Can you feel the anticipation? It's almost here, that special part of the hoops season in which the games matter a whole lot more than they did the first few months. The level of play should be better, the stakes are higher and this time, if you lose, you're done. March Madness? Well, sure, that's coming, too, but we're talking the fantasy basketball head-to-head playoffs!
For those in ESPN leagues this is the final week of the regular season, meaning it's a particularly bad time for those who own injured players like Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo (name a Celtic, basically), slumping options like Chris Duhon and Samuel Dalembert, and pretty much any Golden State Warriors player subject to occasional, unwarranted and surprise benching. This is it if you've been fighting all season just to make the playoffs in your league. Each performance gets magnified a bit more. Who else can't wait for Sunday night's Suns-Warriors tilt on ESPN? Oh, how that could affect leagues!
I'm going to make the playoffs as a top seed in one of my ESPN leagues, and probably miss them all together in another. I was right there for the final playoff spot, then coughed up a 5-3 decision last week while the team I was neck-and-neck with won 7-1 over a guy who stopped making roster moves around Thanksgiving. Yeah, that stinks, but if my team had won points by 250, I wouldn't have asked for a rule change, either. It happens. It's like when a real team complains about missing the playoffs by a hair because it lost a game the final week. If it had won one more game in December, it might have changed everything. We all had our chances to make the fantasy postseason, but less than half of us will realize the dream.
Anyway, in this final week of the regular season for many, I have, as always, some random thoughts:
• Time to cut the dead weight: Allen Iverson is off the ESPN undroppable list, and he's clearly not going to suit up this week, so let him go. Who cares if he returns in a week or two and possibly helps oust you from the playoffs? You might not be in the playoffs at all if you don't use that roster spot properly, and it's not as if he was playing like a Hall of Famer. Incidentally, I don't think The Answer is close to a return, and the Pistons are playing better without him anyway. He'll be somewhere else in the fall.
While I would argue every week is the time to do some roster spring cleaning and also load up on as many games as you can, it's obviously more important this week. In terms of games played, try to get to 39 by the end of Saturday night so you can add 10 more games on Sunday (the limit is 40 to start a day). If you need a 7-1 win to earn a playoff berth, don't wait until Saturday to realize it. Don't feel bad about cutting someone you've had all season if he isn't helping you now, like Zach Randolph, Jeff Green or Luol Deng. There are no asterisks for those who get stuck in the dreaded "consolation ladder."
• Go inside the stats: During the season I don't look at whom my opponent has, but if there is ever a regular-season week to do so, this is it. I do it in the playoffs, too, not so I can root against his Chris Paul, but so I know what I am up against. If I'm likely to lose assists by 100 no matter what, I'm not keeping Earl Watson on board, know what I mean?
For this week, if your opponent isn't making moves or trying, don't load up on one-dimensional scorers since you're likely to win points anyway. Sometimes a team that is going for the sweep loses sight of those "other" categories and falls in blocks and steals. It's a good week to use the Ronny Turiaf and Trevor Ariza types, guys who aren't great fantasy players but thrive in blocks and steals, respectively. Winning rebounds by 100 and 10 counts the same, so if that means cutting Emeka Okafor because you really need point guard stats, we understand. Just make sure you get Okafor back in case next week matters.
• Who's hot? You won't be able to find Richard Hamilton on the waiver wire anymore -- who saw 20-plus points every night and then a 14-assist extravaganza coming? -- but plenty of helpful folks do appear to be lurking in free agency in many leagues. I'm a believer in point guards making a huge difference in playoff rounds, because they tend to do more things than centers, so Jarrett Jack, Delonte West and Ramon Sessions caught my eye this week. Why aren't they owned? Check your league.
Monta Ellis hasn't played in weeks, and the rumor is he'll be Don Nelson's point guard the rest of the season, but when? Can you wait another week? Dump him for help this week, like the shockingly studlike Anthony Parker of the Raptors, looking like Jason Kidd with scoring. So what if you waited all season for Ellis? Don't you need a good week?
• Start thinking ahead: Some of you already have the postseason spot locked up, and this week doesn't matter. First of all, let me say I am not a proponent of tanking a week to get a better playoff matchup. I don't do it. I understand why some think it's worth it, but in my experience I see many teams aim to alter the playoff bracket and lose anyway, then wonder if they should have activated their good players for the other matchup. I also don't like it when teams affect the playoff bracket by leaving players who stopped playing in 2008 active, but that's tougher to control.
Anyway, take a look at the NBA matchups next week to see if certain players appear enticing. For example, Nellie's defenseless Warriors have seven games over the next two weeks (starting Monday), and six are against playoff teams. I'd say that lowers the value of potentially helpful Warriors (like Jamal Crawford, who might even get benched) and ups the interest level in marginal playoff team contributors like a Willie Green or a Roger Mason, even if for only that one game in which their team will score 120 points at will. Also look at cumulative games: The Jazz, Suns and Bucks play only two games apiece next week. I'm not saying you drop Carlos Boozer or Shaquille O'Neal, but I would keep an extra rebounder around from free agency to make up the slack (like a Ryan Gomes or Luis Scola, both available).
• Enjoy yourself: I know it might be the last thing on your mind, but it's not easy to make the playoffs, hardly a given in a long season, so smile if you made it, or even if you have something to play for this week. We all would like to win our leagues, but if you can't have some fun along the way, it's just not worth it.
Tom (Fullerton, Calif.): "Hey man, great work but in regards to the best NBA individual fantasy games this season, I'm not sure how you overlooked Dwight Howard's triple-double on November 12 with 30 points, 19 boards and 10 blocks on 12-for-21 shooting. A triple-double with blocks?! Come on now that is crazy. Keep up the good coverage and work."
Karabell: Thanks to all for the terrific feedback on last week's column, about the top individual fantasy games of the season. I didn't overlook Howard's triple-double at Oklahoma City early in the season, I just think his recent 45-19-8 game with better shooting from the field and line is more valuable. Basically the two blocks are not worth the 15 points and percentages, but it is close. Also, triple-doubles are great, but to 99 percent of us, not a fantasy statistic. I also didn't want to double up on players, but since I pay close attention to those other harder-to-get stats, I think it's safe to say Howard's triple-double could have been the No. 2 game of the season. I wanted five different names. Among the rest of the feedback, a common thread about Chris Paul and his triple-doubles became clear. Paul is great, arguably the best player in fantasy, but I think the games in which he had seven and eight steals are more valuable, and they didn't crack our top five. His best fantasy game was probably Jan. 26 against the 76ers, when he went off for 27 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds and seven steals. Wow!
Good luck to everyone in the final week, and hope you make the playoffs. And don't forget about that "other" March Madness, with Selection Sunday this week.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.