At this late stage of the NBA season, players and their teams fall into one of three categories:
1. Playoff lock; 2. Desperately seeking seeding, and 3. "Who shall I make this check out to for my summer vacation, which will start in April?"
It's pretty easy to identify the sure things and the also-rans. It's the desperate clubs that most of us have a tough time getting a handle on.
There are presently five teams in the league that give the hiccups a whole new meaning. They explode one night and implode the next. One week they throw daggers at the competition, the following week they're being read last rites.
What is apparent is that, while the Eastern Conference playoff hunt appears all but complete, the Western Conference race looks like one of those NASCAR nail-biters. There are several teams that may pass the bottom feeders on the final lap of the season in April.
Forget clubs like Toronto, Detroit, and Minnesota. Their records may indicate they are still hanging around, but the basic fact is that they are not very good and don't stand a chance.
Desperate teams have a certain look and feel to them, and will do most anything to cross the postseason finish line. But, because they continue to hit bumps along the way, they continue to be desperate.
Ten games ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were 24-23 and doing just enough to look like an eighth seed in the Western Conference. They then proceeded to lose eight of their next nine and find themselves on the outside looking in.
Portland's heartbreaking 111-109 loss Tuesday night to the visiting Denver Nuggets illustrated the type of season it has been for a team many expected to challenge some of the giants in the Western Conference.
At 26-31, the Blazers are hanging around, just four games back of the eight-seed Houston Rockets. They are battling several other teams for that final spot and have to get help from the Rockets or Utah Jazz, who are 4 1/2 games in front of Portland.
But time is running out for the Blazers, and they seem to be going in the wrong direction. This team averages 97 points on offense, while giving up 99.9 to the opposition. Portland's somewhat porous defense allows teams to shoot 51 percent against them.
Defense wins championships. Despite sporting a stellar starting contingent of LaMarcus Aldridge (20.8), Rookie of the Year candidate Damian Lillard (18.4), Nicolas Batum (15.4), Wesley Matthews (15.1), and J.J. Hickson (13.1), Portland suffers greatly when it goes to the bench.
Teams don't win championships without a solid bench. Many of them don't even make the playoffs, and the Blazers may be one of those.
As columnist Mike Tokito of The Oregonian pointed out prior to Portland's loss to Denver: "If they do manage to get into the playoffs...it wouldn't be unprecedented, but it would be remarkable."
The Boston Celtics have been the surprise team of the NBA since losing All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo for the season to injury.
And, while they occupy the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with a 30-27 records, the Celtics can't possibly keep this winning pace up without one of the best point guards in the game. Can they?
Maybe this Rajon Rondo injury is what it took for this roster to finally play with an edge. He certainly makes Boston more dangerous, but sometimes the scariest team is one that is playing for one another. You better believe that this entire roster is now fighting to send Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett off with one last run in the face of adversity.
The Celtics certainly entertained offers to trade away their big two of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce prior to the late February trade deadline. President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge listened but didn't act and the Celtics have surprised everyone. At the time, he told ESPN Boston:
Well first of all, if I felt like there was a player that was in their mid-20s that was a piece to build around and wasn't just a rotation player, as an example, but was actually a building block, a future star or a future All-Star, or one of those pieces, then we probably would do that. But they're far and few between, and I don't see anybody giving those players away for aging veterans."
Boston is in a good place for now. But, there are 25 games left and Pierce is playing in a lot of pain. If they don't make the playoffs, Celtics fans will say it was because of injuries.
But, this is the city of champions, and these fans expect nothing less. The Celtics play hard-nosed basketball. Expect them to reach the postseason, though their chances for a world title this season seem quite remote.
This is a desperate team in free flight...downward.
The 76ers went into the season with high hopes and a new center they felt could put them over top and take them deep into the playoffs. Andrew Bynum has made more headlines from his hairstyles than he has from his basketball exploits.
The fans in Philly are still waiting for the seven-foot center to play one minute this season. Bynum's no-show press conference this week to update reporters (via Jason Wolf of the News Journal) on the status of his recovery from knee surgery just added salt to an already major wound the team and its fans are feeling.
That should tell you something about this team that, although still in the hunt for a playoff spot, is doing everything it can to start its summer vacation earlier than the calendar.
Losers of six straight, Philadelphia was embarrassed on Tuesday by the lowly Orlando Magic, 98-84. Coach Doug Collins spent close to 12 minutes trying to explain his team's lack of effort. On putting his starters on the bench to start the fourth quarter. Via ProBasketballTalk:
“Hey, you know what? They weren’t getting it done. What were we down, 17? We went from seven to 17. And I go back to [coach Hank Iba], that voice I always here, ‘Hey son, if you don’t want to play, your substitute does. Give somebody else a chance.’ We did and we cut it to five. It wasn’t anything other than getting some stops, push the ball, play with some aggression. Basketball is a simple sport. The game is usually going to go to the aggressor. That’s just the way it is."
About the only bright spot for Philadelphia has been the play of All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday. The 22-year old is averaging 19 points and 8.7 assists and has started all 51 games he has played for the 22-34 Sixers.
Disappointment is the operative word for the Mavericks. A terrible road team (9-20), the Mavs have lost three in a row and suddenly find themselves in desperation mode.
Dallas looked like it was ready to make a run for the postseason, especially after welcoming back the previously injured Dirk Nowitzki. The seven-foot shooting forward with the golden touch has not been so golden in the 28 games he's played.
A career 22.7 point- per-game scorer, Nowitzki is averaging just 16 points on 44 percent shooting this season. And, after going for 30 and 13 in a spirited four-point loss to the Lakers last Sunday, Nowitzki has faded and the Mavericks are letting the season slip away.
Dallas reached a low point just this week when it let Memphis back into the game after being up by 25. The Mavericks scored just five points in the third quarter and ended up losing the game, 90-84.
Nowitzki was missing in action, scoring just 10 on the night as the Mavs slid to 25-32 on the year and are now five games out of a playoff spot.
When the owner of the team, Mark Cuban, is generating more headlines than the team itself, you know they are in desperation mode. Cuban took to trashing the rival Lakers as much as he possibly could on his 140-character Tweets, saying that the L.A. should consider using their amnesty exception next season on Kobe Bryant.
Bryant torched the Mavs for 38 points and took to Twitter after the game to reply to Cuban's rant: "amnesty that."
No team chasing a playoff berth has had more hype and less hoop than the enigmatic Los Angeles Lakers.
Injuries, coaching changes, Dwightmares and a general lack of effort and execution have this team frantically fighting for its basketball lives.
The Lakers are much better than they were earlier in the season. Though still slow in transition and a human advertisement for how not to handle a basketball (Kobe Bryant, with 3.6 per game, is sixth in the league in turnovers), the Lakers are starting to jell with their offense, and the bench is much better as a unit.
Los Angeles is 4-1 since the All-Star break and, after dismantling the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night, sit just two games back of the Rockets and the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Kobe Bryant basically has guaranteed the Lakers will make the playoffs.
Bryant told Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated: "It's not a question of if we make the playoffs. We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone...Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver...whoever. I have zero nervousness about that."
The Lakers do miss center Pau Gasol, out for the remainder of the regular season with plantar fasciitis, and need to be more consistent on defense.
This is a team that doesn't just need to make the playoffs. The Lakers have done that in all but five seasons in their history. L.A. fans demand championships and that's a much bigger burden.
The L.A. Lakers are desperately seeking a seed and they now seem on their way to accomplishing that. TNT broadcaster Marv Albert said early in Thursday night's game that the Lakers were a "desperate team."
Said Steve Nash (via ESPN.com and Dave McMenamin): "It's going to be a tough ride trying to get into the playoffs, but that's going to make it fun. Let's try to overcome the odds and try to get back in there and see if we can scare some people."