With just over six weeks left in the season, here's how I see the West's playoff bracket shaping up, one through eight.
Eight who'll vie for West's best
1. Dallas Mavericks (48-9) -- Best all-around team in the game, now working on a their latest win streak, currently at 13 games with the win over the Timberwolves. I think they caught a break when Steve Nash went down for five games the Mavs' lead went from 1 to 4 games. The pace they're playing now is too much for Suns to catch them.
2. Phoenix Suns (44-13) -- Unstoppable offensively. Amare Stoudemire's playing at a level like the guy who dominated the playoffs two years ago. Latest example comes with 23 points and 18 rebounds in a 103-92 win over the Pacers. His play is what separates them from the other contenders and makes them a team that can win it all.
3. Utah Jazz (37-19) -- The smartest team in the game. They have more athleticism and depth than given credit for. Emergence of Deron Williams as top-10 point guard in this league gives them a chance to beat anyone on a given night.
4. San Antonio Spurs (39-18) -- Not as deep as they've been in past, a little older, but starting to play their best basketball at the same time they do every season. You can tell that we getting along in the season because they're closing teams out and winning games in methodical fashion like we're used to seeing.
5. Houston Rockets (35-21) -- The team that every other team at the top of the West fears to play. Best defensive team in the NBA. Tracy McGrady is playing a superstar level again, closing out games. If Yao comes back in a month, they could be scary in the playoffs.
6. Los Angeles Lakers (33-25) -- Kobe Bryant's leadership has allowed a young team to play ahead of the curve. A team that has surpassed expectations. I think Kobe's at 85-90 percent physically -- doesn't have quite that "blow-by" ability. What he does have is the ability to make the difficult shots -- it's what separates him from LeBron James. He's making that tough shot when defended in the midrange by a guy hanging on him. LeBron's points tend to come mostly at the rim and from 3, not the tough in-between area.
7. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets (27-30) -- When you put them in a category with the other teams contending for these last two spots -- they play harder than any of those teams. This was a team that was decimated by injuries, so it's a miracle that they're sniffing .500 -- give Byron Scott a lot of credit. Tyson Chandler is doing all the things he got paid for by Chicago -- putting in misses, being a deterrent at the rim and rebounding strongly.
8. Denver Nuggets (27-28) -- Gets the final spot by default. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt because they have the biggest margin for improvement -- they haven't had all pieces together very long.
Don't like any of the other contenders here. Clippers lost Shaun Livingston, a huge blow. The Warriors can't play defense. The Kings are up and down like a seismograph -- and Ron Artest is a big distraction. And Minnesota doesn't have enough talent.
The Suns of course remain my pick to win it all. I believe they can beat the Mavs. The margin for error for the Mavs is smaller than it's ever been going up against their likely opponents. If Dirk Nowitzki goes into a three-game slump in the playoffs, they're out.
ESPN analyst Tim Legler made 43 percent of his 3-point attempts in his NBA career.
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AP Photo/Mark Duncan
LeBron James couldn't be contained by Hornets' Bobby Jackson and Jannero Pargo. James' 35 points led the Cavs to a 97-89 win.
Chad Ford talked with GM Joe Dumars about the East-leading Detroit Pistons. Some highlights . . .
On running the offense through Chris Webber:
"It's allowed us to avoid those long droughts we had in the past."
On the booing of Ben Wallace during his introduction upon his return to Detroit:
"I really thought they were going to give him a standing ovation."
On rumors of Flip Saunders heading to the Minnesota Golden Gophers next year:
"We love having Flip here. He's done a really good job this year. At the end of the year, that's his call, what he wants to do."
The Mavericks won 91-65 in Minneapolis, and they are now 11-0 this season on the second day of back-to-back games. Dallas has five such games remaining this season; no NBA team has ever gone through a season losing fewer than two such games.
The Mavericks succeeded in doing what no team had ever done to the Timberwolves: hold them below 30-percent shooting from the floor. Through their 18 seasons in the NBA, the Wolves had gone 1,418 games into their existence without a sub-30-percent clunker; impressive, yes, but not even halfway to the NBA record for such thing.
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Nash helps rally Suns past Pacers
AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid
Mavericks coach Avery Johnson makes his point heard during his team's 91-65 win over the Timberwolves, Dallas' 13th straight win.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Genghis (Mongolia): How would the Bulls trade for Pau Gasol? They no longer have P.J. Brown's expiring contract? They'd either have to trade a ton of players, or trade someone like Kirk Hinrich or Ben Wallace (who no one would take) to make the salaries match up.
Marc Stein: I'm sure they can concoct a three- or four-team deal. P.J.'s expiring contract was undeniably valuable, but the Bulls still have so many trade assets that they will continue to be at the top of the list for any big name who is made available . . . if they so choose.
Julian (Yuma, AZ): I think if Dirk Nowitzki wins the MVP, it's because the writer's didn't want to give it to Steve Nash three years in a row. Isn't it funny how the Mavs have the deepest team in the league, but when Dirk comes up for MVP, suddenly he has no one around him?
John Hollinger: Altneratively, you could argue that it's because the writers realized they hosed him (and LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade) last year when they gave it to Nash. It's weird that Nash won't win since this has clearly been his best season, but he's already got two more trophies than I would have given him.
Chris Sheridan on the possible unretirement of a 41-year-old super sidekick:
If you're looking for an odds-on favorite to be Scottie Pippen's landing zone, look no further than the club running the same triangle offense that Pippen can execute in his sleep.
"I'll probably [contact Pippen] when I get back after this weekend," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Sunday. "I'm sure there are other people out there that have needs like ours with their injuries and they know his experience. I know that he's looking to help a team that's a winning team. He didn't mention us but mentioned some teams that were poised to make a playoff run. I haven't heard from him."
The sense of urgency with which the Lakers emerged from the All-Star break has been tempered by a three-game winning streak, but Luke Walton's lingering ankle injury and Vladimir Radmanovic's snowboarding mishap have combined to leave the Lakers weaker in depth than they already were. Jackson knows as well as anyone that there are limits to how long any team can continue to rely on Maurice Evans as its third option.