Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA [Print without images]

Monday, April 8, 2013
Final battles of the 2012-13 season

ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant is on the verge of missing the postseason for the second time in his 17-year career.

We're down to single digits. In nine days, the 2012-13 regular season officially ends. Our crew breaks down what's still left to fight for, include a playoff spot and a mano-a-mano showdown between Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.


1. Spurs or Thunder: Who gets the top seed in the West?


D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: Spurs. In a race this short, it's hard not to side with the current front-runner. The lead is just one game, but I believe the Spurs are the better, fresher team. If San Antonio can survive back-to-back games against the Lakers and Warriors, it should be able to retain the top spot.

Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Thunder. With injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili already on his plate, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich will do anything he can to keep the rest of his team healthy heading into the playoffs. That'll mean plenty of rest for his key guys and the Spurs will drop some games because of it.

J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: Thunder. Both teams have the same amount of road games left, but the Spurs play in Denver, at the Lakers and at Golden State, while the Thunder travel to Utah, Golden State and Portland. The weaker crop of road foes gives OKC the slight edge.

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Thunder. The Spurs have some serious injury concerns to deal with, and Popovich won't hesitate to rest his key guys over the final two weeks to make sure they enter the playoffs in decent shape. The Thunder are one game behind in the standings with five to go. But they'll make up the necessary ground by default.

Kyle Weidie, Truth About It: Thunder. The loss to the Knicks at home on Sunday will get the Thunder rumbling. They'll take two out of three upcoming games on the road and will close out the season 4-1. The Spurs will find a way to go 3-2 in their last five, likely because of rest prescribed by the head Pop-tologist.


2. Jazz or Lakers: Who gets the No. 8 seed in the West?


Foster: Jazz. The tie-breaker belongs to Utah, and the schedule advantage does as well. The Jazz will get Minnesota twice in their final five games, while the Lakers will have a game in Portland on the second night of a back-to-back followed by three straight games against playoff teams.

McNeill: Lakers. As unprecedented as it would be to see this potentially historic Lakers team to miss the playoffs, I still think they have just enough firepower to squeak in. Both teams have a difficult schedule to close the season, but the Lakers will catch just enough breaks to make it in.

Poulard: Lakers. They have a tough slate to end the season, but with their final three coming at home, you have to give Kobe Bryant and their somewhat improved defense the benefit of the doubt.

Wallace: Lakers. The truth is that Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard & Co. simply need to be put out of their misery at this point. So missing the playoffs would be the final blow that perhaps leads to an offseason overhaul. Might as well start it as soon as possible. But the Lakers are a prideful, feisty bunch that just won't go away.

Weidie: Jazz. As much as I don't want to test/deny the Kobe mystique, Utah now has a half-game lead. And while beating the Timberwolves twice in a row as a result of a scheduling quirk will be tough, the Lakers' remaining schedule is less forgiving.


3. Carmelo or KD: Who wins the scoring title?


Foster: Carmelo. I'll take the guy who will have more shots at it. Carmelo Anthony is the league leader in usage percentage, so his teammates are already accustomed to feeding him, buffet-style. You can't say the same thing about Russell Westbrook, Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka.

McNeill: KD. One of the toughest races to call. I'm going with Durant for the sheer fact that the Thunder may have more to play for over this final stretch than the Knicks. That said, if Carmelo wants the scoring title, I can easily see him gunning for it.

Poulard: KD. Anthony is playing at an incredible level -- his past four point totals: 50, 41, 40, 36 -- but is due for a clunker or two. The Knicks still play the Bulls and Pacers, and one of those teams will put the clamps on him. Durant, on the other hand, probably gets his points the rest of the way thanks to a schedule that features several poor defensive teams.

Wallace: Carmelo. Trailing Durant by one-tenth of a point Sunday, Anthony will come from behind and take the scoring crown. It seems to mean more to him at this point. On top of that, Carmelo has to score by necessity right now because his not-so-reliable teammates are either ailing or relatively slumping. Durant has been there, done that.

Weidie: Carmelo. Not even facing tough defenses in the Pacers, Bulls and Wizards (yes, the Wizards) down the stretch will curtail Anthony's hot streak. He has long been called the league's most diverse scorer, so Melo likely really, really wants his first scoring title.


4. Clippers or Nuggets or Grizzlies: Which teams get home-court in Rd. 1?


Foster: Nuggets and Grizzlies. The April 13 matchup between the Clippers and Grizzlies should provide some clarity to this jumbled mess in the middle of the Western Conference. With the Grizzlies back at full-strength and at home, they should be able to take advantage -- barring any 27-point comebacks, of course.

McNeill: Clippers and Grizzlies. Losing Danilo Gallinari for the rest of the season with a torn ACL will hurt the Nuggets just enough to slip to fifth in the Western Conference standings. The Clips and Griz are nothing if not opportunists.

Poulard: Nuggets and Clippers. Denver plays against one winning team the rest of the way and has three games left at home, where they've lost only three times this season. The Clips also only play against one playoff team the rest of the way and should be favored in all their other contests.

Wallace: Nuggets and Grizzlies. Denver would essentially have to collapse over these final two weeks to fall out of one of the top four seeds that come with home-court advantage. Winning the Pacific will guarantee the Clippers the No. 4 seed under a quirky league rule, but Memphis will grab home-court advantage via a better record.

Weidie: Clippers and Nuggets. The Clippers are making a nice run and have it in them to overtake Denver for third. Memphis likely gets stuck in fifth, but have it in them to put down the Nuggets in the first round.


5. Bobcats or Magic: Who finishes with the NBA's worst record?


Foster: Magic. Orlando has been more successful at being awful, having won seven games in 2013 compared to Charlotte's nine. With four of their last five against playoff teams, the Magic should be able to avoid a costly win. Maybe the league should fix this at some point. How is this fun for anyone?

McNeill: Magic. Orlando is sliding and it has a worse record against its own conference than Charlotte. It's hard to imagine this Magic team holding off the Bobcats, who have a much easier schedule the rest of the way.

Poulard: Bobcats. The Magic might have a poor record, but they make their games competitive until the end, which gives them opportunities for wins late. The Bobcats, on the other hand, are always candidates to lose by double-digits, as evidenced by their minus-9.7 scoring differential.

Wallace: Magic. These teams will finish the regular season with identical 19-63 records, but the Bobcats own the tie-breaker with a 3-1 series victory. Charlotte is a game behind Orlando, but has a chance to win against Detroit and Cleveland. Orlando wraps up against four playoff teams, including three still jockeying for better seeds.

Weidie: Magic. The kittens seem to have more purr in them this spring (Charlotte is 5-9 since mid-March). Orlando will finish with the worst record, which is all according to plan after losing Howard and avoiding the catastrophe that is/was Andrew Bynum.