NBA: The Fight For The Final Playoff Spots
Yes, the NBA's stretch run towards the playoffs is here. While the league's top teams like the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder have all but clinched their playoff berths, it's time to take a look at the teams where a couple of timely wins and losses can mean the difference between spending May on the court or on the couch.
7. Boston Celtics (24-21)
To put it simply, this team is inconsistent, bordering on the level of bipolar. To give you an idea, they lost their first three games, won their next four, and then lost their next five. Fortunately for the Boston faithful, the Celtics are still three a half games ahead of the first team out in the East. Even better news is that Kevin Garnett is looking the healthiest he's been in a couple of years. Though he's not keen on his new position, he’s averaged an impressive 16.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while playing center instead of his usual power forward spot.
Still, not all is peachy in Boston. The Celtics lost usual starting center Jermaine O’Neal for the rest of the year Tuesday, and need to avoid any serious injuries to any of their other power three in Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The two teams trailing them have a combined 10-game winning streak, so the Celtics cannot afford an untimely losing streak down the stretch.
8. New York Knicks (22-24)
Linsanity, Melodrama, Mike D'Antoni’s resignation, and Tebow (Wait, wrong sport). Just another two months in the Big Apple. Yet, the Knicks seem to have regained their swagger after dropping eight of their first ten games since Carmelo Anthony returned from injury. Rather than rely solely on their two $18-million men, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, the Knicks have gotten valuable contributions from role players Steve Novak and J.R. Smith, displaced starter Baron Davis has been a valuable passer off the bench, and the notorious Jeremy Lin finally looks comfortable playing with Carmelo and has reduced his turnovers as a result of not being the sole ball-handler on the team.
The schedule will not be a cakewalk over the next 20 games, with 12 of those games being against teams with records above .500 and two more games being against the Knicks’ fiercest competitor for the eighth and final playoff spot, the Bucks. The Knicks have the talent, so now it's time to produce in order to keep Anthony trade talks quiet and keep morale high in the nation's most populous city. No pressure or anything.
The new-look Bucks with Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh looked pretty impressive Tuesday night, thumping the Portland Trail Blazers by 29 points at the Rose Garden. The team's trend has been that the less Brandon Jennings shoots, the better the team does. With six players scoring at least 14 points in the win over the Blazers, the Bucks have been thriving through evenly distributing the scoring load, despite not having a true center playing significant minutes.
Although a small sample size, Ellis has looked to be happy as a distributor rather than chucking up shots to his heart's content, and Drew Gooden has been on a recent tear, even receiving the Eastern Conference Player of the Week while the team has won six in a row. The winning streak is less impressive considering none of the teams they defeated have records above .500, but matchups against the Pacers and Celtics this week should show if the Bucks can hang with the East's playoff-caliber clubs.
7. Denver Nuggets (25-21)
Despite a falling a game back in the standings after a home loss to Dallas, the Nuggets are still sitting pretty in playoff position. The league's top-scoring team took a risk in trading Nenê for Javale McGee, but if anyone can settle the mercurial but talented McGee, it would be coach George Karl. Plus, the emergence of rookie Kenneth Faried means the absence of Nenê be less of a downgrade than one would expect.
Even better, the Nuggets just signed Wilson Chandler to a five-year deal, giving them yet another scoring option. The bad news is that leading scorer Danilo Gallinari is out with a broken thumb and the team is not sure when he will return. Still, depth is crucial during this team of year as players become increasingly fatigued by the season's grind, and the Nuggets have it in spades.
Just because Yao Ming has hung up his sneakers does not mean the injury bug is finished with the Rockets. Kyle Lowry, who was having a career year and becoming one of the league's biggest triple-double threats, is out for a couple weeks. Not good timing to say the least. The Rockets defeated the Lakers on Tuesday night without Lowry or star shooting guard Kevin Martin, but don’t look for these type of performances to continue.
Backup point guard Goran Dragic will need to play inspired basketball to keep the Rockets' ship upright, and the Rockets will need to balance a returning, but not 100-percent Martin with their other scorers if they want to win the games they are expected to win, let alone crucial games against their playoff spot competition down the stretch.
9. Utah Jazz (24-22)
The Jazz play 10 of their next 15 away from Salt Lake City, and considering their road record so far this season (6-16), this stretch is not likely to help their chances for a playoff bid. Plus, the team just lost veteran stalwart Josh Howard for the year to an injured knee.
That being said, they have played like a contender in their last two games, putting a special emphasis on defense in defeating the Thunder as well as the Lakers in L.A., holding Kobe Bryant to 3-of-20 shooting in the process. The Jazz have a bright future with young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, but will need the pair to perform like veterans in order to taste the playoffs. Still not bad for a team that was expected to be competing for a top draft pick, not the playoffs, during a "rebuilding" year.
Oh Steve Nash and the magic you create in the desert. The ageless Canadian has the Suns in the thick of the playoff race, but unfortunately the team is going to become road warriors in order to keep their postseason hopes alive. Similar to the Jazz, 11 of the Suns' next 14 games are away from U·S Airways Center.
To make matters worse, all but one of the Suns' final six games should be against either playoff teams or teams desperately needing a victory to stay alive in the playoff chase. The Suns have played superbly as of late, but it will be a stretch for them to come out of their road gauntlet looking prettier than they are today, sitting a game and a half out of the final playoff spot.
11. Minnesota Timberwolves (23-24)
What once looked like a team prepared for a strong finish and its first playoff appearance since 2004 has lost four of six since losing dazzling young point guard Ricky Rubio for the season to a torn ACL. That being said, there is still enough left in the tank to make an effort to end the playoff drought.
Luke Ridnour has been impressive as full-time point guard, having 10 or more assists in four of the six games since. Kevin Love has blossomed into a superstar, and Nikola Pekovic into a legitimate center, but the Timberwolves will need rookie and 2nd overall pick Derrick Williams as well as the streaky Michael Beasley to step up down the stretch in order for the Timberwolves to have a shot.
Their next four games are against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Denver, with only the last being at home. If Minnesota can prove to itself that it can beat the West's best on the road as well as resolve some troublesome chemistry issues, then perhaps it can gain enough momentum to make a surprise visit into the postseason.