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The NBA Season

Rounding Third

As baseball swings into action and who shot what into who's rump is debated by Congress, the NBA is wrapping up its final month of action before the play gets serious. And when that happens, as we've seen from last week's start for March Madness, fans have a lot to look forward to. We've been talking about it all year, but once again we have to state the obvious: nobody's a clear cut favorite at this point. That said, the Pistons, being the defending champs, get the nod in many circles, but their up and down play has many wondering what team will actually show up. Out West perennial favorite San Antonio has seemed to loose a step since David Robinson retired a couple of years ago and now that Duncan is nicked up, their viability as top dog has to be called into question.

Who's it gonna be?

We can do a retake before the playoffs start. But here's a good estimate of where we stand, factoring in the fact that a lot of teams are missing or nursing star players back into the lineup or controlling their minutes with the playoffs in mind.

In the East, it's been clear for a while now that two teams are in a class of all their own. Boston could raise some "heck" given the right circumstances but stick with Detroit and Miami and you won't be wrong. In this matchup of heavyweights, take <b>Miami</b>. Teams that reel off multiple double digit win streaks are usually for real. Obviously it all starts with the man in the middle and the amazing progression of D.
Wade, otherwise known as Flash. But the Miami team that started the season wouldn't be this good if the front office hadn't stepped in with some very smart aquisitions. Alonzo Morning and Shandon Anderson are tough, hard-nosed defenders whose style of play fits the playoffs to a tee. They will be counted on in that inevitable matchup against the Pistons. Last note about the Heat: they are embodied by unsung hero Udonis Haslem, with his undersized body and Ben Wallace-like motor. He and the role player's approach to the game are the reason why they have risen to a new level.

<b>East Rankings: Miami, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Washington, 6 - 8 don't really matter at this point</b>

Out <b>West</b>, the picture is much more clouded. Seattle, Sacramento, and San Antonio have stagnated a bit with injuries while Houston,
Phoenix and Denver are charging hard toward an inevitable smashup. Of course, we can't forget Memphis and Dallas. Which team will walk away
from it all to meet Detroit or, my choice, Miami? It comes down to matchups -- who's the no.1 vs no.8, etc. That will be the biggest question for the <b>Nuggets</b> who are coming together at the right time to the tune of 18-5, giving up 92.8 pts/game, since George Karl came on board. <b>If they get into the 6th spot, I like them a
lot</b>. If they get trapped in the 7th or 8th spot, the road will be a lot tougher. Nobody wants to have to go through Phoenix or San Antonio
(assuming Duncan is right) to begin the playoffs. But they have aggressive, big men and as much as I've said Kenyon Martin isn't a max salary player; nobody can knock his defensive toughness.

Let's do a little weeding in this very tough conference.

In my mind, you always go with the teams that can rebound and defend*. That leaves Houston, Denver, San Antonio and, suprisingly enough, Dallas; (now that they have a coach who truly believes defense is where the game is won or lost). All will be watching Tim Duncan's health as a barometer of what we can expect. With him, the Spurs are tough as nails. Without him, San Antonio will not contend. I say, <b>expect the Spurs</b> to play for their third title in six years. If not, expect a surprising, scrappy fight to the finish. This last month will tell us a lot.

<b>*Phoenix Exception</b>: The Suns are the first team in a while to, if not outright break, at least bend my "always go with the team that can defend and rebound" rule. They are so tough, 1 - 5, in that each player can break you down off the dribble, pass, run the floor, finish around the basket and shoot with range. If they play smart and error-free, imagining a championship ring with a big ruby in the center to symbolize the sun is very easy indeed.

<b>West Rankings: San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Sacramento, Memphis</b>

Final thoughts (not NBA related): Hoops fans please be sure to tune into the Men's Sweet Sixteen and Final Eight rounds! If you haven't
watched college hoops in a while or ever, you'll be reminded why this game is so amazing. Sure the execution and talent are not on the same level as the pro game, but the excitement and heart on display will surely be worth your time.