We are now being rewarded for what we all endured during the lockout.
There are less than three weeks left in the regular season, both conferences have compelling races at both the top and the bottom, and no team is a sure thing in the playoffs (unless somebody gets to play Philadelphia).
Yes, we are down on the Sixers, whose swoon has put them in jeopardy of missing the playoffs after they led the Atlantic Division for 80 percent of the season.
We are also down on the Mavericks, Magic and Timberwolves — with good reason.
We are quite high on the San Antonio Spurs, who are as deep as we’ve ever seen them.
My preseason prediction was Bulls over Thunder in the finals, but my gut is starting to tell me that I should have gone with Pop’s crew.
|LAST WEEK: 3-0 THIS WEEK: 5 games KEY GAME: THU vs MEM
Welcome to the top spot, Spurs. You have most definitely earned it. Have a 10-game winning streak to begin the week, with a pair of back-to-backs Sun-Mon and Wed-Thu. Is Pop going to stick to his plan to rest key players on the second night? Or is first place in the conference worth the risk? Have 3 games left vs. Lakers, and start next week with road back-to-back-to-back.
|LAST WEEK: 1-2 THIS WEEK: 3 games KEY GAME: THU vs MIA
Finally lost back-to-back games for the first time all season, which means they will not become the first team in NBA history to avoid 2 consecutive losses for an entire season. Surviving OK without Derrick Rose (missed 12 straight), eh? As fans, let’s all hope he’s ready to go for the final two tilts against the Heat on the next two Thursdays.
|LAST WEEK: 2-2 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: THU at CHI
In Tuesday’s win vs. Philly, LeBron James had 41 points and scored 14 straight in the 4th quarter as Dwyane Wade sat out. The Heat are 9-1 without Wade this season, and in those games, James has averaged 30.7 points – nearly 5 ppg higher than he does when Wade is playing.
|LAST WEEK: 1-3 THIS WEEK: 5 games KEY GAME: WED vs LAC
A three-game losing streak? Who knew they were capable. What works in their favor the rest of the way is a far more favorable schedule than San Antonio’s. Of remaining 11 games, six are against teams at .500 or below — although they do have a five-game road trip beginning next Saturday. Need to finish ahead of Spurs to win West, as San Antonio has the tiebreaker.
|LAST WEEK: 3-1 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: WED at OKC
Ranked ahead of the Lakers. when they just lost to the Lakers a couple nights ago? Well, yes. Fact of the matter is they’ve won eight of nine since Vinny Del Negro’s job was in jeopardy, and are now playing with a swagger that they didn’t have a month ago. Chris Paul had 49 assists last week, and 12 steals in the back-to-back wins over Kings. He is squarely in the MVP debate, as noted here.
|LAST WEEK: 3-2 THIS WEEK: 3 games KEY GAME: WED at SA
Kobe Bryant and “walking boot” are two words Lakers fans do not want to see in the same sentence, but he was wearing one when he left the arena in Phoenix on Saturday night after his first DNP of the season. Remember when they couldn’t score 100? They’ve done it in 4 of last 5.
|LAST WEEK: 4-1 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: THU at SA
Ignore them at your own peril. Have strung together seven wins in their last nine, with one loss (vs. Dallas) coming on the third night of a back-to-back-to-back, which they followed up with a 15-point victory against the Heat to become only the third visiting team to win in Miami this season, then a win vs. Dallas. Only fourth team in the last 45 seasons to defeat both defending conference champions on consecutive days.
|LAST WEEK: 3-0 THIS WEEK: 2 games KEY GAME: FRI at ORL
They will go for a season sweep of the Magic on the road Friday night with Zaza Pachulia defending Dwight Howard. Remember how we all predicted doom when Pachulia was handed the task of replacing Al Horford? He had three double-figure rebound games in January, five in February, 12 in March, and two thus far in April. How do you say “Rock” in Georgian?
|LAST WEEK: 2-2 THIS WEEK: 5 games KEY GAME: TUE at MIA
It was like watching paint dry, but it was impressive nonetheless watching them shut down the Pacers offensively Saturday night. Get this: They haven’t allowed an opponent to score 100 points in 12 straight games, holding opponents below 80 five times. You know they are going to dictate the pace in the playoffs. What you don’t know is whether they can rebound enough (30th in NBA) to make a deep run. Or whether Doc Rivers will keep bringing Ray Allen off the bench.
|LAST WEEK: 4-1 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: SAT at MIL
Averaged 107 points in winning their first four games of the week, beating OKC, NY and Houston, then looked positively inept against Boston. That shows you how imperative it is they stay in the No. 3 slot, ahead of the Hawks, and don’t drop to No. 5, where they’d likely face Celtics in first round. They lose the tiebreaker to Atlanta (1-2 in season series).
|LAST WEEK: 1-3 THIS WEEK: 3 games KEY GAME: FRI vs ATL
Dwight Howard is never going to win a Man of Character battle against Stan Van Gundy, no matter how many times he says “I’m not a bad guy.” Nobody has taken a character beating like Dwight since LeBron put on that checkered shirt for “The Decision.” More on that here, in Bernucca’s Sunday column. I recommend you click through.
|LAST WEEK: 2-1 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: FRI v PHX
Lost a game they deserved to lose last Sunday when Pacers outrebounded them 9-0 in OT after blowing it in regulation, but those were quite a pair of impressive bounce-back victories over the Bulls and Lakers. Huge tiebreaker implication games this week vs Utah (1-1) and Phoenix (lead 2-1), then start next week with back-to-back vs Denver (series tied 1-1).
|LAST WEEK: 1-3 THIS WEEK: 3 games KEY GAME: FRI at POR
Only win last week was vs. a Grizzlies team on final night of back-to-back-to-back, and Memphis got revenge Saturday. “We’re now eighth or ninth, so we’ve got to fight,” said Dirk Nowitzki, overstating things a bit (they are 7th). Imperative that they go 3-0 in an easy week, cuz 5 of last 6 are against high-quality opponents. Own tiebreakers over Jazz, Nuggets and Suns.
|LAST WEEK: 4-1 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: FRI at HOU
Hope they enjoy Monday night’s game against the Wolves, cuz it’s the last one resembling a gimme that they have. Final nine are against good teams, including two vs. Spurs. They lose tiebreaker to Nuggets, but will try to tie season series 2-2 against Rockets on Friday. Have won 17 of their last 25, and it would be a shame to not have them in the postseason.
|LAST WEEK: 2-1 THIS WEEK: 5 games KEY GAME: WED at HOU
Very nice bounce-back week after a big swoon. Would have been 3-0 if they hadn’t gotten Nashed on Wednesday night. Have to start this week with a back-to-back vs. a Spurs team on a 10-game winning streak, then play three straight on the road, where they are 9-19. So, yeah, you could call it a key week. They own tiebreaker over Nuggets (2-1).
|LAST WEEK: 1-1 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: WED at MIL
Amare Stoudemire has gone mum regarding his back injury, refusing to discuss it. Baron Davis is 32, plays like he is 42. This is the week for Carmelo Anthony to win the fans over or lose them. It starts with back-to-back vs. Bulls, then moves to a must-win at Milwaukee to tie the season series. Who’d have thunk it would matter, but they own the tiebreaker over Philadelphia (2-1 in season series.)
|LAST WEEK: 4-0 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: SAT vs POR
Took care of four weaker opponents with four convincing wins for a perfect week. Monta Ellis has had 11 good games (two sensational ones) and two abominations since the trade. Ersan Ilyasova has three 20 and 10 games in last six. He had four all season prior to that. He will get papered this summer. They are 1-1 in season series with Philly, which now matters. Meet once more on next-to-last night of season.
|LAST WEEK: 2-2 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: FRI vs PHX
Went a decent 4-5 in stretch of playing eight of nine on road, but the “5″ included loses to Raptors, Hornets and Warriors. Last 10 are half on the road, half at home. Pair of “must-wins” to start week, home against Golden State and Minnesota. If they lose one of those two, I think they’re missing the playoffs. Rest of schedule is too tough.
|LAST WEEK: 0-3 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: SUN vs BOS
Doug Collins threatened changes to the starting lineup after loss Saturday night, so Evan Turner better show something in Boston today or he’s going to spend the rest of the season watching Jodie Meeks jack up 3s. Nine of last 11 are on the road. Have three left against JuggerNets in private Billy King-Rod Thorn steel cage death matches.
|LAST WEEK: 3-2 THIS WEEK: 3 games KEY GAME: MON vs HOU
Had a 3-2 week. Needed a 5-0 week. Five of their final six are on the road. Put a fork in them. They’re done.
|LAST WEEK: 0-4 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: NONE
They are headed for the lottery, and their pick is headed to the Hornets. Had four winnable games last week and lost them all.
|LAST WEEK: 1-2 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: FRI at PHI
5-3 in their last 8, and will try to play spoiler without Brook Lopez, who is shut down for the season. Great trivia question here re Deron Williams’ NBA season highs in points (57) and assists (20).
|LAST WEEK: 3-1 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: NONE
They’ve won five of their last seven, so they cannot be easily dismissed in the seven games they have remaining (of 11 overall) against possible playoff teams.
|LAST WEEK: 2-3 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: NONE
If he plays in the final 11 games, David Lee will have logged 506 career games without a playoff appearance.
|LAST WEEK: 1-3 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: NONE
At least DeMarcus Cousins tells it like it is. He has a point about Blake Griffin getting preferential superstar treatment from refs.
|LAST WEEK: 3-1 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: NONE
Went 3-1 last week, which means they had a better week than the Bulls, Heat and Thunder, ranked 2, 3 and 4. How is it that Jose Calderon has taken only 66 FTs?
|LAST WEEK: 2-2 THIS WEEK: 3 games KEY GAME: NONE
Eric Gordon is going to get his shots up as he sets his free agency price. He was 3-for-11, 11-for-19 and 3-for-12 in first 3 games back.
|LAST WEEK: 1-2 THIS WEEK: 3 games KEY GAME: NONE
Anderson Varejao could return to practice early this week. If gets gets injured again, Brazil will invade Ohio because it will ruin Brazil’s Olympic qualification hopes.
|LAST WEEK: 0-5 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: NONE
Have lost 10 of 11, the lone win coming against the Sixers. Another reason to be down on Philly.
|LAST WEEK: 0-4 THIS WEEK: 4 games KEY GAME: NONE
Have two left vs. Wizards, perhaps their only hope of surpassing ’72-73 Sixers for worst winning percentage in NBA history.