While the champion Heat run away unimpeded from their injured playoff rivals in the East, the other conference remains competitive and difficult to predict. That's why I asked a trio of NBA advance scouts to break down the final month of the Western race to the playoffs. These scouts each attend many more than 80 games per year and study video in between. They hold a variety of well-earned opinions.
Scout No. 1: "I'd say the Spurs. The big thing for them is they've gotten more athletic. They still use Matt Bonner to stretch the defense, but he's not playing as many minutes in crunch situations. It's the same with DeJuan Blair. They're non-athletic guys, and in the past that caught up to the Spurs. It gave other teams too many holes to pick at. Now they've got Boris Diaw totally acclimated, Tiago Splitter is playing so great and Stephen Jackson is even playing at the 4 some. Plus, their other guys are so athletic -- Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and Gary Neal: They've got bigger roles and they've taken minutes away from other guys."
Scout No. 2: "I could see Oklahoma City's overtaking them, just because San Antonio has got Tony Parker out. It's not going to be important to the Spurs -- No. 1 or 2, they won't care. I think Oklahoma City is still the favorite [in the West]."
Scout No. 3: "I would think that the Spurs would end up getting that No. 1 seed. I don't know if they care as much as Oklahoma City cares, but the truth is it isn't going to amount to anything anyway. Both teams have quality home courts and they're tested on the road, so I don't think will matter."
Which darkhorse is scariest?
No. 1: "Nobody wants to play Denver. The Nuggets play the same way as Houston, except Denver has so much more talent. Houston has the big guys hanging around out there; for the Nuggets, they have big guys who play. They can also put Andre Iguodala at the 4, and Kenneth Faried is a monster.
"The Clippers could go to the conference finals, but they're also one of the teams that could get knocked off by Denver. I don't think there's any way the Clippers can beat Oklahoma City. If they'd gotten Kevin Garnett at the deadline, that would have changed things. Lamar Odom has not come back to do it consistently for them, and Blake Griffin, compared to Kevin Durant, is not near that level yet. He's a great player, for sure. But he's not the man. Chris Paul is so much the man, but Blake is the guy who needs to step up and become that guy.
"You know how Russell Westbrook is the second fiddle to Durant? Griffin hasn't shown he's the same kind of second fiddle to Chris Paul. In terms of numbers, yes; but on a regular basis I don't see him doing all of the little things they need to get a win in the biggest situations. I just think they're not good enough.
"Memphis is so much worse with that trade [of Rudy Gay to Toronto], in my opinion. It's amazing to me how they've continued to play well. But I think the teams everyone will want to play are Memphis and Golden State. I still think Memphis is not as good as they were, and that it will show up in the playoffs.''
No. 2: "The Nuggets are difficult as a home team, but I don't think they guard enough -- and the same thing goes with Houston and the Clippers, too."
No. 3: "If the Nuggets could ever win a road game [they are 17-19 on the road this season], they could get lucky and make it to the conference finals. But in a playoff series, I actually think Memphis beats them. Last year when Memphis needed a bucket, they would go to Rudy Gay, and the previous year they'd go to O.J. Mayo. They don't have that guy now, and that's the biggest concern I have about them. But they play gritty, grimy, dirty -- they play inside and they rebound. I think they have enough to beat Denver in a series.
"If everybody's healthy, I'd say the Clippers have the edge [in talent] over everybody but San Antonio and Oklahoma City because of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. But I don't think they have the stuff to get them over a Game 7 or a Game 6 in foreign territory. They can win a series 4-2 or 4-1 if they jump somebody. But I don't think they're built for a grind-it-out series. They're missing a couple of outside shooters; you don't want to go to your grave relying on Matt Barnes. They have to have Jamal Crawford playing at a high level and knocking down jumpers. But outside of Crawford, Paul and Chauncey, they don't have another knockdown three-point shooter. They don't have a stretch 4 either.
"I like Houston better than Golden State. Houston has Omer Asik, who has been in the playoffs and can affect games on the inside. He's pretty good defensively. Chandler Parsons is athletic and can shoot it, James Harden can get to the line, Jeremy Lin can give them something.
"But the bottom line is Denver is the upset team."
How far can the Lakers go?
No. 1: "The Lakers are going to be a scary team to play, even though I don't think they're so good. If they play Oklahoma City, I think the Lakers will have a beating put on them. I don't think they're good enough to beat Oklahoma City. But the Spurs have their history with the Lakers, and if the Lakers are making shots and playing great, they can put a scare in San Antonio."
No. 2: "If the Lakers come in healthy, they have a legitimate center and a guy who can keep it close and win a game for you. But that's as far as I'd take it with them -- I don't see them advancing.''
No. 3: "It depends on Pau Gasol. If he comes back, how do you get everybody playing to a style? That's the real issue. And obviously whether Kobe Bryant is healthy. What are you going to do in a very short time frame to acclimate Pau and get him going? Anyone who is playing the Lakers is going to be nervous about some of their talent. But in a seven-game series I wouldn't be that concerned with them because they don't have great depth of talent. They're one injury away -- whether it's Steve Nash, Kobe or whoever -- from getting swept."
Which team will make the Finals?
No. 1: "I'd pick Oklahoma City to beat San Antonio. What a great trade that was for Oklahoma City -- I think Kevin Martin is producing points and getting to the foul line and carrying their bench unit just like Harden did. Without a doubt they didn't miss a beat. Is Harden a better starting 2 guard? For sure. But I think Martin is a better fit for what they want to do. At the end of the game he's the perfect third option. Durant is a better player this year. He's taking it to the next level, though, of course, it's going to come down to whatever he does in the playoffs. But all you hear is how hungry he is, and you can see they've done a great job of making it all work."
No. 2: "The way it went last year in the conference finals might give San Antonio the urgency to right a wrong. They really dropped the ball, being up 2-0 before losing to Oklahoma City. That could provide them with their whole objective, to get back to where they were. But I still think Oklahoma City will beat them.
"The question is going to be whether Parker can be effective, or whether Westbrook overpowers him. Parker needs to be effective in pushing the ball and scoring. The Spurs have a half-court game, but they need to get transition buckets to go back at Oklahoma City. They need to get some easy scores. Tim Duncan is better than any of the Oklahoma City bigs, and Durant is better than Kawhi Leonard. Durant is incredible, but whoever wins that matchup of point guards will win the series.''
No. 3: "I like the Spurs. I think they would have won it last year, but they had that perfect storm happen to them. Oklahoma City was unbelievably hot and Westbrook was the problem. I think the Spurs will be fine this time."
Can anyone beat Miami?
No. 1: "Nobody is beating the Heat. I even think it's going to get to the point in the East where teams will be tanking games to get the No. 6 seed because nobody is going to want to be No. 4 or No. 5 and have to play them in the second round."
No. 2: "I don't believe Oklahoma City is going to beat Miami. At the same time, I'm not convinced Miami is going to make the Finals."
No. 3: "The Spurs can beat them and Oklahoma City can beat them, too. The Spurs are my pick to win the championship. Teams that have a couple of big guys are going to be an issue for the Heat. Indiana can give them problems with David West and Roy Hibbert. Depending on what Chicago does with Derrick Rose, they've got Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. But neither of those teams has the depth to beat the Heat.
"Absolutely, San Antonio is going to win the championship -- you can write it down, go to Vegas, whatever you need to do. They're going to need a healthy Parker, but Pop [coach Gregg Popovich] will make sure of that. They're athletic, they have depth and they have more youth than they've had in previous years. They execute in the half court and they play defense. They're going to win the whole thing."
? Heat win 24th straight. They've also been playing to the level of the competition. They were down by 17 in the second quarter Monday at Boston, even though Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger weren't playing; Paul Pierce was the only available member of their former Big Four and yet he faced up for a potential game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds. The Heat trailed by 27 in the third quarter at Cleveland on Wednesday before rallying.
It's to their credit that they've been winning close games. They've all been making big shots and LeBron James has been especially fabulous under pressure. But can they go on to break the 1971-72 Lakers' record of 33 straight after playing so badly against a Cleveland team that lacked Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao? There were times in the fourth quarter when every one of the Heat players on the floor was a better player than anyone on the active roster of the rebuilding Cavaliers, and yet for much of that game the Heat were being outplayed. But maybe that's a function of LeBron, the championship and the streak all combining to inspire opponents more than ever. The Cavaliers looked like a No. 16 seed threatening Indiana in a March Madness opener.
I'm probably making too much of it. But I can't help but wonder if this streak is shrouding some negative issues for Miami. It's not like coach Erik Spoelstra can be hard on his players or have their full attention while they're threatening one of the great achievements in league history. In the meantime, the Spurs and Thunder compete for the No. 1 seed in the West and hear day after day after day that they have no chance of upsetting Miami in the NBA Finals. The more often they hear it, the more focused they become.
? Denver wins 13th straight. The Nuggets won 114-104 at Oklahoma City on Tuesday and have forced a three-way tie for the No. 3 seed in the West with the Grizzlies and Clippers. They won after an unexpected Rockne-esque speech in the locker room by Andre Miller, who inspired the Nuggets to complete a rough back-to-back one night after winning in overtime at Chicago.
The Nuggets are young and relentlessly aggressive, but are they the kind of team -- lacking a go-to scorer -- that peaks in the regular season?
"I'm realistic, we're hot," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "The momentum of being a hot team could go away."
It usually does when the 82-game season gives way to best of seven.
? Lakers await Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Half of Los Angeles' starring quartet was expected to return Friday. After Bryant suffered a severely sprained ankle in a loss at Atlanta last week, the Lakers were able to win their next two before collapsing at Phoenix 99-76 on Monday. The question now is whether Bryant will return to be as explosive as he has been all season. And will the Lakers have as many problems finding a role for Gasol now as they had earlier in the year? They've spent the entire year dealing with problems in-house, and have been so focused on fixing their own issues that they haven't been able to respond to the challenges of the league's best teams.
"If our minds and our hearts are really into it," Gasol said recently, "we can be a heck of a team and we can beat anybody.''
At this time of year, however, real contenders aren't having to wonder if their hearts and minds are going to be into it.
? Carmelo Anthony returns. He scored 21 points in a 106-94 win against Orlando Wednesday to help lead the Knicks to their second straight win. Anthony had missed three games while recovering from a swollen knee that was drained of fluid. "I feel good," he said, but the Knicks look awful. They've been essentially a .500 team since mid-December. Center Tyson Chandler has been sidelined for a week, joining vulnerable big men Amar'e Stoudemire, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas, and Marcus Camby has played in just 21 games. Kenyon Martin, picked up on a 10-day contract after going unsigned by the league for most of the season, started and played 28 minutes Wednesday. The Knicks have no reason to be confident heading into the playoffs.
? Andrew Bynum undergoes surgery on both knees. No surprise there. Now we wait to see whether the 76ers try to retain him as a free agent this summer. The new collective bargaining agreement has made money tight around the league, and it will be interesting to see whether Bynum is offered a short-term deal with incentives to provide a kind of insurance to his next team. In any case, there is probably going to be interest. If teams are interested in signing Greg Oden, then offers will surely be out there for Bynum, too.
? George Hill criticizes fans. The Pacers' point guard has been hearing about it in Indianapolis ever since he suggested that 70 percent of the home-court fans were cheering for the visiting Lakers last Friday. Hill was understandably emotional after losing that game, but it's always a hard thing for any player to criticize the fans whose expensive tickets contribute to his salary.
"To clear the (air) I'm not talking about the fans that was there supporting us! I'm talking about the ones that were in purple" Hill tweeted. "I Love INDIANA and that's why I say something about it because I care an I want everyone in the community to be apart of this team. #Togetherness"
Good luck to him.
Get To Know Gerald Henderson Jr.
The 6-foot-5 shooting guard is averaging 14.4 points in his fourth year with the Bobcats, who picked him No. 12 in the 2009 draft. His namesake father was a 6-2 guard who played for 13 years in the NBA.
? He was 4 when his father stopped playing.
"I remember sometimes going into the locker room, our family going to the games," Henderson said. "I don't remember watching him play, though. His last couple of years, he didn't play as much, especially with the Pistons. He won a championship with them [in 1990], but he was really one of the veteran guys sitting on the bench, rooting the guys on.
"I always played just naturally because he played. I played all kinds of sports, but basketball was always my favorite. I was always terrible at baseball because I had a golf swing, so I'd always swing underneath the ball. My dad used to always just bring me out to play golf, to take me off my mom's hands. He'd let me drive the golf cart and hang out.
"He stopped playing me [in basketball] when I could beat him. He's pretty smart for that. I was maybe 12 or 13. I've been this size since I was 13 or 14. Once I got bigger than him, it got tough for him.
"I played a lot of forward and center throughout high school, and as time went on I had to develop my guard skills. I've gotten away from [posting up] for a while because you got slotted into a position where you don't go down there as much, but definitely this year, the last two years, I've seen how I can be effective down there. Being 6-4, 6-5, and light enough where I can jump over guys, it's a good spot for me."
? Being the son of a three-time NBA champion influenced his perspective.
"Just to have him there, give me advice on stuff that he's already been through, even to this day, I had an advantage over most kids that played," Henderson said. "It was great for me growing up.
"He taught me how to work. He was never a big superstar -- maybe in high school and college, but when he became a pro he was a role player. He won championships getting the ball to the Hall of Famers. That was his job, but he always had to work on his game. Putting the work in. You get in what you put out, and he taught me how to work at it."
With 15 seconds remaining in Game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals, his father stole a crosscourt pass from the Lakers' James Worthy to change the series and enable the Celtics to ultimately win the championship.
"It's a pretty special play for him," Henderson said. "His role was to get other guys involved and set up those guys. But it was big for him to play defense, too. That was one of the best things he did.
"He always seems to think that he was the quickest guy on the team, so he said he ran down the court a little bit, and then just turned and ran right into the ball. It was just something he came up on. It wasn't anything that he did special. He was just doing his job.
"He was smaller, he played point guard and he was way quicker than me. We both have good mid-range games. That was his thing. Toward the end of his career he was in the three-point contest, he got third place. He was always a mid-range player, a get-to-the-basket player."
? After starring at The Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., he played for three years at Duke.
"I wanted to stay on the East Coast where my family could see me play," Henderson said. "I love Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski]. He's one of my big role models. More than anything he was teaching me how to be responsible for myself and my play, and take ownership for how I play every game. I started looking at myself differently on the court, and just tried to be a more disciplined player."
Henderson will be a restricted free agent this summer.
"I want to be on a winning team," he said. "I want to win. That's my biggest thing. I try to go out there with that in mind every game. Everybody's got their own personal goals, but for me, I just try to go out there and play hard every night and help my team."
The rebuilding Bobcats are enduring a third straight losing season.
"I come from a winning program in high school and college, and then you win  games in two years, and it's tough," Henderson said. "But you just got to stick through it, and hopefully things will get better for us."
Quote Of The Week
"I embraced it." -- LeBron James on the fan who rushed on to the court during the Heat's 98-95 win in Cleveland.
James said this after a fan ran onto the court during the fourth quarter of the Heat's comeback win in Cleveland. The fan was wearing a T-shirt that read, "We Miss You, 2014 Come Back."
James appreciated the statement, for obvious reasons, and he patted the young man's head before Heat security chief David Holcombe urgently pulled away the intruder.
"He said he missed me and come back, please," James said. "It happened once before in [Madison Square] Garden, so I wasn't worried. There are metal detectors here, so we were OK."
He couldn't be more wrong about this. He should in no way be creating an impression of any kind that it's OK for fans to come onto the court. It doesn't matter whether the fan was for him or against him. How was James to know that the intruder wasn't a threat? If James' response can be construed as encouragement of any kind, then he is doing no favor to himself or to players around the league.
"I never saw him coming until he ran by our bench," Chris Bosh told Brendan Bowers of Bleacher Report. "It was pretty scary, actually."
An NBA advance scouts analyzes the race for Rookie of the Year:
"It's almost impossible to not give it to Damian Lillard. He's kind of like the new-age point guard. He's not a real point guard -- his natural instinct is to score more than it is for someone like Chris Paul. Lillard is an excellent pick-and-roll player, and that allows him to score a lot and build up the assists. He's such a tough one because he does them both well. And he isn't like Nate Robinson. Nate has gotten better, but early on in his career all he did was look to score, and he made the pass only when he had to.
"I think Lillard will have a chance to challenge the best point guards in the league because he's pretty damn close right now. Lillard is Portland's second-best player, and that's impressive for a rookie. I know they're not going to make the playoffs, but he's made them better than I ever thought they would be. I thought they were going to be a disaster and this kid has changed everything for them. He's one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league right now, and this league is all about pick-and-roll.
"The only question I have about Anthony Davis is his desire. And that might not be a big deal, because it turned out to be not a big deal when a lot of people had a similar question about Tim Duncan. People said that about Duncan because he's such a good person, and from everything I hear about Davis it's the same deal with him. I do wonder if he has that fire to really work on his game and have that Kobe Bryant kind of attitude of needing to be the best player ever.
"His body control -- and I've never used that terminology on any player -- is incredible. And his hands are ridiculous. He really could be like Tim Duncan. He could dominate at both ends, and he's already a better shooter than Duncan.
"He was a guard [before he had a major growth spurt] and he can pass the ball. He squirms his way around people, he moves like a guard when he's driving around to the basket. He's 6-foot-10 with long arms, he can catch a ball on the move and zip around two defenders for a dunk. It's pretty amazing how he moves so well.
"His talent and tools are similar to Kevin Garnett's, but does he have that fire?
"Then there is Andre Drummond, who is so, so good and so talented. He's a live body and he can change games because he's rebounding and blocking shots, and he will only get better at the offensive end. He's a specimen -- his body and his length. And he has a nose for the ball. I think Lawrence Frank did an incredible job developing him and bringing him along slowly. He was just about to [turn] the corner -- and then he got hurt.
"There is no question Drummond is the third-best guy from the draft. He reminds me of Shawn Kemp when he was so explosive before he ate up the cheeseburger franchise. Drummond jumps out of the gym. He goes and gets rebounds over everybody, including great athletes. I hear he does have a little bit of fire to him.
"I like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He has a high motor and he plays with energy. But he's not going to be the guy who changes your team; or if he does, it's going to be a few years away. Compare him to Bradley Beal, who was the best player on his college team; Kidd-Gilchrist wasn't close to the best player on his team. Randy Wittman has done a terrific job with the Wizards and Beal has become his go-to guy.
"Dion Waiters is playing great for Cleveland. Alexey Shved can give your bench some scoring punch. He isn't going to change anybody's team. I don't think he's a starter, though some people love him more than I do. He's a nice passer and can get some guys some easy scores. I'd like to have him on my team, but I wouldn't pay him a whole lot of money. And I would say the same thing about Jonas Valanciunas. I'd like to have him, but he's not close to Drummond as a talent.
"I like Harrison Barnes, too, and I think I would give him the edge over Kidd-Gilchrist right now. But it's very close and it's one of those choices you'd want to study a lot before making a final decision."
All-Gregg Popovich Team
The Spurs recently extended their streak of 50 wins or more for a 14th straight season, an incredible achievement. The team below consists of the role players who have been assembled over the last 14 years around the Spurs' Hall of Fame quartet of David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
F/C Antonio McDyess (2009-11) F Robert Horry (2003-08) F Bruce Bowen (2001-09) G Terry Porter (1999-02) G Avery Johnson (1991, '92-93, '94-01)
F Sean Elliott (1989-93, '94-01) F Malik Rose (1997-05) F Michael Finley (2005-10) G Mario Elie (1998-00) G Brent Barry (2004-08) G Stephen Jackson (2001-03, 2012-) G Steve Kerr (1999-01, '02-03)