The time has come to put up or shut up, as procrastination has become grounds for elimination.
Perhaps no one wants to play sacrificial lamb in this year's playoffs, because entering the week's action, the three teams in the hunt for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference -- Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston -- have lost a combined 10 of 11. The Pistons are scary, but that scary?
|Steven Hunter has gone from failed trade bait to starting at center for the Sixers. (AP)|
You would guess all these teams are trying to duck potentially embarrassing first-round sweeps, but that's unrealistic. C'mon, think of the playoff revenue they would be losing.
Philadelphia lost all four games it played without Allen Iverson, who is still dealing with an injured right foot. There's talk that he might return for Wednesday's home game against Atlanta. Knowing Iverson, he'll rush back having seen how pitiful his team is without him.
"We need him more than we know, more than anybody can say," Chris Webber said after Sunday's loss at Golden State. "Just because we get Allen back, and just because we're playing Atlanta, just because of all those things, they don't matter if we don't go execute. We've got to come out with that effort and just play."
It's funny to hear the "just because we're playing Atlanta" comment, as it's a not-so-veiled barb at the perennially down-trodden Hawks. However, C-Webb could check the standings and realize Atlanta has performed better than Philly over the past few weeks, and the Hawks' effort, with Josh Smith and Joe Johnson playing out of their minds, has been consistent, making them potential spoilers.
Despite their struggles, the Bulls and Celtics have each made up a game on the 76ers over the past 10 days, and right now, there might not be a more flawed team in the conference. Maurice Cheeks is trying to send a message to Samuel Dalembert, so he has benched the center due to inconsistent play, essentially pulling the rug out from under him upon his return from an ankle injury. Meanwhile, Steven Hunter, a player Philadelphia traded for two second-round picks on Feb. 1, only to have the deal rescinded due to a failed physical, is getting the minutes.
"Nobody even talked to me before the change," Dalembert was quoted as saying by the Philadelphia media. "I just got back and they just said, 'Hey, you're not starting.' It's one thing not starting -- it's another thing that you're not playing."
He hasn't played more than 20 minutes since March 8, but defensive liability Kyle Korver continues to be on the floor in the final seconds of games. And it has cost Philadelphia on more than one occasion. Then again, considering the team's lack of depth, there aren't many options.
Even with Iverson back in the fold, this week's home games against Atlanta and Orlando figure to be challenging.
This is the time Chicago either makes its move or falls out of contention, as four of its next nine games are going to be against the Celtics and Sixers, the beginning Saturday night in Boston.
Any chance for success coincides with getting energy on the boards from center Tyson Chandler, and lately, that hasn't been there. After racking up double-figures in rebounds in 15 of 19 games, Chandler hasn't cracked that number in any of the past four. He has given Chicago no post presence either, attempting just three shots during their three-game losing streak.
And Ben Gordon had hit a terrible slide before Sunday's 20-point game, only his second double-figure scoring effort in the past five. Since Chicago isn't getting much from such key components, it has squandered an opportunity to get into the playoff mix.
"We've been in this position it seems like forever now," guard Kirk Hinrich told the Chicago Sun-Times. "We're on the outside looking in. We've had our chances and just haven't been able to take advantage of it. It's beyond a little frustrating right now."
|Must-see menu - Week's Top 10 games|
|Monday||L.A. Clippers at Houston|
|Tuesday||New Jersey at Washington|
|Tuesday||Indiana at Memphis|
|Wednesday||Miami at Detroit|
|Wednesday||Sacramento at L.A. Lakers|
|Wednesday||Minnesota at Golden State|
|Thursday||L.A. Clippers at Memphis|
|Friday||Detroit at Indiana|
|Saturday||Denver at Phoenix|
|Sunday||New Jersey at Detroit|
|Sunday||N.O./Oklahoma City at L.A. Lakers|
You can go ahead and eliminate the Houston Rockets now that Tracy McGrady is essentially shut down for the season. The team enters this week's action 2-18 in games without him. That's downright inept. Had they even approached the putrid level, they would probably have a hold on a playoff spot.
As it stands now, all that's left is to ride out the string, hope no one else gets hurt, and continue with Yao Ming's development.
With the Rockets fading out of the picture, the Jazz and Hornets are left chasing the Kings and Lakers for the final two Western Conference spots.
The Lakers have a huge opportunity to solidify their spot this week, playing host to the Kings on Wednesday and the Hornets on Sunday, and must shake off the disappointment of yet another wasted opportunity in a nationally televised loss to Cleveland on Sunday. Once again, they wilted down the stretch, a turn of events that has little to do with Kobe Bryant's ability to hit buzzer-beater with bodies draped all over him and everything to do with the fact he has such little help.
So much for Phil Jackson's plan to keep his star fresh. He recently discussed reducing Bryant's minutes to around 36, but the Lakers can't tie their own shoes without him. Bryant continues to fade late in games because of all the attention focused on him and the energy he must expend to keep the Lakers close.
No one is stepping up, and oh look, here comes Ron Artest.
Artest roughed up Bryant in last Tuesday's 114-98 home victory over the Lakers, cementing his status as the toast of Sacramento. He contributed to Bryant shooting 12-for-28 and scored 28 points of his own on just 15 shots. Considering he got a month of inactivity and is just now hitting his stride, Artest's legs are far fresher than Bryant's, and that could ultimately make the difference in the Kings overtaking their rivals.
Think Artest's bosses are happy with him?
"I've been reborn," owner Gavin Maloof told the Sacramento Bee. "It's just been a resurrection, if you will. Every time he steps out on the court, I feel so alive. It's a totally different energy than we've all had. I never knew he was this good."
This week Sacramento visits not only the Lakers, but Utah as well. Anything the Kings can do to start distancing themselves from the pack would be a wise idea. April brings a two-week stretch in which they'll play six games against five teams virtually locked into playoff spots, which includes games at Dallas, San Antonio and the L.A. Clippers in a four-day period.
Despite a league-worst eight-game losing streak, the Hornets are still holding out hope of reclaiming a playoff spot they once had a firm grasp on. They play their final New Orleans game of the season Tuesday against the Clips, looking to win there for the first time since March 12, 2005.
The Hornets' youth has been a detriment ever since the All-Star break, as fear the team might not have the understanding of what it takes to win down the stretch is realized.
"I don't know how we're looking at the rest of the season, but it's mind-boggling to me that we don't understand that we have to come out like we are in a dogfight," said a beleaguered Byron Scott, who has tried every motivational ploy short of water torture to get his team out of its funk. "We're coming out like we are just so soft in the beginning of games it's incredible."
The Hornets return to Oklahoma City for a must-win game against the Rockets on Thursday before hitting the road for six of seven. Included in that swing are visits to Lakers and Utah on back-to-back nights, Sunday and Monday.
- Considering how many feuds we have had between players and coaches this season, from Larry Brown and Stephon Marbury to George Karl and Kenyon Martin to Scott and J.R. Smith, it's nice to point out when a player and coach are getting along. Karl on Carmelo Anthony: "In January, he put this team on his back and saved the season when we had every excuse and every reason to give in to the schedule, to give in to the situations."
- Cleveland's Larry Hughes hopes to find out later this week if a return for the season's final couple of games is possible. Right now, midseason acquisition Flip Murray is doing a nice job filling his void.
- Portland has gone back to Sebastian Telfair as its starting point guard, and the phenom has responded with his best play of the season.
- Seen that new Kevin Garnett Gatorade Rain commercial? In it, he hatches from an egg like a Predator-like creature. It's a shame Minnesota can't hatch a few more quality teammates for him.