Updated: January 7, 2011, 9:39 AM ET

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images Our experts say Manu Ginobili and the Spurs are the most likely team to overtake the Lakers.

1. Most Likely Westerner To Unseat Champs

By ESPN.com

We asked our writers to answer this question:

If not the Lakers, which team has the best shot to come out of the West?

Here's what they had to say ...

Henry Abbott, ESPN TrueHoop: The San Antonio Spurs have played Tim Duncan fewer minutes than ever, have the best record in the NBA, and no longer rely entirely on decrepit old guys for production. Even though their current record is buoyed by an easy schedule and the dumb luck of injured opponents, they're still the smart pick in the unlikely event the Los Angeles Lakers don't find the "on" button.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com The San Antonio Spurs. Yes they're playing a style that usually doesn't work in the playoffs, but we know this group can play slower and defend if they have to. I can see them switching up and featuring Tim Duncan more in the postseason. And Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker know what it's like to beat the Lakers.

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: With only 15 weeks until the postseason, the clock is ticking on the Lakers. If they're unable to find their footing, the Spurs have the flexibility and coaching to represent the West in the NBA Finals. The Spurs can defend both the interior and the perimeter. They can run, but also find good looks in the half court. They have a pragmatic offensive approach that they can adjust to each opponent. Everyone on the floor for the Spurs can execute under pressure. In other words, they have all the necessary ingredients to compete for a title.

Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: The Spurs. They have the size, speed, experience, depth and coaching to get to the Finals. Their "big three" of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will be well-rested (none are averaging more than 34 minutes a game) for the playoffs, and the Spurs, having beaten the Lakers in a series before, do not fear the champs.

Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: I'm taking the San Antonio Spurs here. At the upper echelon, the deciding factor becomes who can minimize their flaws the most down the stretch and in a series. The Spurs are the most airtight and well-rounded squad in the West and perhaps the entire league. And I still see Tiago Splitter improving as the year progresses. Of course, injuries are a veritable concern, but no less so than the Lakers and Mavericks.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: The Spurs are the obvious choice here for several reasons, the most obvious of which being that they're playing better than anybody else right now and are likely to have home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. Additionally, there's the fact that Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich have already won four championships and have several battle-tested teammates, and that their supporting cast is far more potent than previous editions.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: The easy pick here is San Antonio. The second-easiest pick is Dallas. And the pick I'm going to make is Oklahoma City because the Thunder gave the Lakers a tougher time than anyone except the Boston Celtics last spring, and they are the team in the best position in the West to make a substantial upgrade at a low cost before the trade deadline by offering a No. 1 pick the Clippers owe them (top-10 protected through 2015, unprotected in 2016) along with Mo Peterson's expiring contract for an experienced player who would be a better No. 3 offensive option for them than what they currently have.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: I'm still gullible enough to say the Dallas Mavericks, mainly because I can't shake the suspicion that the Mavs will trade for, say, Stephen Jackson to replace Caron Butler if Roddy Beaubois can't come back with the big second-half comeback they're praying for. The reality that the survey commission doesn't want to hear, though, is that I could just as easily make a passionate case for the Spurs, who don't quite have Dallas' size with Tyson Chandler as an All-Star goalie but should have a fresh, spry Duncan for the postseason. And Kobe Bryant would be the first to tell you, as he found out last week, that the Spurs can still smother elite scorers quite nicely no matter what you've heard about their supposed defensive decline.

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com Considering San Antonio's surge, the Spurs are the smart pick if the Lakers don't make it out of the West. And with their depth, size and skill, the Mavericks are easily the sexy pick. But I'll dip a bit below the radar and offer the Oklahoma City Thunder as the surprise team to emerge should the two-time defending champs fall. Kevin Durant and Co. pushed the Lakers harder than anyone prior to the Finals and are a year older and still explosive. Durant's supporting cast (Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Jeff Green) grow stronger by the month and could peak just in time for the postseason.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: The reason the Lakers are the favorites is because of star power and know-how. They have the coach who has done it many times before. They have the talent. They have a system that the players have a deep history and understanding of. Who else fits this description? In the West, there's only one answer. The Spurs. When in doubt, trust past results.

Dimes past: 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25-26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 31 | Jan. 1-2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

2. Dallas Hurting Without Dirk

By Jeff Caplan
ESPN Dallas.com


DALLAS -- It's difficult to take much more away from the Dallas Mavericks' 99-95 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Thursday night other than the Mavs continue to play hard, but desperately need their leading scorer back in action.

So when will Dirk Nowitzki return to the lineup? The answer to that question should become clearer after Friday's practice when Nowitzki has scheduled a media briefing to discuss the progress of his sprained right knee. Nowitzki missed his sixth consecutive game Thursday, the longest stretch of games he's missed in his career due to injury. He injured the knee on Dec. 27 at Oklahoma City, and at the time he seemed to believe he'd be back sooner rather than later.

At Thursday morning's shootaround, Nowitzki was limited to riding a stationary bike, which might not bode well for a return Saturday night against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic to close out this three-game homestand.

Dallas fell to 2-4 without Nowitzki and snapped a two-game win streak built on wins over hapless Cleveland and banged-up Portland. The ailing Mavs, who are also learning to get on without forward Caron Butler, head into Saturday's matchup knowing only that it will be another test of their will to persevere during difficult stretches.

"I think we would like to have a full team, but the NBA is like that. It's a fine line. It only takes a quick tenth-of-a-second for someone to get hurt," Mavs guard Jason Kidd said. "But, we feel we're deep enough and we've got enough guys in here to get wins. You can look at it so many different ways, but I think at the end of the day we'll be a better team with Dirk getting back and us continuing to play the way that we're playing."

They played solid, fluid basketball in the first half. The Mavs ran out to a 10-point lead early and, despite some setbacks in the second quarter, still managed to lead 55-51 at halftime. Dallas matched its second-highest point total for a first half (done eight other times), but with 1:18 left to go in the game, the Mavs had put up just 31 second-half points.

Read the full story at here

3. Classic Matrix, For A Half

By Elias Sports Bureau

NAME
Marion

Shawn Marion scored 21 points on 10-for-12 shooting in the first half of the Mavericks' loss, tying his career record for field goals in one half. (He scored only four points in the second half.) Marion scored 10 field goals in a half three times previously, but not since January 2003.

More from Elias

4. Daily Dime Live Recap

Zach Harper, TrueHoop Network bloggers and fans gave their in-game opinions throughout Thursday's slate of NBA games in Daily Dime Live.

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