Who will rise and fall down the stretch in the NBA?
Who will rise and fall down the stretch in the NBA?
Your team has a mon th . One mon th to move up the seedings , to clean the cobwebs out a nd perhaps to make the playoffs at all. You think the standings as they are now will be the same come the end of the regular season? I wouldn't bet on it.
I hear you saying, but what about the Lak ers ? They aren't about to lose the top seed in the West, surely they can just relax a nd rest their start ers , a nd perhaps the same for the Cavs out East?
Well up to a certain point you are right. They can rest slightly and make sure their players are ready for the postseason, but you also don't want your team going into the playoffs with a losing record do you? Or having those loose ends on defense or even a loss of confidence?
No, you need your team confident, a well-oiled machine prepared to do battle, no matter the seeding.
Hence, here are my candidates for the risers and fallers down the stretch. The teams who will make a strong push and finish out the season is a strong manner and those who are going to falter, and have people second-guessing them before a game is even played.
There are four candidates for each category, two from each conference. Do you agree, or is your list different? Let me know in the comments.
As criteria, I'm using their play of late, the schedule remaining, and injuries etc and mainly, simple gut feeling.
Denver Nuggets: (currently 42-25, 4th seed)
Despite having won their last two games, I have to nominate the Nuggets as a team likely to lose a few important ones in the next mon th .
For most of the year they had held down the third seed, but had recently fallen all the way to the 7th spot in the last two weeks. They have managed to reclaim the 4th spot partly because of that two game win streak but largely due to Utah's recent slump.
Though this is a much improved team, wi th Chauncey Billups being easily the best pick up of the last year a nd Carmelo Anthony seeming like a reformed player not simply obsessed wi th scoring now I believe the team might be able to win a playoff series.
Denver won't play an Eastern Conference opponent during April so that will be the time of testing to determine their playoff position a nd if they can get a favorable matchup .
New Orleans Hornets: (currently 41-24, 5th seed)
They are 8-2 over the last ten, and recently had a 7 game winning streak...so why are they in this category?
They're here because even though I adore Chris Paul and like the team, out of everyone I had to pick this team, they haven't shown up well in a lot of big games this year and injuries have played a big factor.
I think if this team loses a few, they don't have the correct mindsets to get through it and right themselves in time.
This spot was very nearly given to the Portla nd Trailblaz ers , but the Hornets clinched it just because of their schedule.
Their final five games will be against their division rivals (Dallas twice, Houston and San Antonio) and Phoenix.
That could be a nasty way to end, remember that Texas Triangle everyone was talking about for the Celtics last year?
The Hornets will end with that, plus an extra at home against Dallas
( Sidenote: of the four sub-categories, that was easily the hardest, hence why I got it out of the way early. The West is full of great teams, it was incredibly hard to pick teams that could falter. I'm not saying these will, just that they are the most likely.)
Boston Celtics: (currently 50-17, 2nd seed)
I know, I know.
They are true title contenders and should at least be getting to the conference finals, and I'm not arguing with that believe me.
But they have faltered of late, going 5-5 in the last ten (considering its the Celtics, thats quite bad). Kevin Garnett is still out injured, a nd Rajon Rondo still seems to be suffering somewhat.
Though he is still rebounding and dishing well, Rondo is shooting low percentages lately and has struggled to get back into the flow. He is one of the biggest keys for the Celtics this year and definitely tied to their success.
Boston doesn't have a particularly tough schedule left, but it is full of big games where if they lose a couple, it will leave a serious dent in their confidence.
They must still play Orlando and Clevela nd ; these are obviously the big ones. They also have Miami a nd Atlanta twice each, neither of these teams should be taken lightly.
And they also have Charlotte, who they haven't ever handled well.
Milwaukee Bucks: (currently 31-38, 8th seed)
The only team in this list with a losing record is of course also the team with the most to lose.
Milwaukee are clinging to the 8th seed in the East, still there because of a thousandth of a percentage point above Chicago.
And behind that is New Jersey, New York and Charlotte. So out of everyone, the Bucks can relax the least.
Though they have coped surprisingly well after losing Michael Redd a nd Andrew Bogut (who was having a career year in some respects) it is the stretch that counts a nd the Bucks are just 3-7 in their last ten.
I think they need their leaders presence to win the important games, and though Richard Jefferson and Charlie V have stepped up, it may just not be enough in this incredibly tight race for the 8th spot.
The schedule is against them also. Of their 13 remaining games, eight of them are against playoff teams. And three of those are against the mighty Magic. They will also be playing New Jersey at the end of March, who will of course be seeking to gain a game on the Bucks.
Milwaukee have actually had a surprisingly good season in my opinion, but I do not see them being rewarded wi th a playoff ber th .
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The Western Conference:
San Antonio Spurs: (currently 44-21, 2nd seed)
Before we start, I know the Spurs won't be actually 'rising' in their playoff seeding, what I'm arguing is that they are going to finish the season well and in good form.
And if you don't know why I think this, then you haven't watched the NBA this decade.
The Spurs are Notorious for finishing out the season well. You always see the graphics in the first rou nd of the playoffs: The spurs are winn ers of 12 straight at home, going back into the regular season, or something along those lines.
Gregg Popovich knows how to get his team into shape, knows how to make the cogs all fit with the machine.
Every year, people say the Spurs have had it and bet against them, and every year the Spurs prove them wrong.
Its true that this year you have the most reason to doubt the Spurs than before, due to Manu Ginobili's injury a nd the change of style, but only a foolish man ever bets against the San Antonio Spurs
Besides, it is an odd year... just saying is all.
Utah Jazz: (currently 41-26, 7th seed)
WHOAH . Don't immediately go a nd comment, just hear me out.
I realize they have a three-game losing streak and have gone back into the 7th seed thanks to the incredibly close division race.
But just remember that a moment ago they had a 12-game winning streak and were flying.
Deron Williams is playing as well as any point guard in the league right now, Kyle Korver has fou nd a rhythm a nd Carlos Boozer is putting up pre -injury numb ers .
And the biggest reason I have faith they will finish the season strong?
They have Jerry Sloan.
And he knows how to get his team into shape, how to get them in the right mindset.
This is a strong team who won't get down on themselves when they fall.
As for their remaining schedule, they only have two games against playoff teams in March. In April though, they do have a tough road stretch against New Orleans, Dallas and San Antonio. That will be their testing stretch.
Atlanta Hawks: (currently 39-28, 4th seed)
In an article I wrote last week, I included a part about how the Hawks seemed to have lost chemistry and lost a few easy games.
Well here we are a week later, and that chemistry seems to be back.
The Hawks are winn ers of five straight a nd working well wi th each other ; the team is relatively healthy again a nd seems to be coming back together. Josh Smi th a nd Mike Bibby have bo th emerged from their individual mini-slumps a nd Joe Johnson has had some huge games, proving his true wor th to this team.
April is an important mon th for the team, they only play Eastern Conference opponents, starting off wi th Boston a nd
Orlando. Their penultimate game will be Miami at home. This has the potential to be the biggest regular season game of the year for the Hawks, as it could determine if they host a series or not.
Though the Hawks are another team that won't be doing any literal 'rising', finishing in good shape for their possible first home playoff series of the decade is a must for this team.
Philadelphia 76 ers: (currently 33-31, 6th seed)
Since Elton Brand's season-ending injury, the media has kind of left the Sixers to it. No-one seems to have noticed that a team outside of the playoff race a few months ago has risen to the 6th seed, and thanks to last night's game, is just two away from the Heat and the 5th spot.
The Sixers finished last year in the same way, coming out of nowhere to challenge Detroit in the first round. Though it won't be Detroit they face this year, the Sixers can definitely make some noise.
The team has found their style of play and have started to enjoy basketball again.
The Six ers only have four games against playoff teams in April, though the final two games of those games are against Boston a nd Clevela nd .
It remains to be seen if the Sixers can keep this success of late and keep their heads down their stretch.
By Joe Buckley
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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