With less than two months remaining in the 2012-13 NBA regular season, it's time for every team to buckle down and set goals for the home stretch.
For many clubs, the main focus for the rest of the spring is to improve playoff seeding. For others, it's hanging onto their playoff spot while polishing certain aspects of their game.
What about the losing squads? What are their realistic goals for the final six weeks of the campaign?
The games become more important everyday, so it's critical for teams to identify challenging, yet practical goals to finish out the regular season.
Larry Drew's Atlanta Hawks have hung around the No. 4-6 rank in the Eastern Conference for most of the season, and with six weeks left, they have a decent shot to improve their seeding and take the No. 3 spot.
While the Hawks are solid defensively, their offensive production has room for improvement. One of the areas that could really boost their total output and surpass the New York Knicks is offensive rebounding.
With just 9.3 offensive boards per game, Atlanta is severely limiting its second-shot opportunities.
If the Hawks notch single digits in the playoffs, they'll make life easier for teams like the Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls.
They might as well get in the habit of aiming for at least a dozen per contest.
What the Boston Celtics have done without Rajon Rondo is remarkable.
They could make this season's story even more amazing by improving their playoff seeding to No. 6 and wreak havoc on whoever the No. 3 ends up being.
Given their schedule, its a reasonable goal to pursue.
The main variable that could affect the complexion of the rest of the season is health. The team is already decimated by injuries, so even a minor setback to Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Jason Terry would be a tough break.
The last few weeks of the regular season are critical for the Brooklyn Nets as they seek to secure the East's No. 4 seed and thereby, own home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Currently, Brooklyn is in a three-way tie for the fourth slot.
Defense and rebounding shouldn't be a problem in its quest to climb the charts and gain momentum heading into the playoffs. Scoring efficiently, however, is another story.
In order to flirt with 100 more frequently, it must rely less on the dribble and more on getting Deron Williams and Joe Johnson shots in rhythm. It's not going to be easy, but it's nonetheless something the squad should strive for heading into the playoffs.
Since the Charlotte Bobcats have the worst record in the NBA and the best odds for the 2013 draft lottery, the club should be more focused on development and chemistry rather than actually winning.
As the Cats finish another ugly season, they should try to take some baby steps in the right direction offensively.
The team is dead-last in the league in shooting percentage (42 percent) and assists per game (18.9), and the best way to improve the former is to increase the latter.
Creating good ball distribution habits is critical for Mike Dunlap's crew heading into 2013-14.
There must be something about this No. 5 seed in the East.
Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls are another franchise fixated on stealing the spot and its home-court benefits.
Gaining a higher place on the Eastern Conference totem pole heading into the postseason would be great, but properly handling and executing Derrick Rose's return is even more important.
Chicago's best and worst-case scenario lie squarely in Rose's knee. If he can come back and play effectively at 90-95 percent, the conference finals are well within reach.
Injuries to Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao derailed what could have been an outside shot at the playoffs for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thus, the remainder of their 2012-13 campaign is about building momentum for the fall.
Dion Waiters and Irving are two of the best young playmakers in the East, but they dish a combined 8.8 assists per game and have an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.7.
Even with a lackluster supporting cast around them, the duo should aim for 10 assists a night together, with the intention of notching 12 per night once a healthy 2013-14 season tips off.
Back in early February, the Dallas Mavericks made a pact to sport beards until the team reached .500. It was an itchy, ugly commitment to make, but they can't turn back now.
With 23 games left on the schedule, breaking even is still a realistic goal. The Mavs are only 3.5 games shy, so there's plenty of reason to believe they'll break out the razors in the not-too-distant future.
That doesn't mean it will be easy: Eleven of Dallas' next 15 opponents are in playoff position.
Up next is a rematch with the Houston Rockets, who just shellacked the Mavericks 136-103.
Much like their East Coast counterparts, the Denver Nuggets are thrilled with the prospect of moving up to the No. 4 seed in the West.
George Karl's bunch has been playing superbly lately, outrunning and outgunning everyone on their schedule.
The squad is dismantling foes from the inside out, using its relentless attack of the paint to set up perimeter opportunities. Denver boasts one of the most balanced attacks in all of basketball.
If it can continue to score 105-plus and take care of business against lesser teams, it could catch the Memphis Grizzlies, which has had a strong grip on the fourth slot all season.
Lawrence Frank and the Detroit Pistons own an unsightly 8-21 road record for 2012-13, and part of the reason is wildly inconsistent offense.
In 15 different road games, the Pistons have been held to fewer than 90 points. Unsurprisingly, they lost all those games.
For the rest of the season, they must have the mindset to grind out good possessions for high-percentage chances, settling for no less than 90 points per game on the road.
Hard-earned road wins are important for any club, especially a young one trying to gain confidence.
For most of the 2012-13 season, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the basketball world, the exciting, fresh phenomenon.
The honeymoon is over, as the Dubs have been free falling down the Western Conference standings.
This disappointing tumble is largely due to their struggle to stop anyone over the last half-dozen games.
Try as Stephen Curry might, he and his comrades can't consistently keep foes in front of them. They're also a split-second late on rotations, which has led to helpers out of position fouling 21.8 times per night.
Striving to keep opponents around 100 could keep some games close and help the Warriors maintain their playoff status.
Right now, the Houston Rockets are sitting on the final playoff spot in the West, which is something few fans saw coming when the season started.
While they're enjoying this breakout year with James Harden, they shouldn't be satisfied with living on the edge of the playoff bubble.
Securing the No. 7 or even No. 6 seed is doable, and improving the perimeter defense will make it easier to reach that goal.
The Rockets are giving up 22.3 triple-tries per night, and foes are shooting 37 percent from distance against them.
Houston needs to get that number under 20, or even 18 if possible.
Although 6.5 games isn't an insurmountable margin on paper, the Indiana Pacers know it's a long shot to catch the Miami Heat.
So their goal down the stretch this season is simple: Take care of business.
Paul George and company have 11 games against playoff teams and 11 against non-playoff teams.
Winning seven of the games against playoff teams and nine against the non-playoff teams should be enough to maintain the No. 2 spot.
Indiana's third-to-last game is against the No. 3 New York Knicks, and that game could end up being a battle for the second slot.
With San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker out for the next month, the Western Conference top spot is now a three-team race.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers could each make a run at the No. 1 seed and earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
L.A. is further behind in the standings, but 4.5 games is a close margin if the Spurs are susceptible to taking a couple small steps backward in Parker's absence.
The seeding difference is huge, even from a first-round matchup standpoint. Going up against the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets is much easier for the Clips than meddling with the Golden State Warriors or Denver Nuggets.
The Los Angeles Lakers' goal has been the same ever since we realized they weren't championship material.
It's playoffs or bust for Kobe Bryant's crew.
With a triumph over the Atlanta Hawks, L.A. reached .500 for the first time since December and drew within 2.5 games of the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets.
Even though 2.5 is a small margin to overcome in six weeks time, the comeback won't be handed to the Lakers. Ten of their next 14 games are on the road.
The eventual return of Pau Gasol could be the factor that finally pushes them past the Rockets.
Considering the way the top three teams in the West have played all year, it's going to be monumentally challenging for the Memphis Grizzlies to steal the No. 3 seed.
Instead of watching the standings every night, Lionel Hollins' crew should just focus on winning two out of every three games.
If they can do that, they'll be 16-8 in their last 24 and and entering the playoffs as a 55-win squad. The No. 3 seed may or may not accompany that mark, but at least the Grizzlies will have played sharp basketball.
With a defense that can slow down literally any team, 55 wins is an achievable prospect.
The Miami Heat's regular season goal down the stretch is to finish atop the East and lock up home-court advantage leading all the way to the Finals.
At 38.6 minutes per game, King James is one of the most heavily used players in the NBA, and Dwyane Wade's 34.5 minutes aren't anything to laugh at.
During the last couple weeks, Erik Spoelstra should consider playing LeBron 30-35 minutes per night and giving Wade 25-30. The extra rest would make the Heat even more formidable come playoff time.
Speaking of the Miami Heat, they're not the ideal first-round matchup for any team.
That's why the Milwaukee Bucks will spend the rest of the regular season trying to move out of the No. 8 spot and the 1-8 matchup.
J.J. Redick adds some legitimate depth to the backcourt, and surpassing the Boston Celtics as the No. 7 seed is certainly workable. But it won't be easy.
The Bucks go on a road trip that includes games against the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, and then they have home-and-home showdowns with the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Milwaukee needs to clean up against everyone else.
Injuries have kept Ricky Rubio, Andrei Kirilenko and Kevin Love out of the Minnesota Timberwolves lineup for huge chunks of the 2012-13 campaign.
The season would have been vastly different if the three of them actually played together for an extended stretch. Each player contributes to a different phase of the game, and the lineup has extraordinary potential.
With the playoffs almost completely out of reach, Rick Adelman will take what he can get toward the end of this season, hoping to bring the three together to build for 2013-14.
All I'm asking for is three more shots per game.
If the 21-39 New Orleans Hornets can give rookie Anthony Davis a couple more touches per quarter, it will do wonders for his post game, his outside jumper and, most importantly, his confidence.
Six to eight more touches and three more shots per game will not only improve his scoring prowess, but it will force him to become a better passer and rebounder.
A potential 2014 playoff run for the soon-to-be Pelicans will be nearly impossible without an uptick in production from Davis and others. It only makes sense to start prepping him now.
Finishing second in the East is a high priority for Mike Woodson's New York Knicks, because it gives them a much greater chance to cruise past the first round.
Facing a No. 7 seed like the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks would be easier than squaring off against a No. 6 like the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks or Brooklyn Nets.
So how do they accomplish this goal? By setting a smaller, concrete goal to win 10 of their 16 remaining games against playoff opponents. Winning those contests while dispatching the lesser teams should be enough for them to pass Indiana.
Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder have not been lights-out on the road.
In fact, they're 17-12 and often vulnerable as the visiting team. If they want to claim the top spot in the Western Conference and enjoy home-court spoils this spring, they need to raise their game away from Chesapeake Arena.
Of the two superstars, Westbrook's shooting suffers more on the road than Kevin Durant's. (Westbrook's three-point percentage drops 19 percent; Durant's drops less than one percent.) Keep an eye on his performance as OKC tries to win at least eight of its last 12 away games.
Topping the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center was a good start.
You know you're having a horrible year when the Charlotte Bobcats are just 2.5 games worse.
The Orlando Magic's season went from bad to worse, but it will end on a bright note in the form of a high draft pick.
In the meantime, Jacque Vaughn would do well to get his young talent ample exposure. A couple of his rookies, namely Andrew Nicholson and Moe Harkless, are already seeing a boatload of playing time.
But DeQuan Jones (12.7 MPG), Doron Lamb (11.7 MPG) and Kyle O'Quinn (8.2 MPG) don't get consistent run. Aiming for 15 minutes for each of them would do the rookies and the club a lot of good.
The final couple months of the Philadelphia 76ers' 2012-13 schedule is comprised mainly of matchups against winning teams, so a playoff push is out of the question.
However, in the few games they have against losing teams, the frustrated Doug Collins would like to see them take advantage.
Against teams like the Charlotte Bobcats and Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia can and should prove that it's the more balanced and deep team. Asking for seven wins in nine games against losing teams isn't unrealistic.
Throughout the first four months of the Phoenix Suns' miserable season, the team has posted just seven road wins.
To salvage some pride, Lindsey Hunter's group must build on its recent upset of the San Antonio Spurs and get four more road victories before season's end.
Suns fans hope this won't interfere with a prime draft lottery placement. They don't have much to worry about, for a slightly better road record won't hurt their lottery odds too much.
If Phoenix can't scrap together wins against the likes of the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Hornets and Minnesota Timberwolves, at least there's always the lottery.
Sneaking into the playoffs is possible, but the Portland Trail Blazers will have to dig deep for it.
Their upcoming schedule includes three matchups with the Memphis Grizzles, two with the Oklahoma City Thunder and two with the Utah Jazz.
To be a part of the postseason, Damian Lillard and company still have some proving to do against some marquee clubs.
Will the team's lack of depth ultimately sink these chances?
Statistically, the Sacramento Kings are the worst defensive team in the NBA, surrendering 104.9 points per game.
Stopping opposing offenses isn't their only shortcoming, but it's one they can commit to mending.
Upgraded communication and better awareness in the paint will help toward the goal of decreased field-goal percentage.
Cleaning up the defensive glass would also lower the overall mark. Sacramento is currently allowing 11.9 offensive boards, well above the league average.
Losing Tony Parker to an ankle injury stings a little for the San Antonio Spurs. The club won't be as dangerous and will be susceptible to lose the top seed in the West.
However, with the deep corps of guards Gregg Popovich has at his disposal, there shouldn't be a dramatic drop-off in talent or production.
Cory Joseph, Patty Mills, Gary Neal and Nando De Colo are more than capable to keep things competitive while the star sits.
We're not expecting the same assist output as the Parker days, but the team's 35-assist sans-Parker outburst against the Detroit Pistons suggests it's capable of averaging 23 per night.
The Toronto Raptors made significant long-term financial commitments to Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, so the franchise should take an added interest in developing these players this spring.
Currently, the rookie duo is combining for 11.2 field-goal attempts, which means they're only getting a small fraction of the touches over the course of an entire game.
Game-planning for a couple extra shots will force these two youngsters to be more involved in the little details the whole time they're out on the court.
Unless a miracle shift in the Eastern Conference happens, the Raptors shouldn't even look at the win-loss columns and box scores.
Utah's frontcourt has way too much size and skill to be posting mediocre and inconsistent rebounding statistics (42.3 per game).
Tyrone Corbin needs to set the bar at 45 per game and see if his squad can outrebound the likes of the Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls.
If it can fulfill this goal, the No. 6 seed will be that much easier to attain.
One of the main reasons the Washington Wizards are the lowest-scoring team in the NBA is they often fail to take care of the ball.
John Wall, in particular, is coughing up too many (3.6 per game). In the Wizards' recent home loss to the New York Knicks, his five turnovers were critical to upending the Knickerbockers.
Before Washington can improve numbers like shooting percentage or total points, it must re-learn how to take care of the ball.
The goal is to have fewer than a baker's dozen turnovers every game.