Several playoff matchups appear to be in place, but there is much to be decided over the final four weeks of the season.
The most important fight is being fought atop the Eastern Conference, where the young Bulls and stubborn Celtics each hold the tiebreaker over No. 3 Miami, which is too far back to displace either of them.
Not only will the winner of the No. 1 seed earn home-court advantage throughout the Eastern bracket, but it will also be rewarded with the easier path to the NBA Finals. If Chicago was to maintain its current half-game lead at No. 1 in the conference, the Bulls would be facing these likely opponents in the playoffs:
Should the Celtics finish No. 2, this would be their punishment: A more difficult opening-round matchup, with the 76ers or Knicks; a brutal second-round series against the Heat; and then -- if they've survived -- a conference finals against Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau's defense.
The race for No. 1 could be decided April 7, when Boston (which holds a 2-1 lead in the season series) visits Chicago. Some will argue that the older Celtics can't afford the more difficult postseason schedule, but they have a history of flouting that logic -- last year they won on the road against Cleveland and Orlando and came within five minutes of upsetting the Lakers on their home floor in Game 7 of the Finals. Home-court advantage may be more important to the Bulls because Rose has never won a playoff series and will be dealing with an entirely new level of intensive opposition with each successive round. The Celtics know they can win on the road, while this Bulls team has yet to win a series under any circumstances.
The other important race in the East has developed between the Nos. 6 and 7 Knicks and 76ers, who were a half-game apart through Thursday. Should New York hold on to the No. 6 seed, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire would likely earn an opening round against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Heat are superior defensively and would be favored in a majority of the individual matchups, but it would be terrific theater to see James visit New York in a matchup against Anthony. After eight years in the NBA, dating to the comparisons that formed when they were viewed as the top two prospects of the 2003 draft, they would be postseason rivals at last.
The big race in the West is between the Lakers and Mavericks, who are tied for No. 2 in the conference as they look forward to a March 31 meeting in Los Angeles that will decide their postseason tiebreaker (they've split a pair of games in Dallas this season). Home-court advantage will be crucial to their potential matchup in the second round because Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks haven't developed a lot of playoff confidence after winning one series in the last four years, while Kobe Bryant's Lakers haven't won a postseason series on the road since 2004, when Shaquille O'Neal was still in charge.
The first-round opponents for L.A. and Dallas -- most likely either the Trail Blazers or Hornets -- will be determined over the closing month. The Lakers would probably prefer to avoid visiting Portland, where they've had a hard time winning in recent years. But the defending champs are a combined 5-0 vs. both teams and will be confident of prevailing in either matchup.
The Mavs will be more nervous. They're 1-2 this season against the Hornets and 2-1 vs. the Blazers, but all six games have been decided by five points or fewer. The opening round will show whether the Mavs' improved defense has made legitimate contenders of them.
The Nuggets will have incentive to maintain their current No. 5 seeding -- not only because they'll want to avoid the Lakers or Mavericks, but also because they'll look forward to a series of sprinters' heats against the No. 4 Thunder. Denver and Oklahoma City are among the top five scoring teams, and the more often the Nuggets are able to run and distribute the ball in transition, the less likely their absence of star power will hurt them in the playoffs.
The No. 8 spot in each conference remains under construction. While Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley has been stocking his team for a return to the playoffs this year, he is being chased by two franchises -- the Jazz and Suns -- that are torn between winning now and repositioning themselves for the future. Give the edge to Memphis (especially when Rudy Gay returns from a shoulder injury over the next few weeks) in the West and to Indiana in the East, where the Pacers are being chased by the Bobcats, who recently unloaded the salary of team leader Gerald Wallace, and the Bucks, who have been thoroughly depleted by injuries.
Jalen Rose, in your documentary,
The documentary itself was terrific because it cast you and your talented Michigan teammates as real people who were vulnerable to the scrutiny and criticism you received. It brought to mind the criticism the Heat stars have been receiving this season. People don't want to hear about the feelings of the Heat players because they (like the Fab Five) asked for it by bringing the attention upon themselves and (unlike the Fab Five) are being paid in the millions for their trouble. But from their point of view, they insist they came together to form the best team, just as you and your Fab Five teammates chose to do two decades ago.
I've long viewed Chris Webber as a sympathetic figure -- an extraordinary talent who struggled with the pressures that were created by that talent. And yet he didn't shy away from the biggest stages: He kept putting himself in positions that exposed him to those pressures. In Miami, LeBron James is filling the role of Webber as the extraordinary talent on an audacious team. A majority of fans don't feel sympathy for James now, just as they didn't feel sympathy for Webber as leader of the Fab Five. But to watch your documentary was to see Webber from a new perspective, as a young player overwhelmed by the environment created by his talent, and also by the choices he made in response to that environment. It all makes me wonder what we'll be saying about James 20 or 30 years from now, because perspectives of all of these stars change as they grow older and retire, and the view of James will surely change as well.
Chris Bosh, your recent statement -- that the lights should have been shut off around Kobe Bryant as he practiced shooting after his March 10 game on your home court -- was one of the best things to come out of Miami this season. There is a feeling that players of your generation are too friendly to be hardcore rivals with each other. As a team you haven't shown that ruthless side in most of your games against rival contenders. After a full season together, will that ruthlessness emerge during the playoffs next month?
Michael Redd, you've spent the last two years undergoing and recovering from successive major knee surgeries. You could have retired on the huge contract that is paying you $18.3 million this season. But like Bill Walton, Grant Hill, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Yao Ming and others over the years, you show courage by trying to return. Good luck to you.
If so, he insists he would come to the NBA to serve as nothing more than an assistant coach.
"It would be interesting," Messina said Wednesday from Spain, where he shocked European basketball by resigning as coach of Real Madrid two weeks ago. "But I need first of all to see if I could be a good assistant after many years of not being an assistant. And then it would have to be made clear that I am not going there to steal anybody's job."
Messina does not delude himself about becoming an NBA coach. Whenever the topic has come up over the years, he has shot it down quickly by referring to the fundamental differences between the leagues of Europe and the NBA.
"It might be an interesting opportunity," said Messina, a 51-year-old Italian who speaks excellent English. "A few years ago I didn't see it like this, but now, getting older, you understand. You see it differently because experience gives you a different point of view."
His recent experience with Madrid opened the door to new possibilities. After a loss to Siena in a meaningless Euroleague game that didn't alter Madrid's place in the standings -- Real was No. 1 in its group going into the playoffs -- Messina decided to resign with one full year remaining on a contract that paid him close to $3 million annually.
Messina had a fundamental problem with the mission of Real Madrid, which was Europe's most successful club in soccer and basketball in the last century. The club was so focused on the end result that it ignored the process of building a championship team.
He compares the mission statement of Madrid to that of CSKA Moscow, where Messina won two Euroleague championships before moving to Spain in 2009. He said the mission statement on the wall of the CSKA arena read, "We are here to win" -- implying that the team had done all of the hard behind-the-scenes work to position itself to succeed.
The mission statement at Real, according to Messina, was focused on the end result: "In Madrid the only thing that counts is winning."
Messina has no problem with seeking to win: He has won four Euroleague titles overall.
"The sentence at CSKA says we are here to win -- which doesn't mean we will win," he said. "It's a big, big difference. We are here to win, but we cannot guarantee that we will win."
The statement in Madrid represented a myth of arrogance that winning was a right of the club. But Messina was overseeing a young team, including 20-year-old Nikola Mirotic, a 6-foot-10 power forward who is being scouted by the NBA. He was trying to create an environment of humility that would eventually position them to succeed, but he was convinced the habits couldn't form at a club that wasn't invested in the process.
There are very few clubs that have the budget and ambition to help Messina fulfill his vision for how a team should be built. If he can't find a promising offer to remain in Europe next year, he may be open to spending a season or two on an NBA bench, where he could learn a new perspective while also providing his team with different strategies. In the meantime, Messina plans to accept an invitation from San Antonio to spend eight days with the Spurs -- and his former star at Bologna, Manu Ginobili -- later this month.
"I'm really excited to see a couple of practices, some games, watch some films with the team, and of course to see Manu," Messina said. "I've never had the opportunity to see Manu during the season."
(NBA players are in bold)
(NBA players are in bold)
(NBA players are in bold)
(NBA players are in bold)
Scoring: Jimmer Fredette, BYU (28.5)