By Chris Mannix
March 30, 2009

The importance of winning the NBA's top overall seed can be summed up in three small numbers:


That's the series format the NBA goes to in the Finals. Since 1985, back when the Celtics and Lakers were routinely facing off for the league crown, the NBA switched the format from 2-2-1-1-1 (as it is for the first three rounds) to a more travel-convenient 2-3-2 setup. Since then, only one team has swept the middle three games at home (the 2004 Pistons), placing added importance on securing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Who can benefit from home-court most? Statistics say Cleveland, which is threatening to finish a record-tying 40-1 at home this season. But the Lakers (31-5 at home this season) looked like a different team in losing three games in Boston in the 2008 Finals. This fight to the finish -- the Cavaliers entered the week with a two-game lead over the Lakers -- is the only drama left for the runaway conference leaders.

(All stats and records are through Sunday.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 1
Should the Cavs rest LeBron James? Those questions probably multiplied after James was dropped by a hard foul from Minnesota's Jason Collins in Cleveland's blowout win Friday. Mike Brown has done a terrific job keeping his players fresh (the Cavaliers have held only two full practices in March, and have gone 14-1) and they are still fighting the Lakers for the overall No. 1 seed. But is it worth risking James' health when they have the East's top record all but sewn up?
2 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 2
Either Phil Jackson doesn't have any idea when Andrew Bynum will be back or he's having some fun making reporters think he doesn't. On Thursday, Jackson told reporters that Bynum "has a considerable amount of time yet before he's going to be even at practice with us." But on Saturday, Jackson talked about using the final regular-season games for "getting [Bynum's] rhythm back."
3 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 3
Orlando Magic (54-18)
This spot is sponsored by rankings reader and superb Boston radio talk-show host Dale Arnold, who did a minute on-air on last week's Marcin Gortat note. Dale, get to know Courtney Lee. The Magic's rookie guard made Keith Bogans expendable and has pushed past Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick into the starting lineup. Lee has scored double figures in 13 of his last 19 games and is averaging 10.8 points in March. "I don't feel like we're playing with a rookie out there," coach Stan Van Gundy said. "He just doesn't make very many mistakes."
4 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 4
Is anyone else getting the feeling that this just isn't Boston's year? The Celtics have shut Kevin Garnett down again and are still missing Leon Powe (knee) and Brian Scalabrine (concussion). With the Cavaliers running away in the East and the Magic challenging them for the No. 2 spot, the Green are facing the potentially unenviable task of having to win road games in Cleveland and Orlando in order to get back to the Finals.
5 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 6
The excitement of a strong 3-1 week was tempered by concerns over Fabricio Oberto's heart issues. Oberto has had three episodes of atrial fibrillation in the past 23 months, and San Antonio is getting concerned about his long-term health. "If all of a sudden he starts getting one every three months or every four months, then we'll really start to wonder what the hell is going on here," coach Gregg Popovich told reporters. "At this point, they say they've been far enough apart that as long as they get it back in check, he's fine."
6 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 8
The Nuggets will probably always be the unruly Delta Tau Chi to San Antonio's more refined Omega Theta Pi, but coach George Karl would like to see his team play with a little more composure. Denver's most recent breakdown came last week, when center Nene was ejected from a loss to Phoenix after committing a flagrant foul and going chest-to-chest with an official. "We've just got to be more emotionally mature," Karl said. "It seems like we have something [negative] on a weekly basis."
7 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 5
Those who believe Houston is better without Tracy McGrady -- and that club grows with every Rockets win -- should take note of its record when games come down to the wire. Without a go-to scorer, Houston is 3-5 in games decided by three points or fewer this season. "Where we really miss T-Mac is in the fourth quarter, closing out games," guard Aaron Brooks told the Salt Lake Tribune. "That's a guy who can create his own shot with a high success rate. That's what we miss without him."
8 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 9
Utah Jazz (45-27)
Despite averaging almost 36 minutes the past three weeks, Carlos Boozer wants everyone to know that he's ready to play more minutes, particularly crunch-time minutes. After sitting out the entire overtime period against Phoenix on Saturday, Boozer told local reporters that he was "a warrior" and "wants to be in the battle, so I want to be in there."
9 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 10
Will Martell Webster be back this season? The 2005 lottery pick has played a total of five minutes this season thanks to a stress fracture in his left foot, but has vowed to return to the lineup in April. The team doesn't seem to agree: Portland has already announced that Webster won't return this season.
10 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 7
One of the reasons the Hornets signed James Posey in the offseason was for his veteran leadership. Posey didn't show much of that in New York last week, when he was tossed from a competitive (and critical) game for throwing the ball at a referee. (The Knicks went on to win.) Adding insult to stupidity, Posey was suspended for New Orleans' game against San Antonio on Sunday. Fortunately for the Hornets, Chris Paul wasn't: Paul scored 26 points, including three free throws with 7.1 seconds left, to help New Orleans hold off San Antonio.
11 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
Atlanta Hawks (43-31)
Coach Mike Woodson has been experimenting with a big frontcourt of Zaza Pachulia, Al Horford and Josh Smith. With forward Marvin Williams out indefinitely, it's a troika that could see more minutes together. "I'm very comfortable playing with Al and Josh," Pachulia told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We should be able to dominate most nights with our athleticism, strength and power."
12 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 12
The call log on Jason Kidd's cell phone will probably have two names come up: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. With the Mavericks limping to the finish line, speculation has already begun as to where Kidd, a free agent this summer, will wind up next season. The Lakers and Cavaliers are expected to make a hard push for his services. "Yeah, that's a hard call," Kidd said. "You don't want to answer the phone. I just have to explore my different options I'm going to have this summer."
13 Miami Heat
Last Week: 14
Miami Heat (39-34)
The Heat are locking in their rotation for the playoffs, and it appears James Jones and Jamaal Magloire are going to be in it. Jones appears to be finally getting over a troublesome wrist injury, while Magloire has given the Heat a physical inside presence. "Something's going to go down when we've got [Magloire] in the game," forward Udonis Haslem told the Palm Beach Post. "He's been that physical presence all year. James is getting more and more comfortable. We have complete confidence in him to knock down shots."
14 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 13
Phoenix Suns (40-34)
Ugh. Sacramento? Really? Sunday's loss to the playing-out-the-string Kings was probably the final nail in Phoenix's playoff coffin. "No offense to that young team over there, but we weren't playing the Lakers or the Celtics," Steve Nash said. "If we want to be in the playoffs, this is a game we've got to win. If you ask me, 'Do we deserve to be in the playoffs?' on a performance like tonight, you've got to say we didn't earn it."
15 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 17
Chicago Bulls (36-39)
One reason for the East's elite to keep battling for a higher seed is to avoid the surging Bulls in the first round. The Bulls have won seven of their past 10 and sit just one game behind slumping Detroit and 2½ behind Philadelphia. By all indications, the Bulls have successfully blended trade-deadline additions Brad Miller and John Salmons into the lineup. "I thought the trade they orchestrated to get Brad Miller and John Salmons was the best trade of the year," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said. "My hat is off to John Paxson."
16 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 16
They have been the very definition of streaky this season. Coach Tony DiLeo is hoping that the added importance of each game down the stretch will create some consistency over the last few weeks of the season. "What is good is every game has a lot of importance," DiLeo said. "Every team will be up for us and that will help."
17 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 15
Allen Iverson is back -- and he has a new role. Iverson returned to the lineup Sunday after missing 16 games with a back injury and scored eight points as sixth man. "Coming off the bench, it was just so much different," Iverson told the Detroit Free Press. "I have a lot of respect for guys that come off the bench, even more now than ever. It's hard to get yourself going, sitting there long and then having to jump out into the fire. It was different for me, and it was hard."
18 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 18
Kudos to veteran D-Leaguer (and my former Utah Flash teammate) Dontell Jefferson for earning a second 10-day contract with the Bobcats last week. Jefferson has yet to play for Charlotte but is a big, heady point guard loaded with NBA potential. The news isn't as good for the Bobcats, who are quickly running out of games to catch the eighth playoff spot. They play six of their last eight games on the road.
19 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 21
To say they have been decimated by injuries would be an understatement. Mike Dunleavy played only 18 games before shutting his season down with a knee injury, Danny Granger missed 11 games with a torn foot tendon and Marquis Daniels has missed 20 games with an assortment of injuries. Now it looks like Indiana might be playing out the string without Troy Murphy. O'Brien said an MRI taken Thursday showed no major damage to Murphy's left knee but "it's a very painful sprain." With the last playoff seed a longshot at best, there isn't much incentive to hurry Murphy back.
20 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 19
They may not make the playoffs this season, but coach Scott Skiles wants his players to know that their performance the rest of the season will have an "awful lot" of impact on whether they are invited to training camp next year. "We need to make judgments in the summertime based on how guys handle this situation," Skiles said. "When the games got bigger, how did we perform? And that doesn't mean from a win and loss standpoint. But how did we perform? Did we battle for it? During the course of the game, if it's a tie game midway through the third quarter and a couple things don't go our way, do we fight back or do we cave?"
21 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 20
Yi Jianlian admitted last week what was obvious to everyone: His confidence is shot. "It's hard for me right now," Yi told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I know what [is] happening. I must just be professional and keep doing my stuff, doing my thing." Yi's numbers bottomed out this month (5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds), and coach Lawrence Frank has suggested that his former starting power forward could be removed from the rotation entirely.
22 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 24
What's gotten into the Raptors? After what felt like a season-long slump, Toronto has won four straight and looks like the sharpshooting, inside-out team everyone thought it would be before the season. A big reason for the surge is Andrea Bargnani, who is making his case for the starting center job next season in averaging 23.0 points over the last five games.
23 New York Knicks
Last Week: 22
The rumblings that this will be Nate Robinson's last season with the Knicks are getting louder. Robinson's helter-skelter style is crowd pleasing and he is a 30-point threat off the bench every night. But his mental errors are maddening (witness Mike D'Antoni's Homer Simpson-strangling-Bart face after Robinson committed a senseless foul on Chris Paul with two seconds left in the first quarter Friday) and there is a growing feeling that his act (which includes accusing Knicks coaches of listing Clippers guard Mike Taylor as a center during pregame preparations) is starting to wear thin in the locker room.
24 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 23
With Don Nelson indicating that he will retire when his contract expires in 2011, the question now is, Who will replace him? We know Nellie's preference: longtime assistant Keith Smart, who regularly runs practices and has been given total control over the defense.
25 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 26
It didn't take long for Jarron Collins to rush to his brother's defense. After Jason Collins was accused of committing a "borderline dirty" foul on LeBron, Jarron, a reserve with the Jazz, told the Salt Lake Tribune that Jason "didn't mean it to be malicious or anything, he just wanted to stop his penetration and he stopped it. I know everybody in Cleveland really held their breath, but it was just a foul."
26 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 25
Good news, Thunder fans: Kevin Durant has no desire to take his spectacular game elsewhere. "I like the nucleus that we have," Durant told the Boston Globe. "I'm excited. I want to be here as long as possible. It's like family. I love being here. We're going to get better. We can get better."
27 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Whether you agree or disagree with Gilbert Arenas' decision to return to the lineup this late in a lost season, there is no debate as to whether Arenas' skills are still intact. Agent Zero scored 15 points and added 10 assists against Detroit and was one Kwame Brown blocked shot away from emerging as a hero Saturday in his first game since last April. "I felt we were much more competitive [with Gilbert]," coach Ed Tapscott said. "We came in playing the game very efficiently."
28 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 28
Moral victories are all the Kings can hope for this late in the season but they got a big one when veterans Bobby Jackson (broken cheekbone) and Andres Nocioni (right quadriceps tendinitis) returned to the lineup last week. On Sunday, the veterans helped the team upset Phoenix. "It sends a great message," coach Kenny Natt said. "It doesn't surprise me, because those guys are always looking to play. Those guys just love the game."
29 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 27
Here's how delusional the Clippers have become: Zach Randolph really believes he's better than Chris Bosh. After the Clippers' overtime victory against the Knicks last week, Randolph said he understood New York's trading him if it meant landing LeBron. But he doesn't get it if the Knicks' prime target is Bosh. "I'm better than Chris Bosh," Randolph told Newsday. "I'd tell him to his face."
30 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 29
Is there any team that needs Blake Griffin more than Memphis? The Grizzlies have a gap at power forward the size of Graceland, and with David Lee and Carlos Boozer unlikely to entertain any offers to play in Memphis, the Sooners' soon-to-be NBA star is a potential franchise-changing power forward.
Got a different view than Chris?

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