Updated: March 13, 2011, 7:29 PM ET

1. Scouts Size Up The Stretch Run

Stein By Marc Stein
Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James and Deron WilliamsUS PresswireCan the Mavericks win the West? Are the Heat's struggles for real? Can D-Will be happy in New Jersey?

Every team in the league entered the weekend with 20 games or fewer left on their schedules.

Which means we've arrived at the regular season's quarter pole. we've arrived at the regular season's quarter pole.

Which also means it's time to consult our usual coterie of advance scouts for the season's third and final installment of press-row insights into some of the league's most relevant topics, volunteered by folks who attend three to four games weekly to study the competition from the closest vantage point possible.

The following observations come from six scouts, all of whom were granted anonymity so they could speak as candidly as possible:

Eastern Conference scout on the Knicks' ceiling now that they've added Carmelo Anthony:

"I see them as a fifth seed in the best case. They have some of the same issues as Miami to some degree. You have to have a really strong bench to do something in the playoffs. I just don't see them able to get past that.

"I'm not so worried about Melo and Amare [Stoudemire] playing together. Amare is definitely a [Mike] D'Antoni guy; he's proven that in two places now. There's going to be an adjustment for Melo, because he's an isolation player and D'Antoni's system has all that ball movement and pick-and-roll action. But I think those guys will play well together.

"They like each other and wanted to play together. Maybe Chauncey Billups can give them more than I [expect], but they don't have enough to win a playoff series. They'll be good when their two guys are scoring, but not great."

Western Conference scout on the MVP race:

"I hope you guys get this one right. Because it's Derrick Rose.

"He's become so dominant in a game. He's making 3s. He attacks the rim. He makes the shot behind the screen when the defender goes under instead of forcing a drive that isn't there.

"He makes his teammates better. Defensively [he's] as solid as they come. Heart of a lion. He wills that team, along with [Joakim] Noah, to compete.

"[Tom] Thibodeau has definitely helped him step up his full-game motor, but Rose has taken it from there. Point guard, leader, warrior.

"Can you tell that I like him?"

Eastern Conference scout on Deron Williams' move to New Jersey:

"I really think he'll be much happier over there. They're going to play a little bit more of a wide-open game, use more of his quickness. I know everyone wonders how he's going to get along with Avery [Johnson], but everyone I talk to says he's not as strict as they thought he was going to be. I do think [Avery is] going to give him more freedom.

"The biggest thing with [Williams] is that he's obviously not healthy. That wrist is bothering him. But he's been more on the attack [with the Nets] than I've seen him in the past. He knows it's his team and he's getting the freedom to call plays, open the floor up, get in some different kinds of pick-and-rolls that can exploit his speed and quickness.

"He just had to do it in a different way in Utah. [Jerry Sloan] is a system coach and a super successful system coach. And he didn't change that system for anybody, from Karl Malone to now. D-Will was plugged into that system and they didn't make adjustments for him.

"[Such a rigid approach] can't be argued with because of all the success Utah's had. But this is going to be a breath of fresh air for him."

Western Conference scout on how Boston will fare after swapping Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green:

"I don't think it's going to hurt them as much as people think. I know [Perkins] was an enforcer, but [Nenad] Krstic is not that bad defensively. And then offensively, he obviously gives them a lot more.

"Jeff Green is just completely lost right now, but they'll figure it out with time. The defensive system in Boston is so much more detailed than what Oklahoma City runs, but there's still plenty of time [before the playoffs]. They're gonna pick it up.

"Right now it looks bad because they have to learn and play on the fly. But maybe it's a blessing in disguise that Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal] and Big Baby [Glen Davis] have been out, so the new guys have to play and have to figure it out.

"I'm like everybody else. I thought they were gonna make the run with Perkins all the way to the Finals. But I think Green can space the floor just enough that he can play off those guys and give them a different dimension."

Eastern Conference scout on Miami's struggles to beat elite teams and win close games ... before Thursday night's slump-buster against the Lakers:

"I think a lot of this is overblown by you [media] guys. They've got so much pressure on them and maybe they have imploded in some of these games, but I still think they're going to be fine. Just think about the Lakers. A few weeks ago, they were talking about trading people. The turnaround is never far away when you have that kind of talent.

"If [Miami's] offense looks boring and looks selfish, just remember that it's the same offense as Pat Riley ran. [Erik Spoelstra] hasn't changed a play. He hasn't changed a call. Now maybe Pat gets more out of it because of who he is, but it's not just at the end of games. Most of their offense is one pass, one shot. It is boring and it is basic.

"Predictable isn't always bad. Utah has always been very predictable and successful. But when [Spoelstra's] had [the Heat] playing well [this season], it's because he got them to play faster and take advantage of their athleticism.

"The problem in the playoffs is that nobody is going to let you run. The good teams won't. The good teams will make them play half court."

Western Conference scout on Memphis' ability to spring a first-round upset:

"I've always said they're a sleeper. They've got the two really good big men who play so well off each other in [Marc] Gasol and Zach [Randolph], but the best thing they did is when they moved [O.J.] Mayo to sixth man, which finally gave them someone on that second unit to make some noise.

"For me, though, Memphis and Portland go together. They're the two scariest teams [in the bottom half] of the West bracket. It's kind of a toss-up because [Gerald] Wallace fits [Portland] perfectly.

"He's taken to their offense immediately. [Wallace] can play the 4; he can play the 3. They have so much more versatility now. He gives them the versatility that they used to have in two or three different players."

Eastern Conference scout on Doug Collins' role in the Sixers' resurgence:

"His handprints are all over that team. They were so bad in the preseason. The worst team I saw for the first month.

"They have come a long way. All the stuff they ran early is all gone. Doug started out running the same sort of stuff he ran in his last job in D.C., but he figured out that it doesn't quite fit this personnel.

"But that's what he does. He figures out his personnel, what they can and can't do, and finds ways to put guys in position to be successful. Now they're very solid on offense and defense. They've really become a good defensive team. They're guarding and they're talking.

"And I remember early in the season, when things weren't going well, I saw him talking to [Andre] Iguodala and [Elton] Brand and just telling them, 'Stick with me and we'll get this figured out.' I couldn't believe [Collins] had to do it that early, but he knew exactly what he was doing."

Eastern Conference scout on the Mavericks' viability as a threat to the Spurs and Lakers out West:

"This is one of [the Mavs'] best teams. From top to bottom, they have a lot of depth and can play any style. Big, small, play through injuries.

"Everyone talks about Tyson Chandler as the big difference-maker, but that's not the only [difference]. Their ball movement is the best in the league. They don't have another guy on Dirk [Nowitzki]'s level, but the way they move the ball around makes them really hard to guard.

"I know they've done this in the regular season before, but I think they're legit. They have a lot of veterans, hungry veterans. And they have a lot of size now. I'd give them a puncher's chance against the Lakers."

Western Conference scout on who wins it all:

"It's not the answer you want, but picking today is impossible. Anyone who tells you they know is guessing. I do feel very safe in saying that it will not be Sacramento."

Dimes past: Feb. 16 | 17 | 18 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 28 | March 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 4-6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

2. Western Conference


Bobcats president Michael Jordan helped Portland at the trade deadline with his willingness to dump Gerald Wallace's contract ... and MJ might have also helped the Blazers by quickly signing Paul Silas to a contract extension.

As covered in this cyberspace in December, Jordan was planning to be a prime suitor for Nate McMillan had the Blazers' coach, as he originally intended, finished out the final season of his contract to become a coaching free agent in the summer.

But the abrupt in-season departure of Larry Brown and Silas' early success as Brown's replacement -- before the Bobcats decided to deal Wallace and pack in the season -- prompted Jordan to move immediately and sign Silas to a one-year extension.

For all the justifiable skepticism about the Bobcats' willingness to engage Portland in a bidding war for McMillan, they were expected to factor into McMillan's thinking, given his ties to the area as a North Carolina native as well as to Bobcats team president Fred Whitfield. So let's just say that the removal of Charlotte as a potential landing spot couldn't have hurt the Blazers' ability to secure McMillan's signature this week on a new two-year extension.

Yet there's also a strong belief in coaching circles that the Blazers began to press McMillan on accepting an extension now because of their growing fear that the Lakers were going to pursue him as a potential replacement for Phil Jackson, who continues to insist that this season is his farewell to coaching.

Some numbers of note in the West this week:

6: Kobe Bryant is up to sixth on the NBA's all-time scoring list, with 27,473 career points, and has passed six famous names this season after starting at No. 12: John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone.

2: Al Jefferson's game-winning tip at the horn Wednesday night in Toronto marked just the second buzzer-beater for the Jazz in the past six seasons. Sundiata Gaines' buzzer-beating 3-pointer last season to beat Cleveland, just days after Gaines was called up from D-League, is the other.

14: During his record run of 52 consecutive double-doubles, Kevin Love has on 14 occasions this season reached double figures in points and rebounds by halftime, including Wednesday's 26-point home rout of Indiana. Love finished with 16 points and 21 boards, good for his 13th 20-rebound game this season.

64: Love needed only 64 games to reach the 1,000-rebound mark for the season. The last player to get there that quickly was Dennis Rodman, who reached the 1,000 plateau in just 57 games with San Antonio in 1993-94.

227: That's the all-time record for consecutive double-doubles, which was established -- shocker -- by Wilt Chamberlain. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Wilt assembled separate streaks of 227, 220 and 133 consecutive double-doubles for Love to chase.

Kobe Bryant's instantly famous shooting session in Miami after Thursday night's loss to the Heat and the Lakers' visit to Dallas on Saturday night makes this a good time to trot out a memorable line you might have missed from Mavs owner Mark Cuban during Super Bowl Week from Jim Rome's "Rome Is Burning" on ESPN2. With the Lakers still in the throes of their midseason funk, Cuban scoffed at the notion that the Lakers had actually squandered their status as title favorites, telling Rome: "I don't care if Kobe is 97. He'd take out his dentures and bite you and finish out the game." ... All-Star snubs don't just bruise egos. They can be costly, too. Wallace is a Blazer now, but he'd have earned an extra $500,000 had he made the Eastern Conference All-Star squad for a second successive season in Charlotte. Memphis' Zach Randolph, meanwhile, lost out on a $333,333 All-Star bonus when West coaches snubbed him last month.

3. One-On-One ... To Five


Five questions with Pennsylvania native Chris Finch, who coaches the Luol Deng-led Great Britain national team as well as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, who won the D-League last season:

Q: On Sunday, you guys find out if FIBA is allowing Great Britain to fill one of the 12 automatic spots in the Olympic basketball tournament in 2012. How nervous are you?

A: I'm pretty optimistic. From a basketball performance point of view, we've met a lot of the objectives that they laid out. Their biggest concern has always been the basketball administration side.

And like most political change or bureaucratic change, that takes a little bit more time to get everything organized [moving from separate basketball federations in England, Scotland and Wales to one governing body that oversees basketball throughout Great Britain].

But overall, I feel pretty hopeful.

Q: The host nation hasn't been excluded from the basketball tournament since the sport was introduced at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Don't they ultimately have to let Great Britain in if the 2012 Games are in London?

A: I never took that for granted. FIBA has been very clear that it's their tournament and they will make the decision as they see fit.

I think, in the Olympic spirit, to exclude the host would be sad, but I really think they're going to put us in because of what we've been able to do [qualifying twice under Finch for the Eurobasket competition] since we kind of started this process in 2006.

Q: I know you played and coached club ball in England, but how have you been received as an American coaching the national team?

A: I'd have to say quite favorably. I've spent more than 10 years of my life there. I love the country. I have a strong affinity for the place. I've been through all the peaks and valleys, from where the professional league was in a better place than the national team to where we are now with the national team being a bit more successful. But I think we've always maintained that for the sport to really grow [Great Britain's] national team has to really lead the way.

Q: What's a realistic ceiling for your team if you can ever get Deng and Ben Gordon reunited as teammates with Team GB?

A: I've always said that if we have all of our best players it's not outside the realm of possibility to win a medal. What's hurt us [in recent years], be it injuries or contract situations or whatever, it's been difficult to get all of our best players together.

But I just saw Ben [on Wednesday] night in San Antonio and I think we have a really good chance to have Ben this summer. Kelenna Azubuike still doesn't have a [UK] passport but is inching closer to it. He was born in London, and we believe he's entitled to a passport and will eventually get the passport.

This might be our chance this summer [at Eurobasket 2011 in Lithuania] to put our best team on the floor.

Q: Your day job is coaching in the D-League. Defending champs and working as an extension of the Rockets' organization ... sounds like a pretty good gig.

A: It really is. I think it's a great model. There's a lot of cohesion with the Rockets on what we're doing and why. We talk with them every day. We're much more a division of their personnel department than their coaching staff.

They got into the D-League business [directly aligning with Rio Grande as a "hybrid" affiliate] for developing and evaluating personnel.

We've got three guys on NBA call-ups right now [New Orleans' Jerel McNeal, Golden State's Jeff Adrien and Washington's Mustafa Shakur] and we've had about eight different guys called up the last two years. So that makes you feel good.


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