Hornets making playoff push
The Charlotte Hornets have emerged as one of the NBA's hottest teams, winning six straight through Saturday afternoon. Playing without defensive ace Michael Kidd Gilchrist (out for the season because of a shoulder injury), guard Kemba Walker has stepped forward as the team's clear leader, scoring 29 points with seven assists on average through the team's first six contests in March.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors remain the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, but the Hornets have joined the likes of the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers as playoff contenders. The Detroit Pistons are trying to hold off the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards for the eighth and final postseason berth.
The Dallas Mavericks have lost five in a row, endangering their position in the Western Conference. Thirty-seven-year-old forward Dirk Nowitzki put in a vintage performance Saturday, scoring 30 points on just 16 shot attempts, but his team fell to the Pacers. If the Utah Jazz can put together a run, they may be able to force the Mavericks out of the top eight.
The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs remain the two best overall teams in the league. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Clippers are fighting for third and fourth place in the West. Despite significant injuries, sidelining center Marc Gasol and guards Mike Conley and Mario Chalmers (among others), the Memphis Grizzlies still seem likely to limp to the postseason. The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets are also on the positive side of the bubble — while the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans have the faintest of hopes remaining.
Bucks lose two guards
The Milwaukee Bucks expected to return to the playoffs after winning 41 games last season. The addition of forward/center Greg Monroe was supposed to help the team make a big leap forward, but sustained success never materialized. A postseason run isn't mathematically out of the question, but practically, the Bucks are a longshot to play beyond mid-April.
This past week, the team suffered further setbacks with guards Michael Carter-Williams and O.J. Mayo lost for the season. Carter-Williams suffered a hip injury, while Mayo apparently tripped at home, breaking an ankle. The team had previously lost former Clippers forward Steve Novak to a knee injury. Novak was traded by the Thunder to the Nuggets. After he was waived by Denver, Novak inked up with Milwaukee, only to get hurt in just his third game with the team. It's been that kind of season for the Bucks.
Butler cautious with knee
Jimmy Butler returned last Saturday from a knee injury, scoring 24 points with 11 rebounds and six assists to help the Bulls defeat the Rockets. Still not feeling quite right, Butler sat out his team's next three contests, choosing instead to get a second opinion from highly regarded orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. The team later announced in a statement that Andrews gave a "confirmatory opinion" that supported the Bulls' own determination that Butler's knee has no structural damage. Meanwhile, the Bulls have fallen to just 32-32 for the season.
Westbrook and Durant continue to shine
The Thunder have two of the top stars in the league in guards Russell Westbrook and forward Kevin Durant. Westbrook terrorized the Clippers this week with his 11th triple-double of the season, scoring 25 points with 19 assists and 11 rebounds. The official scorer originally gave Westbrook 20 assists, but one was taken away on review. Durant recently scored at least 27 points with 10 rebounds in seven straight games. Surprisingly, the Thunder have won just four of their last 11, heading into their marquee, Saturday-night matchup in San Antonio against the Spurs.
Longtime NBA referee Joey Crawford has officiated his last game, unable to return this season after a Dec. 4 knee injury. The 64-year-old Crawford has worked more than 2,500 regular-season games, 374 postseason contests and had 50 Finals appearances over a 39-year span. Known for his energetic, dance-like calls and a near-fight with the typically stoic Tim Duncan, Crawford is widely regarded in the officiating community as an all-time great.
GOLDEN STATE AT SAN ANTONIO: Saturday, March 19, at 5:30 p.m. TV: Channel 7.
This game between the last two NBA champions could be a preview of a likely slugfest in the Western Conference finals. Because of a scheduling quirk, these rivals will play three games against each other in the final month of the regular season. One caveat, though, is how Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich will approach this game. Will he rest some key players, even at home, to hold back his best lineup till it really matters in the postseason? We'll find out.