There are realistically nine teams in play for the last three up-for-grabs playoff spots in both conferences: No. 7 and No. 8 in the East and No. 8 in the West.
SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Playoffs: Who wants it worst?
Some teams, though, are more desperate than others.
The five teams that lust for those playoff berths most:
1. Golden State
The Warriors have not tasted the postseason for 12 seasons, back when Don Nelson was coaching a rookie named Chris Webber and Monta Ellis was eight years old.
Isn't the league's longest playoff drought synonymous with desperate?
"The franchise needs it," said Golden State guard Baron Davis. "The whole Bay Area needs it."
2. New York
Isiah Thomas already has his contract extension, true.
But there's no team out there that would love to shout simply love to simply shout We're A Playoff Team more than the Knicks, regardless of whether they're competitive in the first round.
If the Knicks get in, swapping first-round picks with Chicago as part of the Eddy Curry trade becomes considerably more palatable. Odds are strong that the Knicks' pick won't wind up in Greg Oden/Kevin Durant territory even if they do miss the playoffs, but they'd naturally rather not even have to sweat through lottery proceedings and know that the Bulls won't be getting more than a pick in the teens from them.
If the Knicks get in, furthermore, Isiah and his supporters (read: Knicks players) would have a little more traction with their contention that last season's 23-59 nightmare was indeed all Larry Brown's fault.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
You can't make a list of teams that just want to shout We're A Playoff Team to the world without including Donald Sterling's Clippers.
As you can imagine, it was never part of Sterling's business plan to spend millions more than he ever has on players (and a coach) and come away with none of those lucrative Hollywood playoff gates. Clips management honestly doesn't care if hanging on to No. 8 means subjecting themselves to a first-round sweep by Dallas. That still would give them two home playoff games.
Of greater significance, perhaps, L.A. slipping in as an eighth seed would preserve some of the progress -- or at least give the illusion of preservation -- made in the culture-changing season of 2005-06.
There are so many issues confronting the Clips even if they can avoid a backslide. Just for starters this off-season, they'll be confronted with Shaun Livingston's lengthy and daunting rehab from knee surgery, Corey Maggette's lingering presence on the roster after more than a year of nonstop trade speculation and a sea of chemistry concerns even after Sam Cassell, Chris Kaman and coach Mike Dunleavy all got paid and after all those years Sterling was told that chemistry problems would melt away if he would just open his wallet.
If they can't avoid a backslide? The Clips are bound to take back their national punchline status from the Knicks.
Is it feasible to believe that they can find a trade partner willing to take on Ron Artest? Should they rekindle the trade talks that almost landed Mike Bibby in Cleveland at the February deadline? Does Eric Musselman deserve more than a season on the Kings' bench . . . or does Geoff Petrie, who didn't want to let Rick Adelman go in the first place, get to choose the next coach instead of the owners?
Just a few of the king-sized questions lingering in the California capital without even getting into the arena mess.
But if you've spent any time in the company of the Maloof Brothers lately, you know that they're not at all ready to be lottery-bound. They've never not been with a playoff team and openly dread the lottery, having advanced to eight straight postseasons since taking control of the franchise in the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign.
A lottery pick would probably help Sacramento address what scouts widely regard as the league's most unathletic front line. But Joe and Gavin Maloof badly want to keep the club's playoff streak alive before dealing with all of the tough stuff above.
If the owners are desperate, their team has to be classified the same way.
The Wolves are here purely out of respect for Kevin Garnett. Purely because it's incredibly sad to see that the last playoff spot in the West could well go to a team with a sub-.500 record and yet still sits beyond his reach. KG's Wolves are on the brink of a third straight season without postseason play.
But let's be honest.
Making the playoffs and losing handily in the first round with its flawed roster won't make Minnesota's KG Conundrum any easier. Garnett has the right to opt out of his contract and become a free agent after next season. The parties have to decide before this off-season, then, if they see enough shared and individual hope to continue the marriage or finally move into trade mode.
If the Wolves intend to hold firm on their refusal to consider trading him - and if Garnett continues to reject the frequent suggestion that it's time to push for a starting-over trade - then there is no grey area. Given those conditions, Minnesota should be desperate to miss the playoffs by as much as it can to help its lottery odds, since the Wolves' first-round draft pick will go to the Clippers as part of the Sam Cassell trade unless it's a top-10 pick.
And if the Wolves can't make the playoffs when it might not even require 41 wins to do, you suspect they could use that pick.
New Jersey and Indiana were billed coming into the season, at worst, as second-tier contenders in the East. And now they're not even desperate to crack the top eight?
Not more desperate than the teams listed above them. The Nets and Pacers might both wind up going to the postseason, but whether they do or don't make it won't change any of the questions they have to answer in the full-fledged crossroads summer that awaits for both.
If the Nets are going to keep Vince Carter and/or Jason Kidd -- just two of the major decisions looming in Jersey -- wouldn't they benefit more from a lottery pick than a one-and-out playoff run? Hard to argue otherwise, unless the Knicks' made the playoffs at the Nets' expense. I can see how that might be tough to stomach, even though New Jersey would have as strong an injury alibi for missing out as anyone in the conversation.
The Pacers, meanwhile, are such a growing mess that missing the playoffs probably makes it easier for them to rationalize blowing things up.
It remains to be seen how much more Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird can really change when they're suddenly saddled with so many undesirable contracts and with their first-round draft pick bound for Atlanta unless it's in the top 10. Yet club insiders maintain that Indy's ongoing 2-13 collapse has put well-regarded coach Rick Carlisle at serious risk for reassignment, with another one of our faves (Jermaine O'Neal) having long ago requested a sit-down assessment at season's end even though all signs point to the Pacers wanting to keep him.
Orlando (as covered in Box 6) would likely have to convey a lottery pick to Detroit if it drops out of the top eight in the playoff race but otherwise can't muster the desperation to rival anyone in the top five except Minnesota. This crucial offseason arguably carries more urgency for the Magic, as they decide whether to re-sign Darko Milicic or chase a top-tier free agent while also sorting out whether Grant Hill still has a place with them.
As for the Hornets, they'd love to bid farewell to Oklahoma City with a couple playoff games -- and bring back the momentum of a playoff run when they return to New Orleans -- but they have a young team with a Nets-like level of injury suffering to explain falling short.
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
But on the inside? Isiah Thomas can't be as calm as he looks. Even with a new contract extension in hand, he's still certifiably desperate to get the Knicks into the playoffs.
The Warriors naturally long for their first playoff berth since 1994 more than anything.
But they also quietly wish folks would at least be considering the possibility that they -- and not the glamorous Lakers -- have the best young center in the Pacific Division.
Andrew Bynum, of course, was the deal-breaker in L.A.'s trade talks with New Jersey for Jason Kidd. Bynum's size and agility, at just 19, have convinced the Lakers to keep him off limits, even though the 7-footer has disappointed Phil Jackson more than once this season.
The Warriors' Andris Biedrins, meanwhile, has 16 games with at least 15 boards (compared to Bynum's two) and ranks No. 3 in the league in field-goal percentage at .602, 13th in rebounding with a per-game average of 9.7 and 13th in blocks at 1.8 per game.
The slender Latvian will never be able to match Bynum's bulk and has to do serious work on his 51.3-percent shooting from the free-throw line. But he also turns 21 on April 2 -- making him just 18 months older than Bynum -- and plays a high-energy game as a fast-moving lefty. Which never hurts your cause here.
Wilt Chamberlain rumbled for 50 points or more in a span of three consecutive games 12 times from October 1961 through March 1963.
But Kobe Bryant just posted the gaudiest three-game run witnessed in the NBA for 40 years.
Most Points Over Three Games:
Of course, Bryant wants to lock up a playoff berth more than he needs to hear that he's now tied with Jordan for the most 60-point games in NBA history by players not named Wilt. (Bryant and Jordan have four; Chamberlain had 32).
The Lakers and Denver Nuggets, actually, want the same thing. They're desperate to keep their records over .500 and avoid slipping any further in the Western Conference playoff race . . . but both secretly crave the No. 7 seed over No. 6 because both teams believe they have a better chance beating Phoenix in Round 1 than San Antonio.
Chances are good that you missed Amare Stoudemire's 33-point, 21-rebound masterpiece Thursday night against Sacramento, with four NCAA Tournament games going and Kobe Bryant uncorking 60 points in Memphis.
Chances are even better, then, that you also missed the fact that we've seen 25-point, 20-board performances on three successive nights this week, all by Western Conference big men.
Before Amare did it Thursday, Seattle's Chris Wilcox had 27 points and 22 boards in a Wednesday home loss to Washington, preceded by Utah's Carlos Boozer going for 25 points and 21 rips in a narrow home win over Golden State.
The only other 25-20 games this season were on consecutive days in January: Seattle's Nick Collison going for 29 and 21 in a Jan. 9 loss to Phoenix and Orlando's Dwight Howard registering 30 and 25 in a home victory over the Warriors.
In a visit with Galloway & Co. on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM), Marc Stein revels in the NBA's ability to trump the NCAA Tournament with the best drama (Suns at Mavs) and finest individual performances (Kobe Bryant's 115 points in two) of the month. Hosts and guest also delve into the recent late-game criticism received by Dirk Nowitzki and assess how the East stacks up.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Desperate times call for desperate measures, as we all know, but at left we ponder how desperate KG's Timberwolves really are.
Brian Hill got a public vote of confidence from Magic general manager Otis Smith on March 10.
One day earlier, in this cyberspace, appeared a key justification for that stance: Orlando management, according to NBA front-office sources, is apparently giving Hill some "extra rope" this time given the circumstances surrounding the end of his first stint as Magic coach in 1997, when he was essentially ousted by player revolt.
Two weeks later, with the Magic still in serious jeopardy of missing out on one of the two playoff berths being chased by four teams -- New Jersey, Indiana and New York are the others -- sources close to the situation continue to insist that failure to reach the postseason won't change Orlando's mind.
"He's going to start next season regardless," one Magic insider said of Hill.
Yet missing the playoffs would come at a painful cost for the Magic. Should they slip out of the top eight, Detroit suddenly would claim a lottery pick as part of the Darko Milicic trade instead of a mid-range choice in the first round ... unless that pick falls 1-through-5. Anything No. 6 or lower goes to the Pistons.
And Orlando's recent lottery luck, remember, hasn't been the best, with still no indication if or when 2005 draftee Fran Vazquez plans to leave Spain for the NBA and J.J. Redick only recently cracking Hill's rotation after back and foot trouble delayed the start of his rookie season.
No one's getting crazy in Miami. An 11-3 spurt since losing Dwyane Wade to a shoulder separation was never going to spark a Better Off Without D-Wade? debate That said, Miami is handling the loss of a top-10 scorer better than any team in the league. Here's how teams had fared, through Thursday, with and without the game's foremost offensive threats:
When I crossed paths with Dwight Howard recently, he certainly gave the impression that he's done with the dunk contest. Can't blame him, either, after the league's refused to let him raise the rim to 12 feet and with the judges showing little appreciation for his "sticker" dunk.
"I think I'll just do my damage in the games," he said.
Howard did clarify, though, that 12 feet isn't his limit. He's apparently dunked on a rim raised to 12-foot-3 in practice.
"I think I could have gone a little higher, but there's a wall behind the basket," Howard said. "I was afraid to hit the wall."
On Wednesday's NBA Shootaround, ESPN.com's Marc Stein joined ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher and Jackie MacMullan of the Boston Globe for an NBA Nation segment, each reporting from their region of the country.
Topics covered in this segment: Kevin Durant's popularity with shoe companies as well as NBA scouts, Denver's first successful spell in the Carmelo Anthony-Allen Iverson era and Isiah Thomas' work with the Knicks' young front line.
Five questions with Warriors guard Baron Davis:
Q: Are we finally going to see the Warriors in the playoffs?
A: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. We're feeling good. The spirit of the team is on a high level. The [remaining] schedule, it's a hard schedule, but it's going to be fun. If we just continue playing the way we've been playing, I think we're going to be there.
Q: You said earlier in the season that the Warriors were fooling themselves to even think about the playoffs until they started winning more road games. Your team still isn't winning on the road, so how are you still in the hunt for the No. 8 spot?
A: I'm very surprised [Golden State struggling so badly on the road] hasn't hurt us more. But recently, I think we've been playing better on the road now that we've finally got our whole team healthy.
Q: What have Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson brought to the team?
A: An attitude and a passion for the game. They also bring camaraderie. Guys are hanging out together, we're doing a lot of team stuff. We weren't doing that before.
Q: The Warriors have four straight wins over the Dallas Mavericks. Do you really think you have their number and can give them a series?
A: Yes. It's been a good matchup for us. We've got a lot of athletic guys at 6-6 and 6-7 to throw at them. Plus having Coach Nelson, he's coached a lot of those Dallas players. So that's the X-factor.
Q: You and Paul Pierce have taken over Magic Johnson's summer charity game, which I personally loved going to when I was in high school. How did you and Paul end up taking the torch from Magic?
A: Magic's game was something that, growing up in LA, this game was the All-Star Game. This was the game you wanted to go to. Magic's been my mentor since I was 15, when I first started playing [pick-up ball] at UCLA. He just took me under his wing, grooming me to do other things, to be more than an athlete. Paul and I are both from L.A. and we're going to keep adding stars from L.A. to keep this thing going for the community and keep it growing for the better.
(Editor's Note: Davis and Pierce announced Friday that Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas has joined them as a co-host for their LA Stars charity game at USC as part of a celebrity weekend from Aug. 3-5.)
"Last year I had an opportunity to go the Finals in Miami and get a little taste of it. I want to make it to the playoffs so bad."
Orlando's Dwight Howard, whose Magic are clinging to the eighth spot in the East thanks to an 18-34 slide since their 13-4 start.
It's a little hard to believe now, but Orlando spent 57 days this season with at least a share of first place in the Southeast Division, second only to Washington's 77 days.
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:
Jack (Tallahassee): Shouldn't the Sixth Man Award have some kind of total minutes cap? Leandro Barbosa and Manu Ginobili are not really bench players. They only sit out the first three minutes of each game. Jerry Stackhouse is the best true bench guy in the league.
Stein: You might be right about Stack, especially when you factor in that he's the most consistent source of toughness for the team with the league's best record.
Can't let the rest of your claims pass, though.
I could see perhaps tweaking the minimum-games qualification if you insist, where only players who are non-starters in 60 percent or two-thirds of their games are eligible for the Sixth Man Award.
At present, players are eligible as long as they come off the bench just one more time than they start. (Example: Ginobili has made 36 starts this season with 15 games to play. If he plays in all of San Antonio's remaining games, he's eligible for Sixth Man Award consideration as long as he doesn't exceed 40 starts.)
But why mess with minutes? What kind of cutoff would you propose? Once you examine this season's top contenders one-by-one, where's the need for additional restrictions?
Barbosa is only fifth on his team in minutes per game at 32.5.
Ginobili has never averaged more than 29.6 minutes per game in his five NBA seasons and averages 27.7 mpg this season, lowest since his rookie year.
Stackhouse, furthermore, is only down at 23.8 minutes per game because the Mavs are saving his legs for the playoffs after a variety of knee, hamstring and ankle issues. He'd otherwise be in the same neighborhood as the first two when it comes to PT and is sure to play more in the postseason.
None of them, you'll notice, is playing an outrageous amount. (That includes New York's David Lee, who would have been a contender if not for his recent leg trouble, averaging 11.2 points and 10.7 rebounds in 30.9 minutes nightly.)
All of them, meanwhile, have that special sixth man's gift that enables them to change games even when they come in cold and even if they'd all rather be starting.