Who's making the cut out West? Just how good are the New York Knicks now? How much does Manu Ginobili's injury hurt the San Antonio Spurs?
We weigh in on some of the biggest questions remaining with a little more than two weeks left in the regular season.
1. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers will make the playoffs.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Fact. The Jazz own the tiebreaker, which means the Lakers have to be a full game better than Utah with eight remaining. It'll be tight, but the Lakers still have an edge in talent and seven out of eight games at Staples Center (one is a "road game" against the Clippers). With a break or two -- say, the Spurs packing it in on the last Sunday of the regular season in Los Angeles -- the Lakers should squeak in.
Jim Cavan, KnickerBlogger: Fiction. L.A.'s stouter home stretch (four .500-plus teams -- five if you count the "home" Clippers -- come to Staples) and general unpredictability make for a potential disaster in wait. This is still very much a toss-up, but sooner or later the promises and the platitudes ("We got this!") fall hard and hollow.
Spencer Ryan Hall, Salt City Hoops: Fiction. The Lakers seem like the college student who assumes his dad's connections will get him into law school, but he never bothers to go to class or study. The rejection letter is going to be a painful wake-up call in Lakers Land. All but one of their last eight games are at Staples, but every opponent is tough.
Ian Levy, The Two Man Game: Fiction, particularly because of their remaining schedule. Dallas, Memphis, Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Portland and the Clippers are all waiting for them. They're staggering toward the finish line and, for all the improvements they've made in the past two months, still look likely to collapse just short.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue and Gold: Fact. The odds are not in their favor thanks to a difficult closing schedule and the fact that they're banged up. But, they play seven of their eight remaining games in Staples Center and have shown a lot of fight with their backs against the wall. If there's any scenario in which they make a run, this is it.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Jazz will make the playoffs.
Arnovitz: Fiction, although this five-game winning streak gives me pause, even if it did come against a cupcake schedule. Utah is scoring in bunches and should finish the season with some gusto, but if the Lakers win the games they're supposed to, figure the Jazz need to finish their final seven games 5-2. I think they'll fall one game shy.
Cavan: Fact. Utah boasts a five-game winning streak, a favorable home stretch and the all-important tiebreaker with the Lakers. If the Jazz can take three of those home games, and maybe steal a fourth in Golden State or Minnesota, the Lakers will be hard-pressed to make up the necessary ground for a last-minute blitz.
Hall: Fact. It's possible I'm simply intoxicated with the euphoria of the first five-game Utah win streak of the season, but the Jazz are finally playing like a team that could make noise in the playoffs. The memory of the recent 3-12 stretch is all but gone and the team is peaking at the right time with a healthy Mo Williams.
Levy: Fact. They have a half-game edge over the Lakers and have righted the ship, winning their past five after an extended, brutal stretch of play that threatened to drop them out of contention. Mo Williams is finally back into the swing of things and Al Jefferson has been devouring opponents on the interior. While the Lakers' performance continues to swing wildly back and forth, the Jazz are trending upward.
Soriano: Fiction. The Jazz are hot at the right time and control their own destiny. But they play three of their final seven games on the road, including their final two games. Combine those contests with tough home games versus the Thunder and Nuggets and I see them falling behind the Lakers to close the year.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Mavs will get to shave this season.
Arnovitz: Fact. Start ordering up the straight blades because the Mavs look like a good bet to go 3-2 in their next five games, which would put them at 39-39. Shaving a thick beard is a weird feeling, a little like getting a cast removed. Unfortunately, Dallas has a razor-thin margin in the playoff race, and .500 probably won't be enough to book a ticket to the postseason.
Cavan: Fact. If it doesn't happen tonight -- and really, what better incentive than finally hitting even keel by putting the hated Lakers in deeper jeopardy? -- Dallas' next best chance will be the three-game stretch against Sacramento, Portland and Phoenix. I'll take the team fighting for the postseason and clean faces over the three debating whether to tank.
Hall: Fact. Mercifully, the basketball gods will rescue us from further assault by the Nowitzki Beard, starting as early as Tuesday night against the Lakers. Stealing a win in L.A. would finally put the Mavs at .500 and allow us to bring the women and children out of hiding.
Levy: Fact. With nine games left, they just need to win more than they lose from here on out. The Mavericks have been playing their best basketball of the season in the past month and have the specter of a hot, itchy summer to keep them focused. Even if a playoff berth falls out of reach, they have something more than pride to play for.
Soriano: Fact. Even if the Mavs fall to three games under .500 after their next two games, their next three opponents are the Kings, Blazers and Suns -- a trio of winnable games that I see them sweeping to regain access to their razors. It's a shame, though, because Dirk's mountain-man look is gloriously hideous.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Knicks are contenders.
Arnovitz: Fiction, which says a lot more about the Miami Heat than the New York Knicks. But even if the Heat weren't completely possessed, the Knicks rank 16th in defensive efficiency, and that traditionally doesn't get it done in May. If their shell defense in front of Tyson Chandler stiffens up, the Knicks might give the Pacers a scare, but they're no threat to represent the East.
Cavan: Fact. First, a caveat: If they can manage to avoid the Heat until the conference finals -- when the latter will hopefully be a bit bruised -- the Knicks have a chance. New York has rediscovered its pass-happy, 3-heavy November mojo; J.R. Smith has turned a corner; and the defense is starting to come around. Don't knock the Knicks out yet.
Hall: Fiction. The path to the Finals for New York will probably be Chicago (first round), Indiana (conference semis) and Miami (East finals). I would love to see J.R. Smith get a chance to go seven games against the Heat, but I'll be surprised if the Knicks even get past the first round.
Levy: Fiction. Unfortunately for the Knicks, being a contender in the East means having the potential to beat Miami four times in a playoff series. The Knicks have already pulled it off twice this season, but their formula requires such a lightning strike of disparate elements aligning, that I'm skeptical it will hit in the same place four more times.
Soriano: Fiction. Although they're one of the top three teams in the East, I don't see them beating Miami or any of the top teams from the West in a seven-game series. They'd need an incredible run of hot shooting and luck to even make the Finals, and that keeps them a level below the true contenders.
5. Fact or Fiction: Without Manu, the Spurs will be eliminated early.
Arnovitz: Fiction. Figure the Spurs will be without Ginobili for the first round. Is that enough of a blow for the Spurs to drop a seven-game series against a .500 team? Don't see it, the debacle against the Grizzlies in 2011 notwithstanding. This Spurs team is a better defensive unit, and although a first-round matchup against the Lakers would invite some intrigue, San Antonio is better -- with or without Manu.
Cavan: Fiction. Any team with four Chips and three surefire Hall of Famers (coach included) that can rest its top five players and still put the scare in a full-strength Miami squad warrants special consideration. When it comes to the Spurs, the system is king. And this system -- beautiful spacing, crisp passing, finding the open man -- arguably tops all.
Hall: Fact. Not trying to jinx anything for the Jazz, but the stars are aligning for Utah to make some noise in the playoffs. With San Antonio "struggling" without Manu, a surging Utah team might have a chance to steal some games in a first-round matchup. More probably, though, a second-round matchup with the Grizzlies or the Clippers could undo the great season in S.A.
Levy: Fiction. The Spurs are far less reliant on Ginobili than they've been at any other point in the past decade. He has played only about a third of the Spurs' minutes this season, and their point differential is essentially the same whether he's on or off the court. At his healthy best, Ginobili gives the Spurs another gear, but they no longer need that gear to consistently beat elite competition.
Soriano: Fiction. The Spurs will need Ginobili to win a championship, but advancing through a round (or even two) can be achieved on the strength of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich's coaching. The Spurs have good depth on the wing and a strong enough system to overcome Manu's injury in the early rounds.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA writer and editor for ESPN.com. Jim Cavan, Spencer Ryan Hall, Ian Levy and Darius Soriano contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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