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WEDNESDAY: Portland at San Antonio, Houston at Utah and Dallas at Phoenix combine to impact almost every playoff spot in the West. So does the ESPN offering: Minnesota at Seattle, in the toughest game left on the Wolves' soft remaining schedule. Boston at Washington is the standout East fixture, with the Celtics trying to avenge Sunday's overtime loss at home to the Wiz and the Wiz simply trying to stay alive while Milwaukee hosts the L.A. Clippers. The Bucks' magic number to start the week was three.
THURSDAY: Philadelphia at Boston is a potential first-round playoff preview that renews hostilities from last spring's first round. Sacramento at L.A. Lakers might not be a first-round preview any more, but it's quite the follow-up to Mavs at Lakers. Good week to gauge the champs' playoff form, huh?
FRIDAY: Orlando at Indiana and Golden State at Phoenix are the East and West choices in the latest ESPN doubleheader. All but three teams are playing on the final Friday of the regular season, with Detroit at New Orleans and Dallas at Utah serving as two more matchups involving playoff-bound clubs.
WEEKEND: Saturday's best submissions are both from Texas -- Golden State at Dallas and Seattle at Houston, with the Rockets being one of those three teams that didn't play the night before. Sunday sets up another test for the champs -- Lakers at Portland on ABC -- with Indiana at Milwaukee, New Orleans at Philadelphia and San Antonio at Phoenix also featuring playoff teams.
Team with No. 3 pick won't be disappointed
Sunday, April 6
Michael Jordan disciples can thank two unsuspecting teen-agers -- Darko Milicic and Final Four stud Carmelo Anthony -- for what suddenly looms as one of the most fitting farewell tributes to No. 23.
Because of Darko, and because of Melo, the No. 3 pick in the June draft will be a doozy.
Jordan, you'll recall, went No. 3 overall to the Bulls almost 20 years ago, behind Akeem (not yet Hakeem) Olajuwon and Sam Bowie in the '84 draft. No one's suggesting that Darko or Melo is going to be a Michael, but they do make the top of the '03 lottery a legit bonanza.
It's three picks deep, on the assumption that Anthony will declare for the draft, as widely expected, after his New Orleans ride is over.
Every team on stage May 22, when ABC airs the draft lottery in prime time for the first time, will naturally be praying for the top spot and the right to draft LeBron James. Yet the real drop-off in potential is actually between the Nos. 3 and 4 picks, not Nos. 1 and 2 or Nos. 2 and 3. So pay close attention to the face of the team representative from the club that winds up fourth. That's the team that will undoubtedly feel it missed out most.
With the third pick you can get Anthony, whose all-around brilliance in the NCAA Tournament confirms that A) he has no basketball reason to stay in school for another year and that B) he's the closest thing in this country, at the amateur level, to James. NBA personnel experts continue to insist that LeBron is a lock to go No. 1 overall, even if Anthony scores 50 in a Syracuse victory over Kansas in Monday night's title game, but Anthony won't be facing anything close to the pressure and scrutiny LeBron sees as an NBA rookie. Anthony thus offers an enticing package, with all that talent and expectations that are actually attainable.
Of course, Anthony's stock is rising so fast that the team picking third might land Milicic, which could work out even better given the worldwide shortage of quality big men. On a pure scouting basis, Darko should be a contender to go No. 1 overall, accounting for his size and skill at just 17. But he's not. As covered in the Stein Line recently, Darko can't go higher than No. 2 because James is regarded as a for-the-ages prospect on and off the floor. If the sudden hubbub about Anthony drops him to No. 3, Darko would lose out on the distinction of being the highest-ever European draftee, but he would certainly benefit from diminished pressure and some distance from the LeBron vs. Melo spotlight.
Either way, 2003 will be a great year to have the third overall selection in the NBA Draft. Just like it was in 1984.
Then again ...
No. 23 might not find this tribute terribly touching. Not if his career ends with two straight non-playoff seasons for the Wizards, as it now appears, and with MJ the GM facing long, long odds of getting one of those top three picks.
Nash not weary but not rested, either
Thursday, April 3
The Spurs refuse to lose, Michael Finley's hamstring remains tender and so the Mavericks have no alternative.
Dallas must do exactly what it hoped to avoid.
After Steve Nash played 82 games for the first time in his career last season, Nash was congratulated for hushing those who doubted his durability and then told by his bosses that he will never play 82 again. The Mavericks were convinced that Nash's helter-skelter style and slight build, which leads to an Iverson-esque pounding, left him spent by the time Dallas made it to Sacramento for the second round. Owner Mark Cuban said he actually preferred that none of his stars play a full 82, least of all Nash, to be as fresh as possible for the playoffs.
In ideal circumstances, Nash would have served a five-game stint on the injured list at some stage to recharge himself. Or, at the very least, Dallas would have settled for sitting Nash for a night or two in April, once the Mavs' playoff seeding was secure.
The Mavericks' perfect world, mind you, lasted a month. Since their celebrated 14-0 start, the ensuing marathon to preserve that big cushion all the way to the regular-season finish line has seen Nash play -- you guessed it -- 74 out of 74 games.
With Finley out, the guy primarily responsible for easing Nash's load -- Nick Van Exel -- has to replace Finley's missing offense. With Dallas' lead over San Antonio now down to a game and a half, and with Thursday night merely serving as the first of two doses of the Lakers in a span of five days, Mavs coach Don Nelson won't want to take Nash off the floor at all.
The solace for Dallas is that Nash is actually playing better than ever, seemingly gaining in strength as the season progresses, and that Nelson has adhered to his preseason promise to curtail Nash's playing time as much as possible. Nash averages 32.8 minutes per game, down from last season's 34.6. That follows an offseason in which Nash hardly touched a ball, taking a first-ever break from the Canadian national team, but also reporting to camp stronger than ever thanks to a new fitness regime.
"We had hoped he wouldn't (play 82), but obviously with Mike out that has changed," Cuban said. "But, more importantly, Steve is obviously fresher at this point than he was at this point last year, so it's not a concern."
Yet it still bears watching. With a tougher closing schedule than the Spurs, leading up to the April 16 season finale in San Antonio that could decide the division, it's worth monitoring how much Nash and Dirk Nowitzki must expend to keep the Mavericks where they have been all season.
The risk involved in slipping to No. 3 in the West is facing the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, and no one wants that.
Not unless Kobe Bryant -- who has insisted on playing all 82 games for the first time in his career, in spite of Phil Jackson's pleas to rest Kobe and his knees -- wears down first.
The week in preview
Tuesday, April 1
TUESDAY: Sacramento will be on the road in the East all week, with the other three games on national TV after this one: Kings at Pacers. After losing Monday at home to Philly, Orlando completes an ominous back-to-back at San Antonio, in the Magic's first of three games in the Texas Triangle.
WEDNESDAY: ESPN's doubleheader opens with Kings at Wizards -- Washington's only home game between now and April 9 -- before proceeding to a rare glimpse of Denver on the big stage in Knicks at Nuggets. Toronto at Detroit is a reverse of Tuesday's Pistons-at-Raptors fixture and Houston visits Milwaukee in a cross-conference matchup of No. 8 hopefuls.
THURSDAY: The Lakers go to Dallas for the first of the teams' two meetings in a span of five days, with the rematch coming next Tuesday in L.A. The season series is 1-1, but surely you haven't forgotten about the seemingly insurmountable lead the Mavericks failed to hold the one time Shaquille O'Neal played. The evening's only other two games are Wizards at Hawks and Jazz at Blazers.
FRIDAY: ESPN carries Sacramento at Boston in the Kings' latest Eastern stop, then Portland at Golden State to see if the Warriors have any playoff hope left. Houston at Philadelphia matches Olympic aspirant Steve Francis against fellow Olympic aspirant Allen Iverson. Indiana at Detroit, meanwhile, gives the Pistons a chance to tighten their grip on the Central Division crown.
WEEKEND: Orlando at Dallas and Minnesota at Phoenix are Saturday's standout games, particularly the Amare Stoudemire-Kevin Garnett matchup. Sunday is teeming with biggies; Washington at Boston and Sacramento at Philadelphia on ABC for starters. San Antonio at Detroit represents another opportunity for the Pistons to take down a West power at home, after beating Sacramento last Sunday, and Minnesota at Portland serves as a potential first-round playoff preview.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.