News » NBA 2009-03-02

NBA 2009-03-02

NBA 2009-03-02
The hottest teams in the West don't play home games at Staples Center.

The Lakers were embarrassed Friday in Denver, but they are so far in front in the Western Conference regular-season title race there are no other true contenders for the top seed, even with six weeks left before the playoffs begin.

How teams line up behind the Lakers will be worth watching in these final weeks. Now, there are hot new players in the chase for home-court advantage in the first round.

With Houston increasing its competitiveness by subtracting a star, and Utah improving by adding one, the Western playoff race has gotten tougher. The Jazz own a seven-game winning streak, the longest in the league at the moment.

Nobody in Houston is being entirely honest about the recent surge by the Rockets, who lost at Chicago on Saturday after dominating the Cavs two days earlier.

The Rockets finally seem focused enough to make a run at the Spurs in the Southwest - they've already leapfrogged the Hornets - and the reason is easily stated, unless you share a locker room with Tracy McGrady: When McGrady was on the floor this season he made the Rockets worse.

Blame his sore knee if you must, but any coach will tell you: If a player suits up, there are no excuses.

Rockets players, of course, tiptoe around the deterioration of McGrady's game, but they readily admit they are relieved to be off the will-he-play or won't-he teeter-totter now that McGrady has had microfracture surgery on his left knee.

"It's a good thing that we know this is who we have, this is who we are," forward Luis Scola told the Houston Chronicle. "Now, everybody can take a role, whatever it is, and it's a good thing."

Some of us wondered about the on-court dynamic between McGrady and Ron Artest from the moment last summer when the Rockets acquired Artest, the defensive dynamo who probably believes too deeply in his offensive skills.

Artest spoke truth when he openly criticized McGrady's effort in some games, to the point McGrady whined that some teammates were talking too much.

Fact: The Rockets are 17-6 in games without McGrady this season, and Artest is more productive starting at big guard than was McGrady.

Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer has returned to the lineup in Utah, not long after Andrei Kirilenko also came off the injured list. The Northwest's Nuggets and Trail Blazers have to be nervous.

Boozer approached his knee problem with more caution than McGrady's, and took some heat for it. By avoiding McGrady-like uncertainty, though, the Jazz were able to discover that Paul Millsap was more than a fill-in. Millsap's development allows Boozer a cautious return to the prominent role he seems certain to regain by the stretch run.

What do injury-related improvements for two of the Spurs' Western rivals mean?

If Tim Duncan avoids the sort of in-and-out that made McGrady more distraction than contributor in Houston, they won't matter.

If the two-time MVP's right quadriceps tendonosis means he has to sit out another half-dozen games, his teammates never knowing when, two more teams in hot pursuit are cause for worry.

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: March 2, 2009


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