In tonight's ESPN doubleheader, the San Antonio Spurs host the Dallas Mavericks (7 ET), while the Minnesota Timberwolves host the Phoenix Suns (9:30 ET). Our panel of experts examines a few key topics surrounding each showdown.
1. Fact or Fiction: The Mavs will make the playoffs (currently 8th in West).
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Fact, but it won't be easy. They're currently 2.5 games up on the Nuggets and Wolves for that eighth spot, and the injury bug-bitten Pelicans and Grizzlies are a couple of games behind that. If Dallas can stay healthy and make hay during a very soft February schedule, they might be able to put enough daylight between them and the pack behind them.
Andrew Lynch, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fact. The Hollinger Playoff Odds have Dallas as basically a coin flip to make the postseason, as the Mavericks are holding off playoff challengers on two fronts. But that might actually work in their favor. If the Suns, who are a game ahead of the Mavs, cool off, Dallas is likely looking to claim the seventh seed, which would give them a cushion as they try to hold off the Wolves and Pelicans from below.
Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Fact. I remain faithfully committed to the brilliance of the Dirk Nowitzki-Rick Carlisle duo in Dallas. Carlisle's ability to harness Monta Ellis' powers this season has been wonderful, and Dirk is still Dirk. And by that, I mean awesome. I also don't trust those teams below Dallas in the standings to overtake the Mavs.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Fact. While Dallas ranks ninth in the West in point differential so far, odds are that one of the teams ahead of them will slip from that pace, leaving the Mavericks in position to grab the eighth and final seed if they merely maintain this level of play.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Fiction. Among teams fighting for lower-seeded playoff spots, I'll bet against the defense that features Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and little rim protection. Also, their good offense relies on Dirk Nowitzki, who missed significant time last season. I love watching this team, but I doubt I'll get to keep watching them in the postseason.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Spurs will reach the Western Conference finals.
Elhassan: Fiction, but only because I interpret this question as "Spurs or the field." The Western Conference playoffs will be all about matchups, and so for at least the top six teams, the likelihood of making the Conference finals will rely greatly on who they play. It'll make for interesting jockeying down the stretch, as it might be more advantageous to be a lower seed and get a favorable matchup than be a higher seed with a less favorable matchup.
Lynch: Fact. Oklahoma City recently surpassed the Spurs for best defense in the West, even without Russell Westbrook, but San Antonio is a close second in net rating in the conference, behind those same Thunder. The field is robust, with the Warriors more likely to make the NBA Finals, per the Hollinger Playoff Odds, but I just can't bring myself to bet against the Spurs.
McNeill: Fact. Despite San Antonio's troubles this season with the top teams in the West, I think we're still headed for an Spurs-Thunder collision in the West Finals. The Spurs have to be concerned that Tony Parker's mileage is catching up to him, but a healthy San Antonio has a defense built for the playoffs and a roster deep enough to win the first two rounds.
Pelton: Fact. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder have been better in the West this season, and Russell Westbrook's injury opens the door for the Spurs to grab the No. 1 seed and the inside track to the conference finals.
Strauss: Fiction. It's no insult to the Spurs; the West is just so competitive that taking the field makes sense. San Antonio has had yet another great season start, but they could be vulnerable against certain kinds of playoff teams. For example, the Rockets are an inferior squad that pose a matchup threat to the Spurs in a series.
3. Fact or Fiction: Phoenix's Jeff Hornacek will win coach of the year.
Elhassan: Faction? Hornacek is definitely among the front-runners, but it is hard to ignore the jobs done by Terry Stotts in Portland, Frank Vogel in Indiana and Steve Clifford in Charlotte. Have we ever had co-coach of the year?
Lynch: Fact. Hornacek will get heavy consideration for the award, but if Phoenix falls out of the playoffs, a lot of the shine will come off of his coach of the year candidacy. Fortunately for Hornacek and the Suns, I'm more and more convinced with each passing day that they will in fact qualify for the postseason. Leading a team expected to win 19 games to something closer to 50 victories makes a pretty compelling case.
McNeill: I did mention Carlisle's coaching job on Ellis, right? OK, I'll concede that the front-runner for the award right now has to be Hornacek. There's no reason Phoenix should be sniffing the playoffs this season, much less sitting in seventh, especially after trading away Marcin Gortat before the season. But here we are.
Pelton: Fiction. Consider me still a skeptic that the Suns will keep overachieving to quite this regard, and if they slip out of the playoffs their story is no longer quite as remarkable. There's also heavy competition for the award as always, including Portland's Terry Stotts leading a team that has exceeded expectations nearly as much as Phoenix.
Strauss: Fiction. I'm still siding with Terry Stotts and his magical, league-leading, flow offense. Hornacek's been a revelation, though. Phoenix has blitzed many a team by leveraging their athleticism and 3-point shooting. It's a tough call between these coaches, and I'm inclined to change my opinion if Gerald Green finishes out the season as a legitimately good NBA player.
4. Fact or Fiction: Minnesota is a lottery team (currently T-9 in West).
Elhassan: Fact. For the last two years, Minnesota has fallen back on the injury excuse for their playoff drought; so far this season, with multiple Western teams suffering from injuries to vital personnel, the Wolves have remained relatively healthy and still are just at .500. This team isn't deep enough and doesn't defend well enough to be among the top eight in the West.
Lynch: Fact. I actually think the Wolves have the makings of a playoff team, and their being in the postseason wouldn't surprise me. But they're 2.5 games back of the 8th seed. While it's still relatively early in the season, I'm not sure they'll be able to make up that ground; they're essentially counting on the Suns or Mavericks to allow Minnesota to climb back into postseason contention.
McNeill: Fiction. I think eventually the Suns will fall out of the playoff picture and Minnesota has the talent to move up a couple of spots by the end of the season. Kevin Love is a second-tier MVP candidate, which is usually enough to get a team to the playoffs, especially one with this much talent around him.
Pelton: Fiction. As I explain in today's Per Diem, Minnesota's record is misleading to a historic extent. While those close losses aren't coming back, if the Timberwolves win games at a rate in line with their point differential the rest of the season, they will end up in the playoffs. And that's before considering the boost they could get from Chase Budinger returning to the lineup.
Strauss: Fiction. I believe in Minnesota's point differential, even if they do seem to have an odd knack for losing close games. Their "get in the way, don't foul" defense has been better than most people know, and their "flop away, get fouled" offense is successful most nights. It's just hard for me to believe that Kevin Love's monster season will be all for naught.
5. Who wins each matchup and why?
Elhassan: Wolves take the early game behind a strong offensive rebounding night from their frontcourt. The Suns have been one of the worst defensive rebounding teams this year and have struggled with teams that can exploit that weakness (losses to Memphis and Chicago in the last week). In the late game, the Spurs have been terrific at home (again), so expect that trend to continue against a Mavs team that is under .500 on the road and 6-12 against teams with a record better than .500.
Lynch: San Antonio and Minnesota, the home teams. The Spurs are clear favorites over the Mavericks; the fact that San Antonio is at home is just icing on the cake. The Suns and Wolves are more evenly matched -- they're within .6 points per 100 possessions of each other in net rating -- but with Phoenix on the road and on the second night of a back-to-back, I'm taking Minnesota.
McNeill: The Spurs and Timberwolves. Both teams have the home-court and talent advantage. San Antonio could be gassed after an overtime win on the road on Tuesday, but they're deep enough to survive. Minnesota has the fourth-best offensive efficiency in the league over the last eight games. The Wolves are blistering right now when they have the ball.
Pelton: Spurs and Wolves. While San Antonio has been vulnerable at times at home, as the Knicks can attest, Dallas is just 2-6 in road games against above-.500 teams. And Minnesota gets a rare rest advantage tonight, having last played Monday (when the Wolves blew out Philadelphia). while the Suns lost in Chicago last night.
Strauss: The Spurs beat the Mavs because San Antonio is better and at home (boring answer, I know). The Wolves beat the Suns because they have the best player on the floor, and Eric Bledsoe is missing this game with an injury. Also, Ricky Rubio should do a good defensive job containing main Phoenix threat Goran Dragic.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Amin Elhassan and Kevin Pelton are ESPN Insiders. Ethan Sherwood Strauss contributes to TrueHoop. Andrew Lynch and Andrew McNeill write for the TrueHoop Network.
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