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TOP TO BOTTOM
Posted by Rob Peterson on March 8, 2005 240 p.m. ET

INTRIGUE RULES WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF RACES

I wanted to write about the Celtics and how they had burst from the gate after the trade deadline, won four straight with 'Toine back in green and Gary Payton back in Beantown running the point.

And then they lost to the Timberwolves at home on Sunday.

So, my "unstoppable Celtics" angle was, well, halted. Don't get me wrong, the Celtics are still playing some fine basketball, but we'll get back to them because the biggest stories in the NBA right now are races for the top and bottom playoff spots in the Western Conference.

Sorry to go all Mora on you, but playoffs? Playoffs? Yes, playoffs! Do you realize only six weeks remain in the 2004-05 regular season. Six? That's not a lot of time, but five Western Conference teams have some work to do.

Let's start at the top, shall we?

Using the best standard we know, NBA.com's Power Rankings (Editor's note: "Uh, Rob. Standings?" Oh, riiiight.), the league's top two teams meet Wednesday night when the Spurs head to Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Remember what happened last time these teams met in the Valley of the Sun on Jan. 21?

Oh, we do. It was one of the best games we've ever seen we said at the time, that with Spurs going to four guards in the fourth to fight back from a 17-point deficit, Shawn Marion's double-pump three to send it into OT and Manu's 48. Yeah, that was a whale of a game between the two best teams in the league. They still are the two best.

But the Spurs may be hurting coming into this one. And when I say Spurs, you know who I'm talkin' about. This reports says he's up and running. The Spurs say he's day-to-day.
-- [San Antonio Express-News Reg. req'd]

And although the Spurs have won four in a row, some would say the teams they beat -- the Cavs, Raptors, Bulls and Jazz -- have fumbled games to the Spurs.
-- [Salt Lake Tribune]

The Suns, however, have handled the defending champs and the Northwest-leading Sonics in the past week. This has caused two national scribes to pump up the Suns in their power rankings: ESPN.com and SI.com.

(And as an aside to the Suns win over the Sonics: This would be nice. Let's play seven!)
-- [Seattle Times]

But this ain't college and the NBA doesn't have strength of schedule or an RPI. You play your schedule and you win your games. End of story.

Regardless of who wins Wednesday's game, the Spurs (46-13) have taken the season series by winning the first two of the three games the teams will play this season, giving them the advantage for the No. 1 seed in the West, while both teams have identical 26-9 records against Western Conference squads.

If the Spurs were to get the top seed, the other seven Western playoff teams would be hard pressed to find an easy way to The Finals, as the Spurs are a league-best 27-2 at home this season. That may not matter much to the Suns (46-14), who are a league-best 24-7 on the road.

As for the lower end of the Western Conference playoff spectrum, we have three intriguing stories. We have the Lakers, who won the West last season. We have the Wolves, who were the best in the West during the regular season and we have the Nuggets, who were the eighth seed and lost to the Wolves in the first round in last year's playoffs.

They're all fighting for that wondrous No. 8 seed, the chance to face the Spurs or Suns (or maybe even the Sonics) in the first round.

If the season ended today, the Nuggets and the Lakers, who both have the same winning percentage (.517) would be tied for the eighth and final playoff spot. But thanks to Denver's atrocious record against the West (13-20) compared to the Lakers (19-16), L.A. would get the final spot.

But, right now, the Nuggets are playing some of the best ball in the West, winning seven straight games and are 13-4 since Jan. 28 when George Karl took over. Marcus Camby even won Western Conference Player of the Week honors. (And then, Camby sat out Denver's seventh win in a row with a strained hamstring.)
-- [Rocky Mountain News]

In that same span, the Lakers are 8-9 and the Wolves are 6-11. The Lakers and Wolves also got new coaches in that span.

While the Wolves finally seem to have had a "Eureka!" moment with new coach Kevin McHale, an L.A. columnist who wishes the new Lakers coach were an old one.
-- [St. Paul Pioneer Press and L.A. Daily News]

So, what's the moral out West. Spurs, Suns, keep doin' what you're doin'. Wolves, Lakers, find that spark. Nuggets, stay healthy.

THE BIGGER THEY ARE...

The harder they fall, the saying goes. For big men in the East, there have been plenty of hard falls lately.

In Indiana, Jermaine O'Neal is out for at least five games with a right shoulder injury.
-- [Indy Star]

In Detroit, Ben Wallace stars in the remake of "My Left Foot."
-- [Detroit Free Press]

In the nation's capital, Antawn Jamison will see his league-leading 386 consecutive games streak come to an end because of tendinitis in his knee.
-- [Washington Times]

And then there's Chris Webber, who's already having problems in Philly. Webber sat for a large portion of the Sixers' win over Atlanta on Sunday. He was not pleased. Apparently, C-Webb and Sixers coach Jim O'Brien worked things out.
-- [Philadelphia Inquirer, Reg. req'd.]

All of which makes this team -- the Heat, who have won 10 in a row at home -- look like the favorite in the East. Even their your superstar: "We could easily go down the toilet and not make the playoffs." Uh, that would be LeBron James referring to the Cavs' six-game, ahem, skid.
-- [USA Today]

Yikes! This headline even has a double negative, which is what the Cavaliers missing the playoffs would be for the team and its fans.
-- [Akron Beacon-Journal Reg. req'd]

In Dallas, this writer gets his grumpy on when talking about LBJ and MVP in the same conversation.
-- [Dallas Morning News Reg. req'd]

Overall, things have gone south in the Rust Belt.
-- [SI.com]

TIP-INS

Most NBA players could say they were born ramblin' men.
-- [Indy Star]

This has nothing to do with out of the Apple and in the Southwest.
-- [New York Post]

AND FINALLY...

Geoff Petrie scores again.
-- [Sacramento Bee]

The Suns and Spurs battle for playoff position.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)

2004-05 ARCHIVE
March 8 -- Top to Bottom
March 1 -- Dynamic Duos
Feb. 25 -- Much Adieu About
Feb. 16-20 -- All-Star Blog 2005
Feb. 15 -- Random House
Feb. 9 -- Reserves, Deserves
Feb. 1 -- All-Starters
Jan. 25 -- South by Southwest
Jan. 19 -- My Kind of Town
Jan. 11 -- 'S Wonderful
Jan. 4 -- Points Well Taken
Dec. 29 -- New Year's Wishes
Dec. 21 -- A Wonderful Life
Dec. 14 -- How Good is Good?
Dec. 7 -- Getting Medieval
Nov. 30 -- LeBron vs. Dwyane
Nov. 23 -- Playing Good Ball
Nov. 16 -- SuperbSonics
Nov. 9 -- Hitting the Blue Note
Nov. 3 -- Bling, Bang, Boom
2003-04 -- Archive