West race comes down to the wire

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Every coach preaches the vital importance of every game, whether it is played in the first week of the season or the last. And while players typically nod in collective assent, most fail to understand that a loss in November is just as costly as one a week before the playoffs.

Sure, it may be hard to see 70-some games down the road, but this is when teams realize what could have been -- especially in the stacked Western Conference this season. With four teams within a half game for the No. 2 seed through Tuesday, and with only 3½ games separating No. 2 from No. 8, it's safe to assume Utah would love to have back that loss in Minnesota on Dec. 5, and that Dallas would like to reclaim that home loss to Golden State on Nov. 24.

"When you see four teams tied up in a bunch like that, you really wouldn't expect to see that when you start out the season," Utah coach JerrySloan said. "When you look back at a couple games that got away, it'll make you wake up in the middle of the night."

As the final week of the regular season nears, things could come down to the last day and the outcome of any game could be the difference between having the second seed, which ensures home-court advantage and avoiding a potential matchup with the top-seeded Lakers until the conference finals, or having the fifth seed and being forced to open the playoffs on the road.

Cleveland coach Mike Brown, whose team has the best record in the NBA and holds a 6½-game lead over second-place Orlando in the East, said on Tuesday that he was treating this final stretch like "high-level practices," keeping the players in shape but without risking injury to anyone -- a luxury Milwaukee and Toronto surely wish they had at this point.

But in the West, while the Lakers can limit Kobe Bryant's minutes to get his legs ready for the postseason, every other team could end up battling until the bitter end, their stars getting rest only in the event of a blowout. And such an outcome seems unlikely because most of the top teams will play each other.

"You are not going to sit players out," Sloan said. "You have to play and try to win in order to be able to move up a notch. Last year, with about 10 games to go, I think we realized who we were going to play and there wasn't much change in it. Now we have no idea. This year, if we stub our toes, it'll finish us off fast."

With their thrilling 140-139 overtime victory over Oklahoma City on Tuesday, the Jazz hold a half-game lead over Dallas, Phoenix and Denver for the No. 2 seed. Utah also has the easiest remaining schedule, with opponents having a combined winning percentage of .476. All year, the Jazz have said a 54-win season would likely be good enough to secure the second seed. They would have to win three of their final four games to accomplish that.

The Jazz are the only team among the four with just four games remaining, though they have to go on the road for the next three -- to Houston, New Orleans and Golden State -- before finishing up at home against the Suns.

By contrast, Denver's opponents have a .623 winning percentage, the most difficult of the four teams. The Nuggets -- who are without coach George Karl for the remainder of the regular season as he battles cancer and who are waiting to see if and when they will get back injured forward Kenyon Martin -- have some interesting games.

They play host to the Lakers on Thursday in the last game of a back-to-back set, and one has to wonder whether L.A. will go all-out to send a message to Denver (its opponent in last season's conference finals) or whether it will coast. The Nuggets also have a game against Memphis, which is playing out the string.

Phoenix also has a difficult schedule, with home games against San Antonio, Houston and Denver and road games against Oklahoma City and Utah, the last its season finale. The Suns' opponents' winning percentage is .611.

Dallas, meanwhile, does not face any of the top seeds in its last five games -- Memphis, Portland, Sacramento, the Clippers and San Antonio -- and could conceivably win them all. However, since their 13-game winning streak following the acquisition of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood at the trade deadline, the Mavericks have been enigmatic, their current two-game losing streak a perfect example.

"Generally when we have problems it is with what is happening defensively and with rebounds," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "That is always going to be a major emphasis. Now is the time to shore up your offensive execution and try to be as healthy and possible. Each game is a critical game."

Meanwhile, the bottom half of the playoff picture is just as intriguing. The resurgent Spurs (who have won 16 of their last 21 games) and Thunder (15 of 21), are tied with 48-29 records, while Portland sits one game back.

A key game comes next Monday, when the Blazers play host to the Thunder, which could determine who faces the Lakers in the first round.

The Spurs end the season in Dallas, which could be a preview of a first-round matchup if San Antonio finishes seventh and the Mavericks second. The Spurs on Tuesday welcomed back point guard Tony Parker, who missed a month with a broken hand.

While San Antonio and its conference rivals can't take back earlier losses, they have about a week to set up their future. Every slip-up could be costly, and that's something no coach needs to preach.