By Paul Forrester
March 30, 2009

Less than three weeks remain in the regular season. The playoff participants are largely set, but the matchups are not. Let's take a look at how the conferences will likely finish and what that means when the postseason starts April 18 (all records and schedules are through Sunday).

Los Angeles Lakers (58-15)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 1 seedGames Remaining: 5 home; 4 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 4Projected Finish: 7-2 (65-17); No. 1 seed. With the Western Conference clinched, the Lakers are focused on gaining home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They trail Cleveland by two games.What Lies Ahead: A date with a Mavericks team that the Lakers have yet to lose to this season and won't in the first round.

San Antonio Spurs (48-25)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 2 seedGames Remaining: 4 home; 5 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 4Projected Finish: 7-2 (55-27); No. 2 seed. With the Thunder on the schedule twice, plus games against the Pacers and Kings, the Spurs should have plenty of cushion to reacclimate Manu Ginobili to game action.What Lies Ahead: A first-round matchup against the dangerous Jazz. Nursing injuries all season, Utah has been playing its best down the stretch. And with Deron Williams matching up with him at point guard, Tony Parker won't find the lane as clear as he often does.

Denver Nuggets (48-26)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 3 seedGames Remaining: 5 home; 3 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 3Projected Finish: 6-2 (54-28); No. 3 seed. The remaining schedule includes the Knicks, Clippers, Timberwolves, Thunder and Kings.What Lies Ahead: An attempt to get past the first round, which the Nuggets haven't done in each of the last four seasons. Chris Paul and the Hornets won't make the task easy in the first round, but that's why Denver imported Chauncey Billups, isn't it?

Houston Rockets (48-26)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 4 seedGames Remaining: 3 home; 5 awayGames vs. teams above .500: 6Projected Finish: 6-2 (54-28); No. 4 seed. A demanding April schedule features the Lakers, Portland, Orlando and New Orleans. Houston also gets road games at Sacramento and Golden StateWhat Lies Ahead: Houston will have an excellent chance to win its first playoff series since 1996-97.

Portland Trail Blazers (46-27)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 5 seedGames Remaining: 4 home; 5 awayGames vs. teams above .500: 4Projected Finish: 7-2 (53-29); No. 5 seed. Portland plays three of its final four at home, with the road game at the Clippers.What Lies Ahead: A first-round date with the Rockets, who have learned how to win without Tracy McGrady with a steady dose of Yao Ming inside and ferocious perimeter defense thanks to Ron Artest and Shane Battier.

New Orleans Hornets (45-27)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 7 seedGames Remaining: 3 home; 7 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 7Projected Finish: 6-4 (51-31); No. 6 seed. With three out of four away from home to end the season (visits to Dallas, Houston and San Antonio), the Hornets will fail to catch the Blazers and will have to fight hard to stay ahead of the Jazz.What Lies Ahead: Will Tyson Chandler (ankle) and Peja Stojakovic (back) be ready for the playoffs?

Utah Jazz (45-27)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 6 seedGames Remaining: 4 home; 6 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 6Projected Finish: 5-5 (50-32); No. 7 seed (by virtue of winning season series against Mavs). Circle April 8 on your calendar; that's when the Jazz visit Dallas, which needs a late-season push to avoid facing the Lakers in the first round.What Lies Ahead: A basketball purist's dream: first-round series against the Spurs. Utah will be hard-pressed to advance without home-court advantage.

Dallas Mavericks (43-30)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 8 seedGames Remaining: 6 home; 3 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 6Projected Finish: 7-2 (50-32); No. 8 seed. The Mavs have lost only nine all year at home, so having six more games in Dallas should be enough to fend off the ninth-place Suns.What Lies Ahead: A potential 50-win team deserves a better fate than having to meet Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the first round.

Cleveland Cavaliers (60-13)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 1 seedGames Remaining: 5 home; 4 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 6Projected Finish: 7-2 (67-15); No. 1 seed. They've pulled away in the East with a franchise-record 12-game winning streak.What Lies Ahead: Oddly enough, a little pressure. The Cavs have done well playing the underdog in the playoffs during the LeBron James era. Now that they are expected to win, how will they respond?

Boston Celtics (56-19)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 3 seedGames Remaining: 5 home; 2 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 4Projected Finish: 6-1 (62-20); No. 2 seed. They may go into the playoffs healthy, but they'll also go in knowing they won't have a potential Game 7 at home against Cleveland in the conference finals. Based on these projections, however, the Celtics do get Game 7 at home against Orlando in the second round.What Lies Ahead: They'll tune up in the first round against Chicago before a showdown with Orlando.

Orlando Magic (54-18)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 2 seedGames Remaining: 5 home; 5 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 4Projected Finish: 8-2 (62-20); No. 3 seed. A loss in Atlanta next Saturday could cost Orlando the No. 2 seed, given the likelihood that the Celtics will have the tiebreaker thanks to a better record in the Eastern Conference.What Lies Ahead: Having the best road record in the East should ease the sting of losing the No. 2 seed on a tiebreaker. So should a first-round matchup against the Sixers, who should pat themselves on the back just for making it to the postseason after undergoing a coaching change and losing free-agent prize Elton Brand.

Atlanta Hawks (43-31)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 4 seedGames Remaining: 3 home; 5 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 4Projected Finish: 5-3 (48-34); No. 4 seed. The schedule softens after an early-April back-to-back against the Celtics and Magic.What Lies Ahead: A series against Dwyane Wade. At least the Hawks will have home-court advantage, as they are 29-9 at Philips Arena and have won only three games on the road against winning teams all season.

Miami Heat (39-34)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 5 seedGames Remaining: 4 home; 5 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 5Projected Finish: 3-6 (42-40); No. 5 seed. With only three games against non-playoff teams ahead, D-Wade and friends can forget about catching the Hawks.What Lies Ahead: Only 13-23 on the road, the Heat will have to win at least one time at Atlanta to advance in the playoffs.

Philadelphia 76ers (37-35)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 6 seedGames Remaining: 5 home; 5 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 4Projected Finish: 5-5 (42-40); No. 6 seed. An imposing final stretch -- with road games at Charlotte, Chicago and Cleveland and home games against the Celtics and Cavs -- will make Philly sweat the Bulls.What Lies Ahead: A reminder that the Sixers have a ways to go before joining the Celtics and Lakers in their 1980s revival tour.

Chicago Bulls (36-39)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 8 seedGames Remaining: 5 home; 2 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 1Projected Finish: 5-2 (41-41); No. 7 seed. With five of their final six at home, the Bulls will hold off a Pistons team that hasn't been right all season.What Lies Ahead: Considering how disjointed this team was around New Year's, a playoff appearance is a good accomplishment -- though its postseason stay figures to be short-lived.

Detroit Pistons (36-37)

If The Playoffs Started Today: No. 7 seedGames Remaining: 3 home; 6 awayGames vs. Teams Above .500: 3Projected Finish: 4-5 (40-42); No. 8 seed. The schedule doesn't have a lot of high-powered teams, but several opponents are still contending for playoff position.What Lies Ahead: Detroit, with its healthy dislike of the Cavs and aging but still talented core, should make Cleveland work in the first round.

Mike Taylor's late-season breakout. The Clippers' rookie point guard from Iowa State is drawing attention for more than just his electrifying pregame dunks. In games against the Knicks, Spurs and Rockets last week, Taylor averaged 23 points on 65.9 percent shooting "When we made the trade to draft him, he reminded me of a young Tony Parker -- lots of speed, not under control so much," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "What we've been trying to get him to do is be more patient ... and the last couple of ball games he's been settling down."

Joel Przybilla's importance. While Greg Oden has been in and out of the lineup, the Vanilla Gorilla has provided the Blazers a steady presence in the paint all season. Przybilla is averaging 10.2 rebounds in March, his highest output for any month this season, and he went toe-to-toe with Shaquille O'Neal verbally while his Trail Blazers blistered Phoenix for 129 points in a Portland win last Thursday.

Tony Parker's shoulders. The Spurs won three of four last week with Parker carrying the load: 27.5 points (on 67.1 percent shooting) and 8.3 assists. Parker is averaging 25.6 points and 7.8 assists this month.

Gilbert Arenas' blog. The return of Agent Zero to the court has brought to a close his popular blog. "At first people enjoyed just reading the blog for fun, but then they started trying to read into it and take bits from it," Arenas told the Washington Times last week. "So, it just seemed like it was turning into a double-edged sword. So, I'm retired." The Web will be a less interesting place without him.

Suns on cable. Phoenix is 0-10 on TNT this season, according to the Arizona Republic. And if you include the preseason, the Suns are 0-11.

Charlie Villanueva's shooting eye. The Milwaukee forward, who had been flourishing since becoming a starter in mid-January, slumped badly on the road last week. In games at Toronto, Orlando and Miami, Villanueva shot a combined 31.4 percent while averaging only 9.3 points.

The Spurs have quietly put together one of the league's better offenses, ranking seventh in shooting (46.5 percent) and third in three-point shooting (38.9 percent). An NBA scout assesses San Antonio's success, which extends beyond Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

"They have a great offensive system. Gregg Popovich might have the largest playbook in the NBA. They run something called motion weak and motion strong, that's the foundation of it. The ball changes sides of the floor, they know their spots, so they don't have to call it out. They just automatically flow into it.

"It's not easy to stop because it's not a pattern. When [an offense] is not a pattern, there are reads out of it -- if the ball goes to a particular place, then someone goes to the strong corner -- and that's not so easy to defend. Much of what they do is a read-and-react offense, like the triangle offense. It's freedom within structure.

"Clearly, having some of the same players there year after year helps them know it, but even new guys can adapt quickly. Roger Mason came in this year and learned it right away."

• "They haven't quite figured out the NBA game, the length of it. They get all fired up in the beginning, and it's a marathon. It's 48 minutes of basketball. It's not like college, where you can come out and get a 10-point lead or 15-point lead and you can win the game."-- Lakers coach Phil Jackson, to the Los Angeles Times, onthe Thunder fans, who have earned praise from opponents for their volume.

• "I'm better than Chris Bosh, I'd tell him to his face."-- Clippers forward Zach Randolph, during his visit to New York last week, on one player the Knicks are in position to pursue as a result of trading Randolph and his big contract to L.A.

• "I've played a lot of games against Allen Iverson when he was with the Philadelphia 76ers, and he is one of the toughest guys I've ever gone against. But having said that and knowing the information we know ... it's almost like [Iverson] is holding this team hostage because he cannot accept the responsibility of coming off the bench, and that's sad because he is one of the truly great little men we've ever had in the game."-- Reggie Miller, on TNT last Tuesday,questions Iverson's absence from the Pistons. Iverson returned to action Sunday after missing 16 games with a back injury.

• "I don't like to talk trash, but in my eyes it's not a rivalry. I don't know if anybody else looks at it as a rivalry. People consider Cleveland a rival. We just went seven [games in the first round last season] with Atlanta. That's about it."-- Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, to The Boston Globe, before Boston's visit to Atlanta on Friday. (Boston won 99-93.)

• "I don't. I'm a Shogun. You can't ask me about a low-level ninja. I still have to worry about Yao Ming, Dwight Howard."-- Shaq, after Thursday night's Suns-Blazers game, on what he thinks about rookie Greg Oden.

• "You learn that you don't let a stupid dude take you out of the game because he's nobody. He doesn't have much [game]. He just goes over there and tries to get a contract."-- Nuggets centerNenê,, on what he learned after serving a two-game suspension for head-butting Suns forward Louis Amundson and bumping an official.

Washington Post:Joakim Noah peels back the curtain a bit on what it's like to be a professional athlete.

New York Post: Before Mo Williams was busy helping Cleveland compile the best record in the league, he was a rookie who learned you don't cross Jerry Sloan.

Los Angeles Times: A tidy summary of yet another Clippers season best forgotten as soon as possible.

Basketball Prospectus: What better captures a player's value: individual stats or new data measuring his impact on the team?

• We're not going to decry the late-season practice of "tanking," no matter how distasteful. Until the NBA changes the lottery or adopts the kind of solution that's Steve Aschburnerwrote about a year ago, the best route for struggling teams to transform into contenders is by boosting their chances to get a top pick. Franchise-changing superstars don't come on the market often, and with the economy in the dumps, it's unlikely many teams would want to add one to their balance sheet anyway. So while it may be an intriguing story to see Gilbert Arenas back on the floor for the Wizards, every win he helps secure may cost them the type of prospect who will launch Washington back into the Eastern Conference conversation next season.

• If I'm Chris Bosh, I'm having problems seeing a long-term future promising enough to keep me in Toronto. Beyond the Raptors' 14th-place standing in the East, I see a coach who gets along with the front office but can't squeeze the type of defense from which contenders are built. I also see a roster loaded with castoffs who aren't likely to fetch the kind of assets that the Raptors need to make a deep playoff run. A lot can change in a summer -- and it had better if the Raptors want to keep their All-Star power forward.

George Karl has recently taken his team to task for its lack of maturity, telling's Ian Thomsen that his ability to guide the Nuggets strategically has been compromised by the team's egos. "You think I'm happy about not coming up with a trick play or a cute substitution or a rotation that will help win one of those games?" Karl said. "Instead I've got to worry about Melo [Carmelo Anthony], you're not coming out of the game. You think that keeps my focus on being really good at the end of the game? It doesn't."

That may be true, but it's also true that coaching in the NBA hasn't been about pure X's and O's for a long time. Karl can pine all he wants for the discipline his mentor, Dean Smith, once demanded, but success in the NBA is as much psychology as strategy. That may mean compromising your ideals, but that also means your team will listen to most of what you have to say, rather than none of it, as Anthony demonstrated in earning himself a team-ordered suspension earlier this month.

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