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News » Lakers lead West's playoff scramble


Lakers lead West's playoff scramble


Lakers lead West's playoff scramble
At midseason in the top-heavy Western Conference, nine playoff-caliber teams are battling for eight playoff berths.

When the regular-season ends on April 15, the taxing situation will finally become clear, as one team's championship aspirations quickly dissolve into the realization that its next order of business is the draft lottery.

Only one team seems truly secure.

The Los Angeles Lakers have emerged as the best in the West. Only an unforeseen rash of injuries, especially one to MVP candidate Kobe Bryant, will prevent L.A. from reaching the playoffs and being the odds-on favorite to represent the conference in the NBA Finals.

After a recent 99-85 loss to the Lakers in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said, "That's a hell of a team, and it's gong to be a hell of a team for a long time."

Perennial All-Star Tim Duncan agreed.

"Obviously, they are the best team in the West right now," he said. "? The bottom line is everybody else is jockeying for position."

Bryant, of course, is the key to the Lakers' success.

"We expect him to be amazing and awesome," said teammate Lamar Odom.

Bryant remains the best crunch-time player in the league, and the supporting cast that GM Mitch Kupchak has put together around him has the Lakers on track for a 60-win season.

Even when L.A. lost rotation regulars Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton to injuries, it kept on winning.

With Farmar and Walton back, coach Phil Jackson has been able to limit the minutes of veterans like Derek Fisher and Odom, which will keep them fresh for the stretch run.

Asked recently to discuss his biggest concern about the Lakers, Jackson said, "I really don't have one."

That's not good news for the rest of the West, where only bad luck, overconfidence or the Spurs appear capable of stopping the L.A.

After early-season injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, San Antonio is back atop the rugged Southwest Division.

No longer the grind-it-out Spurs who depended on tempo control and vise-like defense, San Antonio is one of the top three-point shooting teams in the league.

While Orlando gets all the publicity for its bombs-away offense, the Spurs are just as effective.

Yes, San Antonio still depends on Duncan's inside presence and the slashing ability of Parker and Ginobili. But George Mason Jr. and Matt Bonner stretch defenses with their three-point ability and make the Spurs nearly impossible to stop.

Even old-school Popovich joked after their 114-104 win at Phoenix on Thursday night.

"We're scoring way too many points," he said. "We shouldn't be having this much fun."

If any team except the Lakers or Spurs wins the West, it will likely be Chris Paul-led New Orleans, vastly improved Denver or star-studded but psychologically fragile Houston.

Portland seems too young, Phoenix appears too old, Utah is too injury-prone and Dallas depends too much on Dirk Nowitzki.

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L.A. Lakers

Why they'll make it: It's pretty simple, really. In the West, the Lakers are the best team and Kobe Bryant is the best player. Led by Pau Gasol, the supporting cast is also long, athletic and confident.

Why they won't: Only an outbreak of injuries can keep the Lakers out of the playoffs, though coach Phil Jackson often bemoans a lack of focus on defense. L.A. also plays 22 of its last 31 games on the road.

Predicted record: 64-17

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SAN ANTONIO Spurs

Why they'll make it: Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are healthy after early-season injuries, and Tim Duncan remains one of the game's best low-block players. These Spurs aren't old. They are battle-tested.

Why they won't: Like the Lakers, only injuries can keep the Spurs out of the playoffs. If Duncan went down, their defense would suffer and opponents would not have to double-team the post.

Predicted record: 58-24

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DENVER Nuggets

Why they'll make it: In Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets acquired one of the game's best crunch-time point guards. He's just what a team that often imploded needed to become a legitimate contender.

Why they won't: The Nuggets lack depth and, except for Billups, big-game experience. As the playoffs approach, will Denver keep improving or revert to its reputation as a disappointing underachiever?

Predicted record: 54-28

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NEW ORLEANS Hornets

Why they'll make it: Chris Paul. He is one of the NBA's most dynamic players on a versatile team that can play at different speeds on offense and has the ability to stop opponents at the rim on defense.

Why they won't: Inside players Davis West and Tyson Chandler have been battling injuries. For the Hornets to be their best, they need both to get heathy because this team has some bench issues.

Predicted record: 53-29

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PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Why they'll make it: All-Star Brandon Roy anchors a team that includes emerging stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden. The young Blazers should get better and more confident as the season progresses.

Why they won't: They haven't been as good on the road as the other top teams in the West and management seems interested in making a trade before the deadline. Could that hurt their chemistry?

Predicted record: 52-30

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HOUSTON Rockets

Why they'll make it: The Rockets are as talented as any team except the Lakers, and coach Rick Adelman is one of the best in the business. Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest are hard to guard.

Why they won't: The Rockets haven't won a playoff series in this century, so getting an advantageous seed is critical. Will that pressure hurt them? Will McGrady and Artest be able to shake nagging injuries?

Predicted record: 48-34

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PHOENIX Suns

Why they'll make it: With Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and a rejuvenated Shaquille O'Neal, the Suns can create matchup problems for any defense. They have big-game experience, too.

Why they won't: Nash has not been as effective as he was in ex-coach Mike D'Antoni's wide-open system, and his ability to dominate a game used to be one of the Suns' biggest advantages.

Predicted record: 47-35

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UTAH Jazz

Why they'll make it: The Jazz have stayed in the race despite an outbreak of injuries. If they ever get Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Memo Okur and Andrei Kirilenko on the court at the same time ...

Why they won't: Boozer and Kirilenko are still at least three weeks away from returning. The Jazz also have issues on defense, where they are often too small to compete against the Lakers & Friends.

Predicted record: 46-36

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DALLAS Mavericks

Why they'll make it: Dirk Nowitzki remains a premier scorer who will command double teams until he retires. The late-season schedule is also favorable, with nine of their final 15 games at home.

Why they won't: The Mavs have several issues. Jason Kidd is no longer an elite point guard, Josh Howard hasn't played as well as usual and their most consistent inside player has been 6-8 Brandon Bass.

Predicted record: 45-37


Author: Fox Sports
Author's Website: http://www.foxsports.com
Added: February 2, 2009

 

 
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