A wild West show looms
After No. 1, spots are up for grabs
While the Lakers are driving smoothly out in front in the Western Conference, in their rear-view mirror are a lot of teams jockeying wildly for playoff position.
The Lakers entered last night's games with a commanding 8 1/2-game lead over the second-place Spurs. But only 4 1/2 games separated second-seeded San Antonio and eighth-seeded Dallas. The hot-and-cold Suns, who have lost Amar'e Stoudemire (eye) for the season, were in ninth but close enough to get back in the picture.
A year ago, only three games separated the top six teams in the West, while Dallas and Denver outlasted Golden State to get the last two spots.
"The seeding will come down like last year where it was like the last day of the season when it came down to it," Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki said.
After Friday night's win over Minnesota, the Lakers are 50-12 and have a 33-6 mark against the West. At this point, they are likely more worried about having a better record than East powers Boston, Cleveland, and Orlando to ensure home-court advantage if they make it to the Finals. That will keep them from coasting the rest of the regular season.
"They are playing great, plus they have the MVP in Kobe [Bryant] with a lot of shooters around him on the perimeter," Nowitzki said. "They look great.
"Outside of that, it's really wide open. Even the Hornets were really, really great last year and they've lost some games where you say, 'They wouldn't have lost that last year.' "
Unfortunately for Nowitzki and the West, the Hornets are buzzing again and finally beginning to live up to expectations. New Orleans entered last night's game against Oklahoma City with six straight wins and was on the heels of San Antonio and Denver in fifth place in the West. Expect San Antonio, New Orleans, and Houston to fight it out for the coveted high seed that comes with winning the Southwest Division. With Chris Paul leading the way, the Hornets have seemed rejuvenated since a trade of center Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City was rescinded because of a toe injury.
"We're definitely not peaking, but we're playing a lot better than we were," Paul said. "Ever since I got my big man back, we're 6-0, so I'm glad to have him back and we're doing a good job right now."
Said Hornets forward David West, "I just think we're clicking pretty well at this point. We talked about having a run where we can put together consecutive wins. We're just feeling good about what we're trying to do. I think this is a good time of the year to be doing that."
Another West team to keep an eye on is Utah.
The Jazz have been injury-riddled for most of the season and didn't practice with a full roster until late February. Moreover, starters Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Deron Williams didn't appear in a game together until Feb. 23.
But after Friday night's victory over Denver, the Jazz have won 10 straight and soon could overtake the Nuggets and Blazers and grab the lead in the Northwest Division. The Jazz, however, play seven of their next nine (five against the East) on the road; they also play four of their final six games of the season away from Utah against West playoff contenders.
"Every game right now is critical," Boozer said. "I think down the stretch we are trying to move up the ladder a little bit, but at the same time we want to get our team as right as possible so when we get to the playoffs we are hitting our stride, and playing the best basketball we can be playing."
A Maine connection in Celtics' future
The new D-League franchise in Portland, Maine, isn't officially affiliated with the Celtics. But considering that Celtics president Rick Gotham and the Celtics dancers showed up at the team's recent introductory press conference and that Ray Allen, Gabe Pruitt, and Bill Walker wished Portland good luck via video, it's just a matter of time. Portland's president-general manager is Jon Jennings, the former Celtics assistant, and K.C. Jones is a consultant.
The Celtics are currently affiliated with the D-League team in Utah, but an announcement on an affiliation with Portland is expected in the offseason.
"Hopefully, we will be affiliated with the Celtics," Jennings said. "I've had good conversations with Danny [ Ainge].
"Whoever we are connected to, I'm committed to run their offense, defense, and strength and conditioning programs. There is no sense in doing it unless it's seamless.
"We want to do it as efficient as possible for our principal affiliate. We will more than likely have two affiliates."
The D-League is expected to announce another Northeast addition in the near future, in either Hartford, Springfield, Mass., or New York City (Harlem), according to an NBA source. Even if Hartford or Springfield gets in, the source said, Portland would still be affiliated with the Celtics.
The Portland team will play in the 3,100-seat Portland Exposition Center. A $250,000 renovation is underway, which includes a new floor, courtside seating, scoreboards, and signage.
The team is already selling season tickets and has a website (nba.com/dleague/maine), with a team-naming contest that concludes March 31. "Red Claws" and "Beacons" are currently the most popular entries.
"We've had a remarkable response from people around Maine with a lot of passion around the naming contest," said Jennings. "We are incredibly thrilled with the response."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com