Who Will Rise and Fall Down the Stretch in the NBA?
Your team has one month.
One month to move up in the seedings, clean the cobwebs out, and perhaps make the playoffs at all.
Do you think the standings, as they are now, will be the same at the end of the regular season?
I wouldn't bet on it.
I hear you saying, "But what about the Lakers?" They aren't about to lose the top seed in the West, so surely they can just relax and rest their starters? And perhaps the same for the Cavs out East?
Well, up to a certain point you are right. They can rest slightly and make sure their players are ready for the postseason. But you also don't want your team going into the playoffs with a losing record do you? Having loose ends on defense or even a loss of confidence?
No, you need your team confident, a well-oiled machine prepared to do battle, no matter the seeding.
Hence, here are my candidates for the risers and fallers down-the-stretch. The teams who will make a strong push and finish out the season in a strong manner. And those who are going to falter, leaving people second-guessing them before a game is even played.
There are four candidates, two from each conference, for each category. Do you agree, or is your list different? Let me know in the comments.
As criteria, I'm using their play as-of-late, remaining schedule, injuries, and mainly, simple gut feeling.
Denver Nuggets (currently 42-25, Fourth seed)
Despite having won their last two games, I have to nominate the Nuggets as a team likely to lose a few important ones in the next month.
For most of the year they had held down the third seed, but had recently fallen all the way to the seventh spot in the last two weeks. They have managed to reclaim the fourth spot, partly because of a two game win streak, but largely due to Utah's recent slump.
This is a much improved team, with Chauncey Billups being easily the best pick up from last season and Carmelo Anthony, seeming like a reformed player and not simply obsessed with scoring. I believe the team might be able to win a playoff series.
Denver won't play an Eastern Conference opponent in April, so that will be the time of testing to determine their playoff position and if they can get a favorable matchup.
New Orleans Hornets (currently 41-24, Fifth seed)
They are 8-2 over the last 10 games, and recently had a seven-game winning streak. So why are they in this category?
Out of everyone, I had to pick this team. They're here because, even though I adore Chris Paul and like the team, they haven't shown up well in a lot of big games this year and injuries have played a big factor.
I think if this team loses a few, they don't have the correct mindsets to get through it and correct themselves in time.
This spot was nearly given to the Portland Trailblazers, but the Hornets clinched it just because of their schedule.
Their final five games will be against divison rivals, playing Dallas twice, Houston, San Antonio, and Phoenix.
That could be a nasty way to end, remember that Texas Triangle everyone was talking about for the Celtics last year?
The Hornets will end with that, plus an extra at home against Dallas
(Sidenote: of the four sub-categories, that was easily the hardest, hence why I got it out of the way early. The West is full of great teams, it was incredibly hard to pick teams that could falter. I'm not saying these will, just that they are the most likely.)
Boston Celtics (currently 50-17, Second seed)
I know, I know.
They are true title contenders and should at least be getting to the conference finals, and, believe me, I'm not arguing with that.
But they have faltered as of late, going 5-5 in the last 10 (considering its the Celtics, that's quite bad). Kevin Garnett is still out with an injury, and Rajon Rondo still seems to be suffering somewhat.
Though he is still rebounding and dishing well, Rondo is shooting in low percentages lately and has struggled to get back into the flow. He is one of the biggest keys for the Celtics this year and definitely tied to their success.
Boston doesn't have a particularly tough schedule left, but it is full of big games where if they lose a couple, it will leave a serious dent in their confidence.
They must still play Orlando and Cleveland, which are obviously the big ones. They also play both Miami and Atlanta twice, and neither of these teams should be taken lightly.
They also have Charlotte, who they have never handled well.
Milwaukee Bucks (currently 31-38, Eighth seed)
The only team in this list with a losing record is of course also the team with the most to lose.
Milwaukee is clinging to the eighth seed in the East, mainly because they are .001 of a percentage point ahead of Chicago.
Behind that is New Jersey, New York and Charlotte. So out of everyone, the Bucks can relax the least.
Though they have coped surprisingly well after losing Micheal Redd and Andrew Bogut, who was having a career year in some respects, it is the stretch that counts and the Bucks are just 3-7 in their last 10.
I think they need their leaders presence to win the important games, and though Richard Jefferson and Charlie V have stepped up, it may just not be enough in this incredibly tight race for the 8th spot.
The schedule is against them also. Of their 13 remaining games, eight of them are against playoff teams, three of those against the mighty Magic. They will also be playing New Jersey at the end of March, who will of course be seeking to gain a game on the Bucks.
In my opinion, Milwaukee has actually had a surprisingly good season but I do not see them being rewarded with a playoff berth.
The Western Conference
San Antonio Spurs (currently 44-21, Second seed)
Before we start, I know the Spurs won't be actually 'rising' in their playoff seeding, what I'm arguing is that they are going to finish the season strong and in good form.
And if you don't know why I think this, then you haven't watched the NBA this decade.
The Spurs are notorious for finishing out the season well. You always see the graphics in the first round of the playoffs, "The spurs are winners of 12 straight at home, going back into the regular season," or something along those lines.
Gregg Popovich knows how to get his team into shape and knows how to make the cogs all fit with the machine.
Every year, people say the Spurs have had it and bet against them, and every year the Spurs prove them wrong.
Its true that this year you have the most reason to doubt the Spurs than before, due to Manu Ginobili's injury and the change of style, but only a foolish man ever bets against the San Antonio Spurs
Besides, it is an odd year... just saying is all.
Utah Jazz (currently 41-26, Seventh seed)
WHOA! Don't immediately go comment, just hear me out.
I realize they have a three-game losing streak and have gone back into the seventh seed thanks to the incredibly close division race.
But just remember that a moment ago they had a 12-game winning streak and were flying.
Deron Williams is playing as well as any point guard in the league right now. Kyle Korver has found a rhythm and Carlos Boozer is putting up pre-injury numbers.
And the biggest reason I have faith they will finish the season strong?
They have Jerry Sloan, and he knows how to get his team into shape and how to get them in the right mindset.
This is a strong team who won't get down on themselves when they fall.
As for their remaining schedule, they only have two games against playoff teams in March. In April though, they do have a tough road stretch against New Orleans, Dallas and San Antonio. That will be their testing stretch.
Atlanta Hawks (currently 39-28, Fourth seed)
In an article I wrote last week, I included a section about how the Hawks seemed to have lost chemistry and lost a few easy games.
Well here we are a week later, and that chemistry seems to be back.
The Hawks are winners of five straight and working well with eachother, the team is relatively healthy again and seems to be coming back together.
Josh Smith and Mike Bibby have both emerged from their individual mini-slumps and Joe Johnson has had some huge games, proving his true worth to this team.
April is an important month for the team. They only play Eastern Conference opponents, starting off with Boston and Orlando.
Their penultimate game against Miami is at home. This has the potential to be the biggest regular season game of the year for the Hawks, as it could determine if they host a series or not.
Though the Hawks are another team that won't be doing any literal 'rising', finishing in good shape for their possible first home playoff series of the decade is a must for this team.
Philadelphia 76ers (currently 33-31, sixth seed)
Since Elton Brand's season-ending injury, the media has kind of left the Sixers to it. Nobody seems to have noticed that a team outside of the playoff race a few months ago has risen to the sixth seed, and thanks to Sunday night's game, is just two away from the Heat and the fifth spot.
The Sixers finished last season in the same way, coming out of nowhere to challenge Detroit in the first round. Though it won't be Detroit they face this year, the Sixers can definitely make some noise.
The team has found their style of play and have started to enjoy basketball again.
The Sixers only have four games against playoff teams in April, though the final two of those games are against Boston and Cleveland.
It remains to be seen if the Sixers can keep the success as-of-late and keep their heads down the stretch.
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