Thursday March 27th, 2008

Regarding the NBA's Western Conference ...

Over the last few days, I've heard (among other things) that the Mavericks will fall out of the top eight; the Hornets are too inexperienced to make the Finals; the Rockets (despite their recent 22-game winning streak), will be a one-round-and-out; and no one wants to play the Warriors in the first round.

ESPN.com's John Hollinger, who crunches numbers with more facility than I crunch Cracker Jack, has even figured out the statistical futures of all playoff teams. As of this writing, his top Western team is the Lakers with a 22 percent chance of making the Finals and a 10.3 percent chance of winning it all.

That sounds about right. But the three words you need to remember about the Western Conference race are these: Nobody knows anything. Including me. But with time running out, and a keen sense of the three-word mantra -- nobody knows anything -- here is a team-by-team assessment of what could be the most competitive conference playoff in NBA history:

Red-letter dates remaining: Back-to-back home games against the Hornets and Spurs on April 11 and 13.

Strongest recent statement: Monday's 123-119 road win over Golden State that followed a 115-111 loss to the Warriors at home.

Uh-oh factor: Will everyone still stand around and watch Kobe Bryant in the cauldron of the postseason?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... New Orleans. Bryant would have to waste some energy chasing around Chris Paul, and Tyson Chandler would be able to limit the productivity of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom inside (though a healthy Andrew Bynum would make that more difficult).

Best guess on playoff placement: Despite Wednesday's hiccup against Charlotte, Pacific Division champion, No. 1 seed and first-round meeting with Denver or Dallas.

Red-letter dates remaining: April 8 home game against the Jazz and April 11 road game at the Lakers.

Strongest recent statement: Hammering the Spurs by 25 and the Rockets by 21 (which preceded a comeback victory against visiting Boston), even if they were at home, and trumping a potential LeBron James game-winner with David West's buzzer-beating jumper on Wednesday in Cleveland.

Uh-oh factor: Will lack of playoff experience (for nearly everyone except Peja Stojakovic) be too much to overcome?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... Utah. Deron Williams would take it as a personal challenge going against Paul, and Jazz coach Jerry Sloan would devise a defense to limit West and Stojakovic.

Best guess on playoff placement: Southwest Division champion, No. 2 seed and first-round meeting with Golden State.

Red-letter dates remaining: April 9 home against the Suns and April 13 road game at the Lakers.

Strongest recent statement: An 88-81 comeback road win against desperate Dallas (the game in which Dirk Nowitzki was injured) last Sunday.

Uh-oh factor: Is there enough behind the Big Three act of Tim Duncan/Manu Ginobili/Tony Parker?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... Golden State. The Spurs sometimes have trouble slowing down the Warriors, who put up 130 points against them in an overtime game at Golden State in January. Golden State loves to tattoo the Texas favorites, as Dallas found out last season.

Best guess on playoff placement: Southwest runner-up, No. 3 seed and first-round meeting with Houston.

Red-letter dates remaining: April 8 road game at New Orleans and April 16 road game at San Antonio.

Strongest recent statement: A 110-92 road win against the Celtics on March 14.

Uh-oh factor: Will Mehmet Okur's outside shooting be sharp enough to be a factor?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... Houston. The Rockets will have learned lessons from last season's first-round elimination at the hands of the Jazz.

Best guess on playoff placement: Northwest Division champion, No. 4 seed and first-round meeting with Suns.

Red-letter dates remaining: Back-to-back road games at San Antonio and Houston on April 9 and 11.

Strongest recent statement: Gutsy 94-87 home win against the Spurs on March 9 that followed four losses in five games. Then again, that was a while ago.

Uh-oh factor: Will they miss Shawn Marion's perimeter defense against players like Bryant, Paul, Parker, Ginobili and Williams?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... Spurs. True, the Suns have lost all four to the Hornets this season, but defending against Duncan and running the offense with Bruce Bowen guarding Steve Nash have always been difficult for the Suns.

Best guess on playoff placement: Pacific runner-up, No. 5 seed and first-round meeting with Utah.

Red-letter dates remaining: Wearying five-game road swing that begins Sunday in San Antonio.

Strongest recent statement: Beating Golden State 109-106 on March 21 in Oakland after the bloom had come off the 22-game winning streak.

Uh-oh factor: Did the Rockets exhaust their ammo during the streak?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... Spurs. The Rockets have played their Texas rivals well this season, but give Gregg Popovich extended time to stop Tracy McGrady, and it's all over.

Best guess on playoff placement: Southwest third-place finisher, No. 6 seed and first-round meeting with Spurs.

Red-letter dates remaining: Four-game road swing (beginning April 1) with stops in San Antonio, Dallas and New Orleans.

Strongest recent statement: That road win against the Lakers. (It's been a rather easy month.)

Uh-oh factor: They can surprise, but do they have enough inside for the long haul?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... Jazz. The Warriors are 0-3 against Utah this season (including two games when Stephen Jackson was serving a suspension), after losing a second-round series to the Jazz last spring.

Best guess on placement: Pacific third-place finisher, No. 7 seed and first-round meeting with Hornets.

Red-letter dates remaining: Well, all of them, but season-ending home game against Hornets could decide playoff fate.

Strongest recent statement: There haven't been any.

Uh-oh factor: Besides the obvious question about Dirk Nowitzki's availability, can Jason Kidd provide some signs of life as the Mavs fight to stay in the top eight?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... All of them, considering they've yet to beat a winning team with Kidd.

Best guess on playoff placement: Fourth-place finisher in the Southwest, and I give them a 50-50 chance of holding on to the No. 8 seed and earning a first-round meeting with the Lakers.

Red-letter dates remaining: Thursday's home game against Dallas begins a Mavs-Warriors-Suns-Suns quadruple.

Strongest recent statement: We're going back in time, but consecutive home wins over Phoenix and San Antonio in early March.

Uh-oh factor: Will their always questionable defense rise to the occasion to lift them from their current ninth-place position?

Toughest playoff matchup would be ... They'd take anyone, given the pressure just to make the playoffs with their $80 million payroll.

Best guess on playoff placement: Northwest runner-up, with a 50-50 chance of passing Dallas to gain a first-round matchup with the Lakers.

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