- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

UTAH’S WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY SHRINKING

The Los Angeles Lakers have a hefty nine-game lead on the rest of the Western Conference, so it’s safe to assume no one is catching them in the standings. Instead, teams must hope to peak at the right time, get the best possible seeding heading into the playoffs and then carry that momentum over to where they could challenge the Lakers.

In the last six weeks, the Utah Jazz appeared to be one of the favorites to contend with Los Angeles. As the San Antonio Spurs found themselves slowed by more bumps and bruises, Utah was finally getting healthy after just treading water for much of the season.

February began, and with it came a 15-1 tear by the Jazz, including a 12-game winning streak that began just before the All-Star break and extended all the way to March 10. Utah went from a borderline playoff team to closing in on a top-four spot. And what made the run even more impressive was that it started with power forward Carlos Boozer their best scorer and rebounder — sidelined by injury.

Boozer is now back and appears to be returning to his old self, averaging 16.8 points and 10.2 rebounds in his last four games. But suddenly the Jazz have gone cold, losing at Atlanta, Miami and Orlando in the last week and slipping to seventh in the playoff race.

The Jazz, who hosted the Wizards on Tuesday night, quickly need to get back on track to improve their chances of a deeper playoff run. The seventh seed would pit them against San Antonio, which beat Utah in the conference finals two years ago. And eighth would mean a second-straight first-round playoff matchup with the Lakers, who beat the Jazz in six games a year ago.

Any extra time the Jazz can get before facing the most formidable foes in the conference will give them — and especially Boozer, who has played in just 22 games this season — an opportunity to fine-tune things.

“Boozer’s still getting back into form,” point guard Deron Williams recently said. “He missed a lot of time, so it’s going to take him some time to get adjusted and get back. It’s nice just to have a full roster, to have 15 people on the roster and ready to play.”

The Jazz also know their window of opportunity could be closing for beyond this season. Boozer, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Mehmet Okur and Ronnie Price all will be free agents this summer, and Utah will struggle to hang on to all of them. So for Utah, it truly is “Win now” because “Wait till next year” very well could be too late.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

ATLANTA HAWKS

Aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have padded their lead over the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the East, there’s no hotter team in the conference than the Atlanta Hawks. With the Miami Heat trying last week to improve upon their fifth-place ranking by winning five of six games, Atlanta responded by reeling off five consecutive wins.

The Hawks — taking advantage of a seven-game homestand — defeated Detroit, New Orleans, Utah, Indiana and Portland. Sacramento visited them Tuesday night, and then comes Dallas before a road game at Cleveland on Saturday. The Hawks have managed to stay hot despite missing forward Marvin Williams (14.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg), who hasn’t played since March 7 and is out indefinitely with back problems. Since that time, usual small forward Josh Smith has picked up the slack on the boards, averaging 9.5 rebounds.

POWER RANKINGS

1. LAKERS (53-13)

Back-to-back wins over closest challengers, Houston and San Antonio, keep the Lakers rolling.

2. CAVALIERS (53-13)

Three straight wins give LBJ and Co. a 3 1/2 game lead over Boston for the East’s top spot.

3. MAGIC (49-17)

A Magic win and a Celtics loss would give Orlando No. 2 spot in the East’s standings.

4. CELTICS (50-17)

Defending champs still hobbled, sliding and waiting for a return to full strength.

5. SPURS (44-22)

Still second-best team in the West, but there’s a significant gap between first and second.

6. ROCKETS (44-25)

Battier says his team isn’t mentally ready to make a playoff push. It had better hurry up.

7. HORNETS (41-25)

The Hornets need to find a way to get more out of their bench, or it will end up costing them.

8. NUGGETS (43-25)

After opening March with 1-6 mark, they’re back on track, reeling off three straight.

9. TRAIL BLAZERS (42-25)

Blazers hold the fifth spot in the West, but more-seasoned teams are on their heels.

10. JAZZ (41-26)

In less than a week, they drop from first in the Northwest Division to third place.

LOTTERY WATCH

ANOTHER SOONERS STAR EMERGES

When Blake Griffin was out with a concussion, teammate Willie Warren seized the opportunity to show he can be a go-to guy. The freshman guard posted 27 points and six assists against Texas and 23 points and four assists vs. Kansas. For the season, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Warren is averaging 14.7 points and 3.0 assists. NBA scouts like his potential, believe he can be a top point guard in the league and have likened him to Gilbert Arenas — obviously before all the knee surgeries.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

Team Record L10 Pct.*

Sacramento 14-52 2-8 25.0

Washington 16-51 3-7 19.9

L.A. Clippers 16-50 3-7 15.6

Memphis 17-49 2-8 11.9

Oklahoma City 19-48 6-4 8.8

* Chances of landing No. 1 pick

TROPHY TRACKER

MVP

1. Kobe Bryant — Continues quest for second straight MVP: 28.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.9 apg and 53-13 record.

2. LeBron James — Fantastic numbers (28.5, 7.5, 7.2) but his team is 2-5 vs. Lakers, Magic, Celtics and Spurs.

3. Chris Paul — In addition to averaging 21.9 ppg, leads the NBA in assists (11.0) and steals (2.8).

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

1. Derrick Rose — Top pick (16.4 ppg, 6.2 apg) has Bulls in the hunt for a playoff spot.

2. O.J. Mayo — Memphis guard leads all rookies in scoring with 18.7 points a game.

3. Brook Lopez — Few growing pains for this Nets big man (12.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.85 bpg).

COACH OF THE YEAR

1. Larry Brown — His Bobcats — yes, the Bobcats — are just a game out of the East’s final playoff spot.

2. Mike Brown — Cleveland poised to contend for its second Eastern Conference title in three years.

3. Gregg Popovich — Spurs remain among league’s elite despite injuries to Ginobili, Parker and Duncan.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide