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MONROE notes: Spurs have moxie to catch Mavs

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Mike Monroe

 
   
 
A week ago, we took a look at the race for top seed in the Eastern Conference. We didn't think we'd need to take a similar look at the race for top seed in the West because the have been so far out in front all season, but after they opened a three-game road trip with a loss at Seattle on Thursday night, it's no longer a foregone conclusion that the Mavs will even win their own division title. Regular readers know I'm a big believer in plus-minus (ratio of road wins to home losses) as a reliable gauge of a team's true place in the standings. The now have the best plus-minus number in the West, plus-16 to Dallas' plus-15. What's truly intriguing about the Western seeding is how it impacts the first round. Nobody wants to match up against the . It's clear now that the won't finish eighth in the conference and with their tough schedule (12 of their remaining 19 on the road) likely won't get as high as fifth. Thus, earning top seed ensures not having to face the three-time defending champs until the conference finals, if then. Here, then, is a quick look at what's going on with the three contenders for the top spot in the conference in the regular season, followed by our prediction for how the race will finish.
  • Let's start with the , since it's their slide that suddenly has made this race interesting.
  • Don Nelson knows how dire the ' straits have gotten. "That's why this is a very important road trip for us," Nelson said before the Mavs got their three-game sojourn off to such a sour start against the Sonics. "When we get back from this trip, we'll definitely have an idea of how close our division is going to be down the stretch." "Our mindset has grown more urgent," said , "because of how close San Antonio has gotten to us. We need to get all three if we want to sleep well at night." Care for some Ambien, Steve? Teams now attack the on the interior more aggressively than they did when they were trying to figure out that matchup zone Del Harris had them playing so often early in the season. It's clear neither nor has the stomach for truly physical inside play.
  • The continue to look pretty good with on the injured list. They had little trouble in on Wednesday, ending the ' 17-game home winning streak and sweeping their three-game road trip. They've won 12 of their last 13 road games, which explains their league-best plus-minus mark.
  • They've also won 17 of last 19 overall and are 10-2 without Robinson. They look like a completely different team than in past seasons — younger, more athletic and have guys who can shoot and dribble. Gregg Popovich has even loosened up on his defensive rules and is allowing and to gamble on the defensive exterior. That is creating more transition opportunities. "At the beginning, in the first month, I remember him getting really (ticked) off when I gambled (for a steal)," Ginobili said. "Now he gets a little mad, but way less." Popovich is willing to cut Ginobili some slack because he loves his game at both ends of the court. "The guy is just really strange on the court," Popovich said. "I don't know what he's going to do. I keep telling people he's like our (Sacramento's designated stopper). He does things to help you win games. He makes steals. He gets offensive rebounds when it counts. He makes a three when it counts. He finds people. He does all those things that make everybody else better." Remember this: No team needs to avoid the in the first round more than the . They have won only one of eight playoff games against them the last two postseasons.
  • The ' primary concern, besides the well-documented medical report, is that their rebounding isn't getting any better. Opponents have done damage there all season long, and the ability of teams to get second shots has been especially hurtful lately.
  • Two of the ' rebounders, and , have been hurt, but coach Rick Adelman knows that isn't the major cause. He has become frustrated at the lack of focus in that area even as he continues to make it an emphasis. The are 23-17 when they get beat on the boards and 22-3 when they win or tie in that category. The players know Adelman is right, too. Said : "I can only say so much. Sometimes I get tired of saying it. It's like beating a dead pony. We know what we have to do, and we still don't go out and do it and sometimes it's like a lost cause. Everybody knows what will be the cause of us losing games; it's usually offensive rebounds. "We've got to go back to the basics of boxing out our man and (have) all five guys coming to the ball. That's what we haven't been doing, and we've been getting killed like that. We've been getting by these last couple of weeks, but if we want to win games when the playoffs come, that's what we've got to do." How do I see the West race finishing? Glad you asked.
    1. : Eight of their next 10 games are at home. They have two left against the Mavs, including the regular-season finale, at SBC Center. They have had the luxury of being able to rest Robinson's back for the stretch run and playoffs.
    2. : They've got two left against the and two against the . Only four of their remaining games are against teams under .500.
    3. : They still have to make a six-game Eastern road trip that includes games against the East's top four teams. Plus, they've still got two left against the .

    Malone pumped up by Smart rescue

    lives in the same Federal Heights neighborhood outside Salt Lake City in which the family of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart resides. So Malone, along with the rest of the , was pretty excited to hear, while he was warming up before Utah's game in Orlando, that the young victim had been found alive and returned to her family. Most of the players crowded around a small courtside TV to watch the news coverage. Said Malone: "It was unbelievable. It did something to me. Man, I was fired up. "I have a lot of friends in law enforcement, and around the neighborhood I watched people put up signs and billboards and ribbons. So to see people come together and find her, I don't know, it really did something to me. I have daughters too. "God bless her, I'm really happy to hear it. It's terrific." Indeed, the happy news fired up Malone. He scored a season-high 40 against the .

    DC powers Sixers

    What's with the Sixers, now 12-2 since the All-Star break and threatening to win the East? First, has played beautifully, raising his shooting percentage above .500 for a stretch and being much more aggressive going to the basket, which obviously sends him to the foul line more. Second, has played like an All-Star, keeping his turnovers way down, his assists way up and his scoring average on the move. Finally, Larry Brown continues to find nothing but positive results from . Brown says Coleman's willingness to move into the starting center spot has been crucial. From his very first days as a coach, back in the ABA days when he sometimes wore designer overalls on the bench, Brown always believed he could turn around problem players. He judges players not on reputation, but on how they relate to him. Coleman, he swears, has been a joy with which to work. "He's been great to me," Brown told Philly reporters last week. "I'm only judging him on how he's treated me, and how he's reacted to what I've asked him to do. He's been terrific for this team. My first year, he was hurt early, and everybody was struggling, then we made some trades and got the right people. He had a terrific last half of the year, had a great year last year playing on one leg. If everybody judges you on your reputation I don't know if that would be totally fair with anybody."

    Be afraid, drivers

    When the Chinese national team was practicing in Denver last summer I asked if there was a particular aspect of American life he was most looking forward to experiencing. His quick response: Learning to drive a car. Well, he's recently passed the test and gotten his Texas driver's license. That may or may not be a good thing if you ask his teammates. Mo Taylor weighed in on the advisability of sharing a road with Yao. "That license only means he is allowed to drive," Taylor said. "That doesn't mean his driving skills are up to par, yet. Driving is a hard thing. It doesn't happen overnight. We saw what happened in the parking lot not too long ago." What happened was that Yao backed his SUV into a parked car in the parking lot of the Westside Tennis Club, where the team practices. Recalled Taylor: "We were like, 'Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh — he hit it.' It was of those, 'Oh no, he's about to hit it ... Oh, he did hit it.' It was funny, though. You can tell how scared he was. He was more worried about the other person's ride than his." Yao did not dispute the image of his ineptitude behind the wheel, joking that now that he has passed his driver's test, he is sort of ready for a change. "I'm ready," he said. "I'm ready to go to the hospital."

    Riley says he's not gunning for LeBron

    Without , who is out for the season, the have lost four of five and dropped into a tie for the third-worst record in the entire league. They won't catch the Cavs or , but having the third-worst mark would give them a decent shot in the LeBron James Derby. With that in mind, the Miami Herald's Israel Gutierrez last week asked Pat Riley if he ever looks at the standings in reverse order to see where his team stands. Responded Riley: "What do I need that pain for? Masochism is part of a coach's life, but to take it to another level? I don't think you want to do that every day."

    Last stand for Don?

    Am I the only one who thinks the would be nuts to dump Don Chaney after he has coddled and cajoled his players to the point they still believe they might eke into the Eastern playoffs? Try as he might in the league's toughest media market, Chaney can't quiet the speculation he will be axed to make way for Doc Rivers. Rivers, however, might have better luck. Responding to recent speculation that he will wind up coaching the , the coach said he expects to remain in Orlando. "My son has been to six different states, six different schools, and he's finishing his high school in Florida," Rivers said. "I can guarantee that. And he's a freshman, ninth grade."

    T-Mac's historic season

    is about to join an elite NBA club. He is averaging 31.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists right now. Only four other players in league history have averaged 30 points, six rebounds and five assists: Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and . Pretty heady company.

    ' lineup spills over

    Which player will have to sit now that Penny Hardaway has returned to the lineup? Looks like rookie . In Hardaway's first game back after two months on the injured list with a thumb injury, he logged 20 minutes, Jacobsen only three. "When you get a guy like that (Hardaway) back," coach said, "a young guy may sit." Johnson reiterated that Hardaway likely will return to the starting lineup eventually. Hardaway has expressed a strong desire to start in the past, but isn't pressing the point right now. Said Johnson: "When Hardaway went down he was playing at a high level, so I certainly think it's fair" that he returns to a starting role. By the way, with and also returning to the lineup, isn't apt to be asked to play any more power forward, which occasionally he had to do since the All-Star break. The need Marion to be able to focus on his small forward role, which he did in their dismantling of the on Thursday night. can be reached at his e-mail address, mmonroe@foxsports.com.
    Tagged: Mavericks, Rockets, Lakers, Heat, Knicks, Magic, 76ers, Suns, Kings, Spurs, Jazz, Wizards, Steve Nash, Raef LaFrentz, Eddie Jones, Stephen Jackson, Eric Snow, Shawn Marion, Jake Tsakalidis, Doug Christie, Scot Pollard, Chris Webber, Houston, Minnesota, Denver, High Point, Brown, Bradley, Texas, Manu Ginobili, Yao Ming

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