over 22 games is ... 22! So, the Mavs just might go 73-9. Hey, it's possible.

Now, here's what the schedule looks like:
Home: 8
Away: 14
vs. teams above .500: 7 (3 home, 4 away)
vs. teams below .500: 15 (5 home, 10 away)
Back-to-backs: 5 (3 away-away, 2 away-home)

They play Phoenix twice (at home on March 13 and in Phoenix on April 1). They play Utah once (at home on April 13) and San Antonio once (at home on April 15). They play in both Detroit (March 18) and Cleveland (March 21) on their upcoming six-game road trip.

The only other winning team that they play is the Lakers, at Staples Center Sunday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), and L.A. has lost four straight.

My feeling is that they'll fall just short of 70, because Avery will need to take his foot off the gas peddle a little bit in those last 10 games.

I think.

How 'bout you? Discuss it on the Fan Voice.


So, Who Is Playing Tonight?

Busy night in the Association.

First things first, Kobe has been suspended for tonight's game in Mill-e-wah-que (which is Algonquin for "the good land" -- at least according to Alice Cooper) for hitting Marko Jaric in the face last night. This will be the first game the Lakers are playing without Kobe or Lamar this season. Good news for the Bucks.

Also, Lindsey Hunter has been suspended for 10 games for testing positive for phentermine. Let me save you the work.

Thirdly, congrats to Melo and LaLa. The Nuggets are at Golden State tonight and for your information, they're 6-8 with AI and without Melo this season.

A couple of really good Eastern Conference games tonight. NBA TV has Cavs @ Pistons at 7:30 ET and at the same time, the Bulls visit the Heat on League Pass.

Rookie watchers will have their eyes on Grizzlies and Raps at 7 ET. And by the way, if you're a Raps fan, I'm looking for some answers.


McCallin' 'Em Like He Sees 'Em

I love SI's Jack McCallum, but I think he needs to keep his list of greatest regular season teams to the post-shot clock era. The 1950 Rochester Royals? Strange, especially for a team that didn't win the title.

And of course, the 66-16 Bucks of 1970-71 are nowhere to be found. Sigh.

Then again, it's his list.

Free Costs Too Much

Within the span of 24 hours, hoops fans have been able to digest not one, but two "What the heck where they thinking?" free-agent stories. SI.com's Marty Burns banged one out a story on Tuesday, while ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan revealed his free agent busts today.

(By the way, does anyone find it ironic that you must pay for a a subscription to Insider to read a story on free agents? That, and they have a picture of the Bucks' Michael Redd and Mo Williams in last year's purple road jerseys.)

Though, if you do have Insider, read Sheridan's "Negative Impact" section. Fun stuff. He's the saltiest dog this side of the NY Post's Pete Vecsey.

We're Going Streaking!

If you're a Mavs fan you better bring your green hat, because Dirk Nowitzki is making like a naked Will Ferrell and taking you all on a ride.

I saw a great stat on Mike & Mike this morning lauding Dallas' 51-5 mark over the last 56 games. No team in the history of the four major sports has ever had as successful of a 56 game stretch.

Meaning that the Mavs aren't just the best team in the NBA for the 2006-07 season, but they arguably the best team of all time in any sport for a single season.

Wins are nice in the regular season, but Dallas' historic streak won't matter unless the Mavericks can tack on 16 more Ws in the postseason en route to the title.


Confusing and Heart-Wrenching

Didn't win the lottery. We'll get 'em next time.

But I don't think I'm feeling as crushed as the Blazers must be after that late game last night.

Check out the play-by-play. They're up seven on the Spurs (who came in with a nine-game winning streak by the way) with two minutes to go in the game.

Then ... boom. Three, three, three, three. And they're down five.

Even the Manu Ginobili drive with nine seconds to go to seal the game was heartbreaking, as both Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge were draped all over him and he hit a crazy wrap-around scoop shot to make it a five-point lead again.

Jason Quick sums it up pretty well with this sentence...

It was a confusing and heart-wrenching end to what could have been a defining moment of the Blazers' coming-of-age season.

I don't even know what the Blazers could have done to stop it. The defense wasn't bad. The Spurs just hit five huge shots in a row.

Watch the highlights.


Instant Class-- Doh!

Still another hour or so before I possibly win the lottery, so y'all are getting a bonus post.

Just had to write something after that Knicks-Sonics game, one of the more entertaining games I've seen all season ... and I only watched the last seven minutes!

Steph had maybe his best game of the season (40 points, 8-11 from downtown) and then ... clanked the second free throw with a chance to send it to OT.

If you're in the New York area, MSG will be replaying it tonight, and if you've got League Pass, you can check it on LP Broadband. Worth a watch.

Nets-Mavs is turning out to be a pretty good game as well, especially with both JT (not Jason Terry) and Da Pip in the house.


Farewell

This may be the last thing I write for NBA.com. Like misters Hughes and Newble, I'll be playing the Mega Millions tonight. And I might just win $370 million.

There's more to look forward to on this Tuesday evening, including a couple of quality games on the schedule.

At 7 p.m. ET, we got the Raptors in Washington, which could have playoff implications. Toronto is currently two games back of the Wiz for the third seed in the East. Il Mago will be back in action after going home for a few days.

Speaking of playoff implications, at 9 p.m. ET, the Hornets (ninth in the West) are in Denver to take on the Nuggets (seventh), whom they trail by just a game and a half (they're actually tied in the win column). NO/OKC has taken the first two meetings between these two teams, so a win tonight would give them the tiebreaker.

And of course, the NBA TV game (8:30 p.m. ET) has the Mavs looking to extend their latest winning streak to 16 against the Nets.

Meanwhile, the Knicks seem to be a little giddy about the possibility that they can pass their neighbors in the standings tonight (with a win over the Sonics -- 7:30 p.m. ET -- and a Nets' loss) and Nets fans are ready to throw in the towel.


Kareem of the Crop

ESPN.com has a nice Daily Dime about the top centers OF ALL-TIME. (When you're talking top centers OF ALL-TIME, you need to shout a bit, I think.)

Anyway, I think they got it right. Kareem's No. 1 with Wilt No. 2, Russell at No. 3 and Shaq in fourth.

If Shaq had ever tried to stay healthy, he'd be an easy No. 2 for a couple of reasons:

1) More titles than Wilt
2) Better on offense than Russell

I don't know how he compares with Wilt and Russell on the defensive end, but when healthy, no one ventured into the lane against Shaq. Also, Shaq learned from Wilt, who famously once said: "No one loves Goliath." So, instead of being a wholly dominating mastadon in the lane, Shaq, who could kill you on the court, became a loveable goofball who charmed most everyone off it.

Yet, I can't help but wonder what kind of digits Shaq would have put up if he had ever played a full 82 games (he played 81 games in each of his first two seasons; after that he's never played more than 79 and that was his third season). Just this month, he passed 25,000 points. If he'd been healthy, he'd have done it years ago.


No Love for the Nutzz

The Washington Times reports on adidas' new marketing campaign featuring Gilbert Arenas.

And I take issue with the following sentence...

Arenas entered this season on a mission, earning his first appearance as a starter on the NBA All-Star team and gaining attention with self-imposed nicknames like "Agent Zero" and "The Hibachi."

First, "Agent Zero" comes from Wizznutzz, who deserve the credit whenever you reference the origin of said moniker.

Second, The Hibachi?. It's just Hibachi. And it's more of a word he used for when he got hot than a nickname. I guess people call him "Hibachi" these days, but calling it a self-imposed nickname wouldn't be 100 percent accurate.

I'll give them a pass on using a capital 'A' for adidas.


Billy Ball

Bill Simmons has started a basketball blog. And that's a good thing. He knows his hoops.

And in this, I am in agreeance with Bill as he speaks of a player whose talents are so immense, that I too have drooled over said skills. Yet, sadly I cannot mention the kid's name. Oh well, maybe in June.


Initial Reaction

Thanks, D.A. and J.A. That needed to be said.


Waiting Game

Not many players get to have a press conference to say that they're not having surgery, but Dwyane Wade is one of them.

The Eastern Conference holds its collective breath...


Monday Melange

How 'bout Boki Nachbar's throwdown on Sammy Dalembert last night?

Top five dunk of the season so far. Tyrus Thomas deserves some love as well.

If you haven't already, check out the Fan Voice, our newly launched community site right here on NBA.com. I've got a discussion going on this week's Rookie Rankings, and you'll see more of us on the boards in the near future.

Jeff has broken down the playoff picture in this week's Double Drivel. I agree with his picks in the West, but I think New Jersey gets in over Orlando in the East. The Nets are doing their best lately to make me lose all faith, but I have to believe, with RJ on his way back, they'll be able to stay close enough to .500 to squeek in.

Houston @ Cleveland (7 p.m. ET, NBA LP) is obviously the game of the night tonight with Yao making his return. The Rockets will be one of the most interesting teams to watch down the stretch and could definitely be a dangerous five seed come playoff time.

Nice feature on LeBron from Brian Windhorst in today's Akron Beacon Journal.


Non-Stop Hoops

There's only seven games on the schedule today, but you've got at least one game on from 12:30 in the afternoon (Eastern) to 11:30 at night. Gotta love Sundays.

The other great thing about Sundays is that there's plenty opinions to read, so check out Sunday Click for the highlights.

Big game in Phoenix this afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), but the Lakers will be without Lamar Odom, who is out indefinitely with a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

Ouch. Add Lamar to the list, Dave. For the record, L.A. is 12-9 without Odom so far this season.

And of course, they don't need to watch much film to figure out what the Suns are going to run.


Friday Picks

Some interesting matchups tonight. Here's my agenda (wrapped around my daily daddy duties - thank you TiVo):

7 p.m. ET -- The Rookie Report in me is checking out the Raps and Bucks. Bargnani (Il Mago if you're nasty) just seems to be getting better and better as the season goes on.
7:30 p.m. ET -- The Knicks being on local TV (against the Warriors) allows me to get the picture-in-picture going. The next few games could very well make or break New York's season.
8 p.m. ET -- Warriors-Knicks changes to Pistons-Heat on ESPN. A nice litmus test for the Wade-less Heat. And as the Raps and Bucks go to the half, I'm switching the League Pass picture to Jazz-Wolves, for the rookies of course.
8:30 p.m. ET -- Hornets @ Bulls could be one of the best games of the night, but I'll probably wait until the second half to catch it, especially any of the early games are close.
10:30 p.m. ET -- Houston @ Denver is the most intiguing matchup of the night for me. Two teams that seem to be in a very fragile state right now, as they try to hold on to their playoff positions down the stretch. Of course, as the night goes on, you always gotta keep an eye on what Kobe is doing (vs. Sac.).

For more on the Rockets from the man behind the above post, check out today's Reality Check.


Defending My Shaq-tions

You may have read yesterday that NBA.com's own Dave McMenamin took offense to the perceived high placement of the Miami Heat in yesterday's Power Rankings presented by adidas. Similar to Marc Stein and John Hollinger over at ESPN.com, the two of us don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on how teams compare with each other. I'm no Hollinger, though, and won't venture out on a twig to suggest the Spurs are better than the Mavs. To McMenamin, however, I might as well have since I elevated the Wade-less defending champs this week.

McMenamin, or McTen as he's known around the office, writes a weekly column that runs on NBA.com every Saturday. The premise: 10 things I learned in the NBA this week. Tomorrow, look for one of those to be: Keep quiet, bring the donuts in the morning and never question a vet. Well, it could be, if the Heat beat the Eastern Conference leading Pistons in Miami tonight (the game is on ESPN at 8 ET) and make me look quite prophetic. Lose badly, like on opening night vs. the Bulls, however, and the Heat could make me appear quite pathetic.

So, to counter McTen's open questioning of my decision to bump up the Heat in the Rankings, I give you the explanation that's too difficult to squeeze into two lines of text there. In the process, I'll answer the question a few fans, like Tony, from Woodland Hills, Calif., who wrote in yesterday, have asked:

"Can you please tell us all,,,how you have Wizz and Heat ranked ahead of Lakers?? Is that your bais [sic] opinion or can you back it up with facts...."

Imagine that, a fan from Woodland Hills writing in to lobby for the Lakers and accusing me of having a bias ... but here's the facts you requested, Tony: Cleveland beat the Lakers twice in February alone, right? Right. The Cavs picked up home and away wins on the 11th and 15th of the month, as the Lakers were amid the longest losing streak ever by a Phil Jackson-coached team. Those same Cavaliers turned around and lost 10 days later to the Wade-less Heat, who just so happened to also beat the Wizards on Wednesday night.

The Wiz slid three spots in the rankings this week. It could have been four, flip-flopping places with the Lakers, but Kobe & Co. haven't shown me much since their skid. Sure, they're riding a three-game winning streak now, but those Ws over Boston, Golden State and a Utah team without Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, in a game that Jerry Sloan still plays 12 men, are hardly quality wins. Yes, they were enough to warrant a two-place hop in the rankings, but I opted to take a wait-and-see approach before I exalt the Lakers any further.

That said, the Lakers have three winnable games this week (vs. Kings, at Wolves and Bucks). If they pick up the Ws and at least play the Suns tight in Phoenix (you can watch it yourself on ABC at 3:30 p.m. ET) they're almost assured to move up another notch or two, minimum, in next week's rankings.

Moving beyond a cursory look at the win-loss column, let's look at what the Heat has actually done since Wade went down with a shoulder injury. The team dropped last Thursday's matchup at Dallas, but that's no real shock; Dallas is just that good this season.

In the three games that followed, however, the Heat looked inspired and should have gone 3-0. Were it not for the Knicks three 20-point scorers and Eddy Curry stepping up in a big way – not to mention Shaquille O'Neal pulling down a paltry three boards – Miami might have.

But, watch closely, now that Wade's out, and you'll see that the Heat is slowing the pace, setting up more in the half-court and forcing the ball inside to O'Neal, getting him as many looks as possible. Jason Williams said as much, as the Miami Herald's Israel Gutierrez quoted the Heat point guard in today's paper:

"It's not fun, but we have to do that to win," Williams said of slowing the pace. "We can't just run up and down. We have to get Shaq the ball as much as possible."

Even in the later stages of his career, Shaq is still as dangerous as anybody, when he wants to be. And lately, he's looked like he wants to. He's been active on both ends of the floor, getting after the ball and controlling the area around the basket. And so, whether it's working in the paint or creating for his teammates – O'Neal tallied 11 assists over his last three games – Shaq will find ways for the Heat to succeed. In recent days, he's done so by helping his team win the battle of points in the paint. Against Cleveland, the Heat got 48 of its 86 points in the lane, 20 more than the Cavs. Miami held a 12 point edge there over the Knicks, limiting New York to only 32 points down low despite Eddy Curry turning in 28 points on the night. (As we all know, Curry can be good offensively, but he becomes less of a threat the further he is from the goal.) And two nights later the Heat outscored the Wizards 34-20 there.

Expect the Heat to try to find success there tonight as well. After all, who's going to stop O'Neal tonight? Ben Wallace did an admirable job in years past considering his size disadvantage, but he's in Chicago. The other Wallace, Rasheed, has been hobbled when he hurt his left foot Sunday against the Bulls. And Chris Webber or Jason Maxiell? Puh-lease. Shaq just might have a field day tonight.

"Shaq is Shaq," Pistons coach Flip Saunders told the Detroit Free Press. "He's still the most dominating big man in the league, so when he gets the ball down there, he's seen every trap possible. He knows how to pass out of traps. That's a reason why (Jason) Kapono has been able to get some open looks. And as he continues to get in better shape, he's going to continue to get better and better."

Shaq alone isn't going to win ball games. Not anymore. But, if he's the leader on this team and can get the other guys to play to their potential, finding guys like Kapono who can knock down a long jumper, you can't easily dismiss the Heat.

There's another factor I believe makes Miami dangerous that I haven't mentioned yet. It's a little thing called pride. All season long, everybody has said this team is Wade's, he carries them, without him they're toast. And when Wade was on the court, it certainly seemed that way. Now that he's out, might a few of these guys step up to show that they can, in fact, still play? That they'll be okay without their superstar guard? Guys like Gary Payton, who can still turn in productive minutes and get under the skin of even the league's best players? Or how about Alonzo Mourning, whose desire and hard work can't be questioned by anybody? What about Jason Williams? Udonis Haslem? Antoine Walker?

If even a few of these guys step up and play as they're capable, with Pat Riley prowling the sidelines, the Heat can keep its head above the water, play .500 ball and get into the playoffs; right now they're a No. 7 seed in the East. And let's face it, Shaq and the Heat – and maybe Dwyane Wade by then – is a daunting first-round matchup for any team, be it for the Pistons, Cavs, whomever.

Now, do I believe the Heat will stay the No. 8 team in the league, as I had them ranked yesterday? Not a chance. Do I think they belonged there yesterday? Certainly. Until a few of the teams below Miami prove they're clearly better than the Heat are, I'm not about to anoint anybody as such.

But, if the Heat makes me look silly for ranking the team so high, well, there's always next week. Be sure to check back or tell me then, "I told you so." That is, unless you're the rookie … then just remember to bring the donuts.


Weight, Weight, Don't Tell Me

With all the running they do, I doubt the Suns players would ever need one of their owners' assistance.


Holy Schussh!

I wonder how many lift tickets this would buy.


Friday Fish Ties

I remember the fish ties. Who knew the Knicks could have possibly had Shaq in the mid-90s.

They say hindsight is 20-20. I think Knicks fans would have settled for 26 and 12.


Something Smells Rank

If you can believe it, there are only about 25 games or so left to be played until the playoffs start which means that our Power Rankings written by the guy that sits behind me and helps me build my HTML tables, Jeff Dengate, should give me some idea of who are the favorites to advance in the post season.

Jeff's rankings are usually on point, but every once in a while he'll ride a team and give them credit that I just don't feel is justified. He covers himself with his disclaimer every week, reminding us that the rankings are, "based on a combination of quality wins, disappointing losses, interesting stats and a healthy dose of my personal opinion."

I submit that his personal opinion that caused him to raise Miami from No. 10 to No. 8 in a week where they lost Dwyane Wade to a dislocated shoulder can not be considered "healthy." Insane is more like it.

"Have you watched the Heat play?" he asked me incredulously. "Shaq is playing like he actually cares." Sure, The Daddy is putting up 19.8 points and 9.6 rebounds over the last five games, but the Heat are just 2-3 over that span. More damning is that O'Neal's lingering Achilles' heel (free-throw shooting) seems to be suffering from some inflammation as he hit a dismal 11-for-33 from the stripe in those five games.

I'm not counting the Heat out completely, but how can they move up this week?

Look at the Knicks' Eddy Curry over the same five-game stretch: 18.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, 22-for-36 from the foul line, and New York goes 2-3. One of those wins was against Miami, but while the Heat moved up two spots, the Knicks slid from No. 18 to No. 20.

Not to mention you're telling me LeBron and the Cavs (No. 9), Kobe and the Lakers (No. 11) and Big Ben and the Bulls (No. 13) are worse than a Wade-less Heat?