1) San Antonio Spurs (41-16, 2nd West) - Aside from an inexcusable blowout home loss to the Lakers sans Kobe Bryant, the Spurs have been unstoppable. The only other loss in their last 14 games is at Utah when Tim Ducan and Tony Parker didn’t travel with the team. They have won 12 of their last 14 and are only trailing Oklahoma City by one game for the Western Conference #1 seed. They just downed the stingy Memphis Grizzlies 107-97 with Duncan leading the charge, scoring 28 and grabbing 12 boards. Everyone wants to write this team off because of the perception that San Antonio is too old to win and they were ousted last season by Memphis in the first round while they were the #1 seed. But this team is different. They are the deepest squad in the league. They have Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter all coming off the bench. That’s at least three starters on at least half of the NBA. With two more games against the LA Lakers prior to the playoffs, San Antonio will surely be tested, however, it seems this team is up for the challenge.
2) Los Angeles Clippers (37-23, 4th West)- After a rocky road trip which saw the Clippers lose three straight capped by an embarrassing defeat in New Orleans, most were writing this young team off after jumping on the bandwagon early on. Nothing a little home cooking can’t fix, eh? There were murmurs louder than whispers of Vinny Del Negro’s job security as well as the undisciplined locker room, missing the presence of their veteran leader, Chauncey Billups. Then the Grizzlies came into town. The Clippers mowed through five straight at home – bouncing back from a rough trip and positioning themselves at a shot for the Pacific division crown. They then traveled to Dallas and completely demoralized them, led by Randy Foye’s 8 three point shots. Then there was the Battle For L.A. Trailing the Lakers by only 1.5 games heading into that matchup, the Clippers had their sights set on proving their worth while Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum had other ideas. After the Clippers erased a double digit fourth quarter deficit to take the lead briefly with under two minutes to play, Kobe beat them. Since that loss? Clippers have won five of six after today’s win against Golden State, highlighted by a thrilling win in Oklahoma City where Chris Paul put up 31 points and the game winner and Blake Griffin did this:
Paul has put up 17.5 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals in the month of April while Blake Griffin has posted 19 points, 11 boards and 4.5 assists over his last five games. Winning nine of their last eleven has kept them in the hunt for the Pacific division lead, however, they may need to win five of their remaining six games to make that a reality. They play host to Oklahoma City Monday night in what figures to be a very enticing matchup.
3) Boston Celtics (34-25, 4th East) - Like the Spurs, most had written this team off months ago as ‘too old’ or a team whos ‘window for a championship had closed’. After losing Jermaine O’neal (hardly a loss) for the season, Kevin Garnett moved to the Center postion and this team has responded quite well. They have the most wins in the league since the All-star break with a record of 19-8, which has propelled them into the division lead ahead of the stumbling Sixers. With two impressive wins against the Heat, Rajon Rondo’s impressive 20 game streak of 10+ assists and Ray Allen moving to the bench after his return from injury, this team is poised for a deep run in the postseason. Garnett is putting up 19 points and 9 boards over his last five games and thoroughly outplaying his counterpart every night. He proved in two matchups with the Heat that Chris Bosh has a mountain to climb if he wants to be considered in the same category as KG. Rondo has taken hold of the assists lead with his incredible streak and also recorded his sixth triple double of the season against Atlanta on Wednesday with 20 assists. Boston, if matched up with either Chicago or Miami in the postseason may actually defeat either of them on their way to the Finals. They’re getting hot at the exact time of year they need to.
4) Indiana Pacers (37-22, 3rd East) - The Pacers have clinched a playoff spot and currently own the third seed in the East after reeling off 10 wins in their last 13 games, including wins over Miami, Oklahoma City, Houston and New York. After getting off to a hot start, the Pacers have been able to maintain their success after the All-star break and remain in the thick of things in the East. They have proven they can hang with the Heat and the Bulls in the regular season, it remains to be seen how they’ll respond in the playoffs. With the addition of David West, George Hill, Leandro Barbosa (at the deadline) and the emergence of Paul George, this team has enough depth to contend, even though no one is giving them a chance. Roy Hibbert is one of the better centers in the league around the rim, Danny Granger is their perimeter threat and they have plenty of depth. The only starter who averages more than 30 minutes per game is Granger at 33 per contest, allowing this team to remain fresh for the postseason while maintaining home court advantage in their first round matchup.
5) Los Angeles Lakers (38-22, 3rd West) - They have reeled off 10 of their last 14, including three in a row without the likes of Kobe Bryant, resting a shin injury. Andrew Bynum put together a 30 rebound performance in San Antonio, Metta World Peace has averaged 18 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals while shooting a sizzling 60% FG and 48% 3FG over his last five games – easily his best stretch thus far this season. He’s looking more and more like the Ron Artest we saw in Houston matched up against the Lakers in the playoffs and if he can continue to play like that when Kobe comes back, you will be hard pressed to beat the Lakers. Even Matt Barnes recently found his stroke last night vs. Denver, finishing with 24 points and 10 boards shooting 9-11 from the field and 4-4 from long distance off the bench. The Lakers achilles heel remains their inability to take care of the ball as they allowed Denver to creep back into the game because of their 22 turnovers. With games against Dallas, Oklahoma City and two with the Spurs over their remaining six, the Lakers will have to kick into top gear to remain the leaders of the Pacific division with the Clippers on their heels.
1) Orlando Magic (34-25, 6th East) - Since the trade deadline has come and gone and Dwight still remains in Orlando, the Magic have gone 6-10. They were 28-16, third in the East and flying under the radar as one of the elite teams in the league. Then Stan Van Gundy notified the world of Dwight Howard’s plan behind closed doors. The guy who was so desperate to maintain his likable public persona is guilty of going to management and requesting a coaching change. SVG called out his star and made for an awkward dynamic heading into the stretch run, however, the visual in that media session is priceless:
Ryan Andersen is most likely to take home Comeback player of the Year award, posting 16 points, 7.5 rebounds while shooting 41% from three. The issue with this team is the absence of a slasher, someone who can crete his own shot and score off the dribble. Jason Richardson could have been that guy, but he has yet to prove that he can outside of Golden State. He has yet to average more than 14 points per game in a Magic uniform and that just wont cut it. The Magic have four tough road games remaining in their last seven against Boston, Denver, Utah and Memphis. They very well might end up moving down to the eight seed before the season ends.
2) Philadelphia Sixers (31-28, 8th East)- Talk about a tale of two halves. After beginning the season 20-9, Philly has struggled mightily to prove they belong in the upper echelon of the East. They have since fallen completely from grace and in danger of being left out of the playoffs. They currently sit in the eighth spot, tied with New York at 31-28. They are 2-5 in April, and 11-14 since the All star break. They just lost to New Jersey and recently lost to Washington by 21. It’s abundantly clear this team is not ready to make that leap and will either be a very quick out in the playoffs or they may not make it at all. Six of their final seven games are on the road with tough games in Orlando, Indiana and Milwaukee who are only two games behind Philly for the final spot in the East. It was fun while it lasted though, eh Philly?
3) Utah Jazz (31-29, 10th West) - After reeling off six straight victories in mid-March to bring their record to 26-22, looking as if they would be a lock for one of the final three spots in the tight West playoff race, they have collapsed. They have since gone 5-7, stumbling to the finish line and now sit 1.5 games behind Houston and Denver for a chance at the postseason. With a very tough six game stretch to end the season which sees them play Memphis, Dallas, Orlando, Phoenix and Portland twice does not make things easier. After impressive wins against the Lakers and Oklahoma City in mid-March, this team has been incredibly inconsistent, winning in Houston, yet losing in New Orleans and at home to Sacramento. Inexcusable losses with the season winding down may just send Utah home without a shot at redemption. They need to bolster their backcourt in order to compete because they have one of the deepest frontcourts in the league. Devin Harris is a shell of his former All-star self, and they do not get consistent play from the two guard spot.
4) Miami Heat (41-17, 2nd East) - They are a meager 4-4 in April with losses to Boston (twice), Chicago and Memphis and now sit 3.5 games behind Chicago for the top seed in the East. Lebron has probably fallen a bit out of favor in MVP voter eyes in the process as well. The Heat have been exploited. If you impose your will by slowing the game down, limiting turnovers, executing on offense and defense, the Heat are mere mortals. They look lost in the half court offense, usually waiting till late in the shot clock to get a fade-away, off balance jump shot to the rim. Chris Bosh, as important as he is to this team’s success, needs to develop some sort of post game if the Heat want to be successful. He cannot just be a jump shooting big man and expect to depend on hitting his 15-18 footer every night. He rarely goes strong to the hoop and in a slower game, this will continue to hurt the Heat. Wade and Lebron looked as if they were trading possessions late in the game against Boston this week. “It’s my turn to shoot, bro.” Without consistent play from the point guard position (Chalmers and Cole), the Heat will be forced to use Lebron or Wade in that role and it limits their ability to score. With Sunday’s game at New York as well as rematches with Boston and Chicago remaining, Miami has a chance to regain that swagger heading into the postseason.