J.R. Smith's play will have a major impact on seeding in the East.
Some unpredictable factors are going to tip the balance in the final dash to the NBA postseason.
With more and more stars heading to the bench to rest during the final weeks of the regular season, the door is open for the second tier of players to shape what the playoff picture will ultimately look like.
On the other hand, there are also the prime-time players still fighting for their postseason berths. We know what the old, reliable talents on those teams are going to do, but what are their supporting casts going to bring to the table?
The eventual answer to that question will determine the battle lines for the 2013 playoffs.
Slowly but surely, the Dallas Mavericks have climbed back into striking distance of the West's eighth seed.
Most of the credit has to go to Dirk Nowitzki.
Dallas' beloved leader has finally regained his star form after injuries diminished his impact earlier in the season. The big man has been an efficiency machine in March, though, averaging 20 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 50-40-90 for the month.
Meanwhile, O.J. Mayo looked like a potential All-Star candidate when the season started, but he has not sustained that level of play. He averaged 20.9 points as the primary scorer in November, but that mark dropped down to 14.9 in February and 11.8 in March.
If the Mavs want to surpass the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers, Nowitzki is going to need some help. Mayo has the ability to be Dallas' second star—we'll see about the execution.
The sight of unheralded Jeff Green carving up the Miami Heat defense for 43 points was a jarring one. It also changed the way we look at both Green and the Boston Celtics.
When Rajon Rondo went down for the year with a torn ACL, the Celtics adjusted and fought to stay on the right side of .500. With Kevin Garnett dealing with inflammation issues, that leaves Boston without its second- and third-leading scorers and two defensive aces.
Luckily, the loss of Rondo came just as Green began to hit his stride. Forced to take on a bigger role in the offense, he has risen to the occasion, upping his scoring all the way to 16.9 points per game in March without a drop-off in efficiency.
The Celtics could end up with the eighth seed and a first-round date with the Heat if they falter down the stretch. If Green keeps up his current level of production, Boston has a great chance of avoiding that fate.
When the Houston Rockets dealt for Thomas Robinson at the trade deadline, it was a major long-term coup that quietly came at the expense of the team's short-term success.
Robinson has more raw ability than the departed Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris, but he currently lacks the range on his jumper that those former Rockets have. Considering how Houston relies on James Harden and Jeremy Lin to penetrate and kick out to open shooters, that skill is vital.
The Rockets trusted that Donatas Motiejunas could fill that role when they made the deal, and the Lithuanian rookie is making them look even smarter.
Motiejunas was at the back of Houston's rotation prior to the trades, but he is averaging 20.8 minutes per game in March. His 8.6 points per game in that time is solid yet unspectacular, but his real impact comes from his ability to stretch the floor.
Even though Motiejunas is still a raw commodity, he can shoot and take forwards off the dribble, which is all Houston needs from him right now. If he is able to keep defenses honest, the Rockets can avoid a first-round meeting with one of the West's best and instead challenge for the sixth seed.
Standing in Houston's way are the Golden State Warriors—more specifically Andrew Bogut, whose defensive presence the Dubs sorely need.
Bogut was sidelined in November following ankle surgery, and the Warriors broke out in his absence. Relying on the sharpshooting of Stephen Curry, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson as well as the post scoring of David Lee and Carl Landry, Golden State scored in bunches and emerged as a challenger against the best of the West.
Ironically, the closer Bogut got to full strength, the more the Warriors' porous defense came back to bite them.
Golden State went just 4-8 in February, but Bogut is finally back patrolling the paint now. In 16 games this month, the Dubs have allowed over 100 points just seven times; they have allowed 100.2 points per game this season.
A plus interior defender is a significant addition for a team full of minuses. For a team fighting to avoid an early meeting with the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder, every little bit helps.
Getting the second seed in the Eastern Conference means having home-court advantage up until a probable meeting with the Miami Heat in the conference finals.
For the New York Knicks to hold onto that spot, J.R. Smith needs to stay hot.
In the best season of his career, Smith has never been better than he is right now. The sixth man's ambitious shot selection is paying off for him right now, as Smith is averaging 22.5 points per game in March and has topped the 30-point mark on five different occasions.
With Amar'e Stoudemire sidelined for the remainder of the regular season, the Knicks are going to have to lean on the few sure scoring options they have left. That list has just two names on it: Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. If Smith's shots aren't falling, the Knicks are going to struggle.
On any given night, Smith could hit 15 shots or miss just as many. When he's on, New York can play with anybody.
Some fun with numbers and the Denver Nuggets:
Denver sits in third place in the Western Conference at 50-24. That record includes an otherworldly 33-3 home split and a pedestrian 17-21 road mark. In wins, Danilo Gallinari has shot 43 percent from the field; that figure falls to 37 percent in losses.
Now that leading scorer Ty Lawson could miss some time with a torn plantar fascia—per a report from the Nuggets' team Twitter account—Gallinari could be Denver's go-to guy in these final games.
If he does not connect, Denver risks falling from third to fifth in the highly competitive West—thus losing home-court advantage in the opening round of the postseason, which is an imperative for this Nuggets team.
Even falling to fourth has a noticeable drawback. Rather than face the Golden State Warriors, the Nuggets would then draw either the Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies.
One last stat: Gallinari has shot just 38 percent from the field in March. If he doesn't pick his play up in Lawson's absence, Denver will pay the price later.
Injuries are always the biggest X-factor when it comes to a playoff race.
We have already mentioned that Amar'e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett and Ty Lawson are currently on the shelf. Add Joakim Noah to that list temporarily and Danny Granger permanently, as the Indiana Pacer opted for surgery on his left knee that will keep him out through the postseason, per USA Today.
Then there are the guys who are playing through the pain for their teams' playoff lives.
Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are all at less than 100 percent right now. Over in Memphis, Marc Gasol is playing with a torn abdominal muscle, while just about every one of Noah's Chicago Bulls teammates is either banged up or wiped out from the grueling season.
The last place you want your stars to be at such a crucial point in the season is on the sidelines in street clothes. When will sidelined stars return? And how much can the walking wounded do?
NBA fans won't be lacking for drama in the final weeks of the season, and following the injuries will be a compelling subplot.