Updated: April 2, 2010, 3:48 PM ET

1. Who Else Can Reach The Finals?

A dozen of our NBA writers were asked the following question: Other than the Lakers and Cavaliers, what two other teams do you see as most capable of reaching the NBA Finals and why? Here are their responses.

Tim Legler, ESPN
The Mavericks can play with any style. Fast, slow or in a defensive-oriented game. They are the most complete team outside of the Lakers in the West. Shawn Marion and Caron Butler have given them the defensive-minded size on the wings that they have lacked. Plus they can both score consistently without having to be the primary option in sets.

Orlando looks completely different with Jameer Nelson playing the way he was prior to his injury last season. He has his confidence and rhythm back. Now they have a change-of-pace scoring option at that position again. He puts a lot of pressure on defenses, which frees up 3-point shooters and gives room to Dwight Howard inside. They are a legit contender now.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com
The Magic are clearly the Cavs' only rival for supremacy in the East, and of course they've done this before. Utah is playing the best of anyone in the West, although it's a more equal field in that conference.

David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.
I like the Magic in the East. They're back to defending like champs, and to beat them you have to hope they have four bad shooting games, thanks to Dwight's inside dominance. And you could still lose because you can't score either.

And if the Nuggets get Kenyon Martin and their coach back, they will play with a purpose and a passion we've never seen before. It will be especially tough to beat them in Denver, where the emotion will be a factor the way Golden State's crowd was a few years ago.

Tim MacMahon, ESPNDallas.com
Utah has played the West's best ball for the last few months. Derek Fisher helped teach Deron Williams the NBA ropes, but that's a major mismatch in the Jazz's favor.

Orlando dismissed LeBron and Co. in convincing fashion last spring. Why wouldn't the Magic be able to pull off the same trick this season?

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop
To me, it's a four-team race and the only reason everyone doesn't think that is because Deron Williams and Dwight Howard aren't as famous as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com
I thought Denver was a strong candidate to knock off the Lakers, but with Kenyon Martin injured and George Karl focused on his health, they haven't been the same. Orlando has exceptional depth and has that attitude that comes from losing in the Finals last year.

Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com
Orlando in the East, because they're just as crafty as ever, and they're deeper this year, and Dallas in the West, because they've been on the upswing since the big trade, and 1 through 5, with everyone healthy (and which Utah and Denver are lacking), they're as strong as anyone.

Nick Friedell, ESPNChicago.com
I think the Magic are still going to give the Cavs a lot of problems in the playoffs because of the way they're constructed.
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Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesOur writers think the Mavericks and Nuggets are next in line if the Lakers stumble in the West.
Stan Van Gundy will have them ready to play, and it sure seems like they are starting to play about as well as they did earlier in the year. If Vince Carter raises his game, which is a big if of course, the Magic are probably headed to the Finals once again.

The Nuggets haven't been playing as well over the last couple of weeks, but I still believe in the Carmelo Anthony/Chauncey Billups tandem. Those two players have the ability to take over games, and I think this may be the year where Anthony takes the team on his back and leads them to the promised land.

Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine
With Kenyon Martin and George Karl questionable for the rest of the season (regular and post), Dallas is the second-best team in the West. The addition of Caron Butler and Brendon Haywood gave them some Eastern Conference toughness that the Lakers always find troubling. Shawn Marion's experiencing a resurgence of late, and while I don't see the Mavs beating L.A., I give them a better chance than anyone else out West.

Orlando is a legitimate threat to Cleveland in the East. If Dwight Howard can send Shaq to the bench in foul trouble, thereby forcing Cleveland to double-team Dwight, the Cavs will find themselves scrambling and rotating on D just like last year. That'll open up the trey for Orlando and make things tough on Cleveland. I like Cleveland in this series, but the Magic won't go quietly.

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com
Orlando has a powerful two-pronged attack: They can kill you in transition, or they can pick you apart in the half court by luring you into double-teams, then exploiting those opportunities.

The Jazz have been running the same stuff for more than 20 years, but for whatever reason, teams are having a difficult time this season combating it. Part of that is Deron Williams cracking the code. Part of that is that their big men -- particularly Carlos Boozer -- are able to set up as deep as any in the league. In addition, their flex offense gets them mismatches all over the court and runs the defense ragged with all those screens and cuts.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com
Orlando was my Eastern Conference favorite coming into the season and I still rate the deepest Magic team we've ever seen ahead of everyone else in the East outside of Cleveland -- even though I also believe Boston can (and) will give Orlando more of a push than anyone expects if those teams meet in the second round. The belief here is that the three-headed combo of a healthy Jameer Nelson, an improving Vince Carter and the ever-pesky Matt Barnes make up for the matchup mojo that the Magic can no longer throw at the Cavs because Hedo Turkoglu is in Toronto.
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Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Magic, led by Vince Carter and Dwight Howard, have all of the pieces in place to return to the Finals.

As for the West ... wow. Not so easy to narrow it down when you have eight playoff teams on pace to win at least 50 games. But I'm going with Dallas because the Mavs -- for what they lack in continuity after changing their team so dramatically at the trade deadline -- appear to have the requisite size and versatility to compete with the Lakers thanks to the arrival of Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler in that deal. Don't think the Jazz, for all they've shown us during this scorching second half, are quite big enough. And we know the Suns aren't big enough, even though they've quietly thrust Alvin Gentry into the Coach of the Year discussion with a 14-3 start and a hotter finish. The Nuggets would have been my choice here, since they do have the been-there continuity Dallas lacks, but Denver might be without Kenyon Martin and coach George Karl for the rest of the season and might not even have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
The Nuggets almost beat the Lakers last season and are better than anyone thought while the Lakers are certainly playing worse than any of us expected when the season began. The Nuggets won't be scared of the moment after blowing out the Lakers by an average of nearly 20 points in their first two meetings this season. The Magic made the NBA Finals last year when everyone thought the Cavs would just sweep their way to an East title and I think the same thing might happen this season. I still don't think the Cavs can match up with Dwight Howard in the paint and Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter from the perimeter. Nuggets-Magic is the Finals we almost got last season and I can certainly see it being the one we get this season.

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2. Howard For Most Valuable Player?

By Tim MacMahon


DALLAS -- Don't tell anybody in the Orlando Magic locker room that LeBron James has lapped the field in the MVP race.

Point guard Jameer Nelson passionately lobbied for Magic big man Dwight Howard following Orlando's 97-82 victory Thursday night over the Dallas Mavericks. Considering that Howard had a 17-point, 20-rebound, five-block, no-foul performance in the win over a Western Conference contender, the Nelson case ought to at least be heard.

"I think he should be the MVP," Nelson said, admitting bias. "It's not even about the Defensive Player of the Year. Somebody who does the things he does night in and night out defensively, it goes far beyond the Defensive Player of the Year.

"He's controlling the game defensively. All the rest of the guys that are being mentioned for MVP are just scoring the ball and making plays."

Is that convincing enough for Howard to make a serious MVP run? Probably not.

Is Howard dominant enough to make the Magic a legitimate title contender? Without a doubt.

Orlando's defensive dominance against the Mavs, who shot 38.3 percent from the floor, came as no surprise. A Dallas team playing with heavy legs less than 24 hours after rallying for an overtime win in Memphis was no match for Orlando's elite defense, which holds foes to a league-low .437 field-goal percentage.

The Magic's defense is peaking as the playoffs approach. While going 12-2 over the last month, the Magic have held opponents to 90.9 points per game on .429 percent shooting.

Matt Barnes, one of two non-centers on the roster who coach Stan Van Gundy considers an above-average individual defender, mentions the Magic's improvement in executing coverages and increased trust as factors in the defensive surge. Of course, the key is "the monster in the back," as Barnes refers to Howard.

"We've got the human eraser," Barnes said. "You get up in your man and really take pride in locking your man down, but just know that if you get beat, you have that help."

Added Van Gundy: "Our other guys' effort has picked up, and Dwight is just a great anchor back there. He really makes our defense."

Howard readily admits that he coasted too often on defensive possessions earlier in his career. That changed a couple of years ago after he was challenged by Orlando assistant coach Patrick Ewing, whose message was reinforced by fellow former shot-blocker Dikembe Mutombo.

The 7-footers told Howard that he ought to own the Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as the rebounding and blocked-shot crowns, for the next decade.

"Defense is all effort," said Howard, who should be a lock to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in rebounding (13.3 per game) and blocked shots (2.74) for the second straight season. "If you want to play defense and stop people, you will. If you don't want to, they will score every play. There's not really a technique you can work on to be a better defender. You just have to really want to stop people."

It helps to have a chiseled 6-foot-11, 275-pound frame and the ability to jump out of the gym. Or it helps to have that guy making up for the mistakes you make.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

3. Daily Dime Live Recap

ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Wednesday's games -- all in Daily Dime Live.


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