Here are three things I've taken from recent conversations ...
• From Milwauke Bucks GM John Hammond:
"We're in a results-driven business, and I know where our results stand today. But can we truly evaluate who we are with everything that's happened to our team? I don't think we can."
The 28-41 Bucks remain in contention for the last playoff spot in the East, just two games behind the No. 8 Pacers entering the final four weeks of the season. The Bucks are in this position despite extended absences by most of the key producers: Their top nine scorers have each missed between nine and 34 games this season.
"Last year, we lost Michael Redd -- if you lose one player, a coach like Scott Skiles can figure out how to manage that and players can figure out how to play through that," Hammond said. "But we've never had any continuity this season, because it's been different guys at different points of the season. One guy comes back, another guy gets hurt."
Last season, the cohesive, high-achieving Bucks won a surprising 46 games and -- apart from the knee injury to Redd -- avoided major injury until Andrew Bogut suffered a horrible season-ending elbow and hand injury in April. After watching the Bucks nonetheless push Atlanta to seven games without Bogut and Redd, Hammond set out to augment the roster by making investments in power forward Drew Gooden (who has missed 42 games), forward Corey Maggette (11), Chris Douglas-Roberts (28) and backup guard Keyon Dooling, who has played in 67 games to become the most durable Buck.
"We had a somewhat surprising year last year," Hammond said. "We didn't want to take a step backward, and we added players we felt could help us. Coming into training camp, we had a projected starting lineup of [Brandon] Jennings, [John] Salmons, [Carlos] Delfino, Bogut and Gooden. And those five guys have missed a combined 115 or 116 games." The total is actually 117.
Bogut has said he'll probably need more surgery this summer to correct a lingering problem in his elbow. His scoring has dropped from 15.9 points last season to 12.6 this year, but Hammond remains as impressed as ever.
"Andrew started out the season very productive offensively, but as the season progressed his did become an issue for him," Hammond said. "It wasn't anything we didn't expect from medical standpoint. Guys who have microfracture surgery or a hip surgery or an injury like he had, you can see they have to play through almost an entire season before you become so-called right. It's almost as if he has been going through a year of rehab during the season.
"But on the defensive end, Bogut still leads the league in blocked shots [2.7], he's still in the top five in rebounding [11.3], he's still one of the best interior defenders in the NBA and one of the top five to 10 defenders overall. He's still helping us win games. Some guys, if they're struggling offensively, they can't continue to be as effective defensively."
The injuries have crashed Milwaukee to the bottom of the league scoring and shooting rankings. But the Bucks remain No. 7 in field-goal defense, and Sunday they held on to a 100-95 win against New York after limiting the Knicks to nine points in the opening quarter. While the injuries have made it impossible for Hammond to evaluate the offseason additions, he is gratified to see Milwaukee remaining in playoff contention despite its poor record. When I mentioned that the Bucks would be stealing a playoff spot, Hammond agreed.
"I think we would, and it would be great," he said. "It would be sending a good all-around message to the guys on the floor that have been out there competing when possible."
• From LeBron James:
"I would rather go on the road, personally. I like the road. I had home-court advantage the last two years and teams came to our building and won. You have to win on someone else's floor in order to become a champion -- there haven't been that many teams that swept their home court. I don't know how you cannot win on the road and not win a championship."
This is a healthy point of view as the Heat approach the postseason as a likely No. 2 or 3 seed in the East. Instead of beating themselves up for their failures against the best opponents during the regular season, James is telling his teammates to take an underdog mentality into the playoffs.
"It's not as big as everyone else is trying to make it," he said recently of home-court advantage. "When you're a veteran ballclub, you have to create habits to get to the playoffs. But I know [from] being a No. 1 seed the last two years and we didn't reach our goal -- didn't live up to the expectations we had during the regular season. I know first hand."
Being the underdog should help the Heat. Throughout this season they were supposed to be better than they've been, but those expectations will subside should James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh enter a second-round series or conference finals as a lower seed. It could be a relief for them to enter a series against Chicago or Boston as visiting underdogs.
James didn't want to see it that way. "Less distractions for me," he said of why he prefers the road. "As a team, it gives us a chance to be together and just focus on us. It's fun. I enjoy being on the road."
Maybe he was applying a bright outlook to bad news. But one or two plays has made the difference in every Heat loss to the Celtics and Bulls this season, and a change in perspective could turn out to be liberating for Miami.
• From an NBA scout:
"If Kyrie Irving doesn't go first in the draft, people are nuts. I think he's going to be Chris Paul. Kyrie can shoot the hell out of the ball, but he plays the right way, he wants to pass and he's a freak athletically. He can jump out of the gym. He'll be a stronger finisher than Paul, because he's chippy. Kyrie is just like Isiah [Thomas] that way."
Most scouts have downplayed Irving's athleticism, predicting he'll be a longtime starter but not necessarily a star. But if he does indeed have the makings of a ruthless attacker at point guard, then we saw a strong omen Sunday in the third round of the NCAA tournament against Michigan.
Irving, a 6-2 freshman, was coming off the bench in his second game back from a toe injury that had sidelined him for 14 weeks this season. He was greeted by a second-half Michigan comeback that had slashed Duke's 15-point lead to 70-69 with 1:27 left. That's when he responded with his only field goal, a running banker with 31 seconds remaining that helped give his Blue Devils a 73-71 win.
Remember how difficult it was for Jameer Nelson to come back for Orlando during the 2009 NBA Finals? Nelson had suffered a worse injury (a torn labrum in his right shoulder) and was competing at a higher level. But consider that Irving was making his NCAA debut last weekend after having played a total of eight college games in his career, and none since Dec. 4. Against that backdrop, his crucial shot becomes all the more impressive.