Playoff Assist: Race for West's last two spots and New York hoops

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

As we get closer to the 2014 NBA Playoffs, the push to secure a playoff berth and playoff positioning is the daily topic of conversation around the league. Let's take a look at five teams who are fighting for their playoff lives and the positioning to move on past the first round.

Monta Ellis helping the Dallas Mavericks:

Monta Ellis nearly helped the DallasMavericks to a big home victory over the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night, but had a shot blocked/goal tended in overtime before assassin Stephen Curry stole the victory for his team. Ellis was great for most of the game, but the Mavs needed him to step up in overtime the same way he did in the fourth quarter. Ellis could be the difference between the Mavs making the playoffs and missing it altogether.

The Mavs need him to fill the Jason Terry role from the championship run days and play the two-man game beautifully with Dirk Nowitzki. He's done that a lot this year, but as always with Monta, his team is going to need him to be consistent. He can't really have too many off quarters the rest of the seaosn, let alone off games.

Eric Bledsoe's booming return with the Phoenix Suns:

The Phoenix Suns have been killing teams with Eric Bledsoe back on the court since he returned from a knee injury, which kept him out for 33 straight games. Bledsoe's shooting hasn't been great since his return, making 40.0 percent of his shots, but his impact on the court has been felt. He's averaging 16.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 5.8 free throw attempts since his return. And the Suns keep blowing teams away when he's playing.

Bledsoe's net rating of plus-13.3 points per 100 possessions is tops on the team in the 11 games he's been back, and their defense is giving up just 97.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. That defensive rating would be the third best in the NBA over this stretch, which makes their 8-3 record in the past 11 games no coincidence at all.

Ride Mike Conley into the playoffs:

How much more can you ask of Mike Conley this season? The Memphis Grizzlies' point guard has been the best player on the team all season long, and he kept them afloat and in the playoff hunt when Marc Gasol missed time with a knee injury. Over the team's last 17 games, they're 12-5 thanks to his leadership and play. He's averaging 16.8 points and 5.2 assists, while making 45.1 percent of his shots and 39.1 percent of his 3-pointers.

Conley might be the best middle of the floor point guard in the NBA this season. His hesitation move obliterates helping big men on his dribble penetration and he controls the middle of the floor better than just about everybody in the league. He also might be the best defensive point guard in the NBA and deserves to be on the All-NBA Defensive First team. His ability to slow Goran Dragic and Jose Calderson in the final two games of the season could decide Memphis' season.

Have the Knicks finally gotten out of their own way?

The New York Knicks are... good again? New York is 11-3 over their past 14 games and right on the heels of the 8-seed with the Atlanta Hawks. They're one game behind Atlanta but two back in the loss column. Carmelo Anthony has remained the team's top offensive option with 28.1 points per game in this 14-game stretch, but he's finally getting help from the offensive players surrounding him.

J.R. Smith has averaged 15.6 points on 46.1 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from downtown in the Knicks' resurgence. With Smith actually hitting shots and getting over his hangover from last season's success, it's opening up the floor inside. Perhaps that is how Amar'e Stoudemire has become such a good option for the Knicks during this stretch. Stoudemire is giving the Knicks 16.7 points in just 28.5 minutes in the past 14 games.

The Brooklyn Nets' rise to a playoff berth:

I wrote about the importance of Shaun Livingston yesterday, showing how his work in the post, on the pick-and-roll, and on defense have helped impact the turnaround for the Brooklyn Nets since January 1. Livingston has been a part of a small ball movement by Jason Kidd that has given the Nets freedom to use multiple ball handlers and really attack opposing defenses. Before the New Year, Brooklyn was sitting 10-21 and 10th in a weak Eastern Conference.

Since the ball dropped in Times Square, Brooklyn has a 30-12 record, which is the best in the East and fourth best in the league. Joe Johnson has been quietly killing opponents for key stretches and Pierce-itis has been going around quite a bit. It's how Brooklyn went from a laughingstock to clinching a playoff berth while they fight for home court advantage in the first round.

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