Spurs Sweep Clippers, Advance To Western Conference Finals

San Antonio was down late, on the road, against a Clippers team that was finally enjoying a quality performance from Chris Paul. But Tim Duncan and the Spurs would not be denied and swept Lob City in Game 4 with a 102-99 win. The victory marked their second sweep of the playoffs this year and their 18th win in a row, a streak extending back to the regular season.

The Clippers battled, Chris Paul dropped 23 points and 11 dimes and still the Spurs came out on top to finish Lob City off. Blake Griffin added 21 and Eric Bledsoe had 17 off the bench, but there was no answer for the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final two minutes. The Clippers fought hard, got decent scoring off the bench and DeAndre Jordan even pitched in 10, but San Antonio proved to be a little too much for this team in only their first year together. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 21 points and nine rebounds and Tony Parker had 17 points. Daniel Green had 14, Gary Neal matched that number off the bench and Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter added 11 apiece. As has been the case throughout the series and the playoffs so far, the Spurs’ depth and incredibly balanced scoring overpowered San Antonio’s opponent and their execution under Greg Popovich has been flawless up to this point. The Clippers gave the Spurs everything they could handle at home but San Antonio is playing the best basketball in the NBA right now.

Say what you want about his age, but Tim Duncan is still getting it done.

The Spurs really are the complete package right now, despite the fact that one of their best three players has been aging ever so steadily over the past few years. Even so, Tim Duncan hasn’t slowed down. His athleticism and defense on skilled post players leaves a little to be desired, but his offensive technique, rebounding and passing ability and his sheer experience and knowledge on how to win games makes the Spurs a big contender. Tony Parker is playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, Manu Ginobili is scoring off the bench again and almost all of the Spurs’ role players and reserves are fully capable of scoring, knocking down 3-pointers and playing defense. It was nice to see Chris Paul play well, but down the stretch, Daniel Green was able to shut him down and keep the Spurs on top at the end. This is just one of many examples of how this well-oiled machine functions as parts of a complete team and will provide a huge challenge to either the Thunder or the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

As I mentioned before, Clippers fans shouldn’t hang their heads after their team won its third playoff series in 35 years. The result was disappointing, but Lob City was only in its first year and if the Clips can get Chauncey Billups back, replace Vinny Del Negro with somebody better (almost anyone applies here) and maybe improve at center and small forward, they could be dangerous next year. This year was a learning process and LAC still accomplished so much; unfortunately, they got the difficult task of matching up with the San Antonio Spurs juggernaut in the second round. Although they have a lot of unrestricted free agents at the end of this year, if they can sign the majority back and make improvements where necessary, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could be a force in the playoffs next year. As for the Spurs, this sweep just highlighted how dangerous this “old” team really is. Whoever gets them in the Western Conference Finals will certainly have their hands full.

Don’t hang your heads, Clippers fans. Lob City got a tough matchup and will be back next year.

Spurs Rally From 24 Point Deficit, Build 3-0 Lead On Clippers

The Clippers were already down 2-0 and needed to play desperate. They had been dominated on their opponent’s court but now had the chance to play at home to try and gain some momentum back. For awhile, it looked like Los Angeles was going to shorten the series deficit to 2-1 after they jumped out to an immediate 33-11 lead at the end of the first quarter. They even built their lead up to 24 in the second. But even with all of that going their way, the Clippers still couldn’t overcome the resilient and offensively charged San Antonio Spurs, who used a 24-0 run in the third quarter to battle back and snag a 3-0 series lead with a 96-86 victory in Game 3.

Tony Parker led the Spurs with 23 points and 10 assists and Tim Duncan finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks after a prolific third quarter. Kawhi Leonard had 14 and Manu Ginobili added 13 off the bench. Despite San Antonio’s incredibly slow start, Greg Popovich’s squad picked it up after a dreadful first quarter and outscored the Clippers in each of the following three. The Spurs cut Los Angeles’ lead to 10 at halftime and then took a commanding lead in the third by outscoring Lob City 26-8 in the period. The Clippers’ awful shooting and numerous turnovers gave San Antonio the edge in the third and facing an eight point deficit entering the final period, LAC wasn’t able to regroup and challenge the Spurs’ lead the rest of the way.

Blake Griffin had a fantastic game, but the Clippers are still waiting for Chris Paul to show up in this series.

Blake Griffin had a phenomenal game for Los Angeles, finishing with 28 points, 16 rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Unfortunately, he received little help from his teammates other than Mo Williams, who had 19. Caron Butler failed to score, Randy Foye only put up seven and Nick Young couldn’t make up for either of them with just nine. But the biggest disappointment, once again, was Chris Paul. Paul has a reputation for his indomitable will and his ability to turn any team into a contender during the playoffs. Against the San Antonio Spurs, however, he has been completely and unequivocally outplayed by Tony Parker. Paul finished with 12 points and 10 assists, which isn’t a shameful stat line by any means, but for CP3? That’s nowhere near enough. The Clippers have only had one consistent scorer in this series (Griffin) while their role player/bench guards alternate having good games (Foye, Williams and Young). Without Chris Paul scoring 20+ a game, it’s amazing Lob City has been within reach in a few of these games. The Spurs are certainly looking like the toughest team in the Western Conference and, based on what I’ve seen from around the league in the past few days, are my heavy favorites to win the NBA Finals at the moment. However, they’ve definitely benefitted from Paul’s disappearance during this series.

There really is no hope for the Clippers this season any more. On the one hand, it’s impressive they were able to make it this far in their first year together after some major roster improvements and upheavals. Lob City should be commended for entertaining us all year long with YouTube highlights, for reaching the second round with such a terrible coach as Vinny Del Negro and for doing all of this without Chauncey Billups or a quality offensive center (sorry, DeAndre Jordan, you just haven’t panned out like we hoped). It will be interesting to see how good this team can be with Billups back, especially if LAC can find a way to improve at the small forward and center positions. We should all definitely keep an eye on this team next year. But in the end, losing Game 3 was pretty much the nail in the coffin and after such a monumental/demoralizing comeback/collapse, I’m predicting a sweep. Tony Parker has continued his postseason dominance, outplaying one of the best point guards in NBA history. Tim Duncan has found a way through stellar technique and perseverance to outplay younger and more athletic power forwards and centers. And the Spurs’ bench is just too much for any defense to handle right now. So at the end of the day, the outcome of Game 4 doesn’t really matter. The Spurs would certainly like to win and get more rest, but even if Chris Paul finally does show up and the Clippers get a W at home, San Antonio has this series in the bag already.

The Clippers have had a great year, but Tony Parker and the Spurs will advance convincingly.

Chris Paul And LA Bench Provide Biggest Win In Clippers’ History

Chris Paul led the way as the Clippers’ got their biggest win in franchise history with an 82-72 Game 7 victory on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier today. With the win, LAC won their third playoff series in 41 years and will advance to take on the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the second round.

Chris Paul had 19 points and nine rebounds in Los Angeles’ impressive road win, but it was the Clippers’ bench that provided the biggest spark to win the series. Kenyon Martin had 11 points (seven in the fourth quarter) and 10 rebounds, Nick Young had 13 and Mo Williams pitched in nine. Eric Bledsoe also added in eight points as the Clippers’ bench scored half of LA’s points and outscored the Grizzlies’ bench 41-11. In fact, the bench played so well that Coach Vinny Del Negro opted to keep Blake Griffin out late in the game and leave Martin and a few other bench players in. The Clippers trailed by one after three quarters, but they opened the fourth quarter with a 16-5 run that silenced Memphis’ home crowd and sent the Grizzlies home disappointed.

Mike Conley and the Grizzlies couldn’t get the job done at home in Game 7.

Rudy Gay led the Grizzlies with 19 points and nine rebounds while Marc Gasol also had 19. Zach Randolph led Memphis with 12 rebounds but only had nine points. And Mike Conley, who had been playing pretty even with Chris Paul throughout the series, was only able to muster seven points on 2-of-13 shooting. The Grizzlies really wasted their postseason opportunities this year. Memphis was probably the better overall team because of their frontcourt advantage, but they didn’t start putting it to use until Game 5 when they faced a 3-1 deficit. They played great defense in the first few games (one of which was a monumental fourth quarter collapse) but struggled with turnovers and because of it, weren’t able to gain much of an advantage from their steals. The Grizzlies surrendered two double digit fourth quarter leads in this series that translated into wins for the Clippers. O.J. Mayo and Marreese Speights disappeared completely, pretty much decimating the Grizzlies’ bench production. And when it mattered most, Gasol and Z-Bo weren’t able to dominate in the paint like they needed to. You can’t give a guy like Chris Paul that many opportunities to capitalize, injured hip flexor or not. Credit Reggie Evans, Blake Griffin and Kenyon Martin for their physical defense, but it was a truly disappointing effort from the Grizzlies. Considering they were expected to take momentum from winning two straight into their home arena and blow out an injured CP3 and Griffin to take the series, it was a very underwhelming elimination game for Memphis.

Fortunately, the Clippers’ bench took Memphis’ mistakes and capitalized. They played stellar defense on Memphis’ bigs while the Grizzlies’ perimeter guards struggled to put up points. So even though Blake Griffin ended up with just eight points and four rebounds off of 3-for-11 shooting, the Clippers shocked the world with a huge road win to send them to the second round. The Clippers will need much better performances from their starters and the same type of effort from their bench to have even the slightest chance against the Spurs in the next round. Randy Foye will need to put up more than six points. Caron Butler will need to do better than eight. And DeAndre Jordan has to actually score. The Spurs are one of the highest-scoring teams in the NBA, so the Clippers need point production from guys other than Paul and Griffin if they want to contend.

Chris Paul and the Clippers’ bench are moving on.

Clippers Streaking

The Clippers are one of three teams in the NBA right now with a winning streak of at least five games. Despite my prediction that Dallas would swoop in and steal the fourth seed from the LAC in the West, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have had other things in mind. The Clippers have won six in a row, are one and a half games ahead of the five seed (Memphis) and are only one and a half games behind the Lakers for the third seed.

Luckily for the Clippers, they have a chance to cut that lead to a half-game in a matchup with the Lakers in the Battle for LA tonight. With Andrew Bynum looking like he will be watching from the sidelines, LAC looks like it’s primed for a big win to move further up in the playoff race.

How have the Clippers gotten here? They have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA, but have found a way to beat four playoff-hopeful teams in their six-game winning streak (Memphis, Phoenix, Utah and Dallas). The answer is two-fold: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. CP3 is running the game like no other point guard in the NBA right now, deferring to his teammates and distributing the ball before taking over close games in the last five minutes. Meanwhile, Blake Griffin’s sheer athleticism is getting him double-doubles  intimidating posterizations that demoralize the opposition.

Chris Paul has complete control of the game, even when he's not scoring. In the last five minutes of a close game, watch out.

Vinny Del Negro’s coaching continues to show flaws, such as the Clippers’ sometimes stagnant half-court offense. It seems to either be Lob City or that slowed-down, half-court game that hinders LAC’s play. But with Paul and Griffin playing so well, the Clippers have been able to keep on winning.

Tonight’s matchup will be a very telling one for the Clippers. LAC needs this win, especially if Bynum isn’t going to play. A win would shorten the gap between the Clippers and the Lakers to a half-game. Considering Kobe Bryant’s shooting percentages for the month and the Lakers’ problems with Andrew Bynum, it’s not out of the question that the Clippers make a statement win in Los Angeles tonight.

I still believe the Clippers’ rough remaining schedule will take its toll, and I don’t think they will outwin LAL for the rest of the season to grab that coveted three seed. The loss of Chauncey Billups and Vinny Del Negro sticking around will probably take their toll in the postseason. But I do think people need to give this team credit and watch out for them in the playoffs with the way they’re playing right now. They may not be the heaviest of contenders in the West, but at the very least they will give any contender a run for their money.

Blake Griffin continues to put the fear of God in his opponents.

Western Conference Predictions

The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.

1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of their supporting cast are too good to not lock up the number one seed.

2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.

The Spurs have added valuable role players recently, including Boris Diaw.

3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.

If Andrew Bynum continues to make a big deal about getting benched, there will be problems in Los Angeles.

The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:

4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).

Dirk has been putting up big numbers for the Mavs in March.

5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.

Can Chris Paul and Blake Griffin carry the Clippers any higher than a five seed?

6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.

Does Zach Randolph have any playoff magic in store for us this year?

7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.

Kenneth Faried has been a pleasant surprise for the Nuggets this year, but Denver needs Gallinari back.

8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.

The Jazz need Al Jefferson to just keep plugging away.

Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves

9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.

Sorry, fellow Suns fans. I just don't see it happening this year.

10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.

Dragic filled in nicely until he got injured. Houston is running out of offensive options.

11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.

So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?

One man. One beard. One playoff dream barely still alive.

News Around The League

In the past few days there have been a few minor headlines in the NBA worth noting. First of all, the Spurs signed Patty Mills yesterday. Mills has spent this season playing in China because of the NBA lockout. He averaged 5.1 ppg as a backup point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers the past two seasons and will fill the gap left when T.J. Ford retired a few weeks ago. The Spurs have made small, but significant moves leading up to the postseason that should improve their already impressive bench. Stephen Jackson has played well off the bench so far and San Antonio also signed Boris Diaw last week.

The Spurs signed Patty Mills as their backup point guard yesterday to add to their depth.

Another piece of news that has made major headlines (and been blown WAY out of proportion) is Lakers coach Mike Brown’s decision to bench Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter of LA’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday. Brown substituted Metta World Peace for Kobe down 14 with less than six minutes to play, drawing boos and “Ko-be!” chants from the crowd. The media and some fans have blown this move way out of proportion, suggesting Mike Brown’s incompetence as a coach and Kobe’s anger with his head coach. Kobe said he was frustrated with Brown’s decision, but that the decision was ultimately Brown’s to make. Anyone thinking this move was a big deal needs to stop. Kobe has been shooting terribly in the past few games, including that loss to Memphis. Despite the fact that Kobe is considered one of the most clutch players in the league, statistics say otherwise, and Mike Brown is the coach. It was his decision to make, and if a player isn’t playing up to their standards, it’s a coach’s job to put him on the bench. Notice that the Lakers cut the lead to nine at the 1:51 mark without Kobe in, and it clearly wasn’t a personal move against Bryant because Brown put him back in the game at that point. Chalk it up to a dumb yet semi-defendable coaching decision and move on.

Enough of the Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe drama. It's been blown WAY out of proportion.

Meanwhile, the Knicks have put some distance between themselves and the Bucks for the eighth seed in the East, but how long will that two-game gap last? Amare Stoudemire is out indefinitely after the results of an MRI on Monday showed he has a bulging disk in his lower back. The Knicks were able to get a win over the Bucks Monday without Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, who sat out with a sore knee, but if not for Carmelo Anthony’s elevated performance and an appalling shooting night for Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, things might have been different. To make things worse, Melo, who is the Knicks’ biggest offensive threat without Lin or Amare on the court, tweaked his groin in that game and is listed as day-to-day. Melo said he will be reevaluated and hopes to be ready for the Knicks’ game against the Magic tonight. But if Amare, Lin AND Melo can’t go, New York could be in serious trouble.

Speaking of injuries, LeBron James might have a dislocated finger after injuring it in the Heat’s loss to the Pacers on Monday. He had already been playing with a sore elbow, seeing his field goal percentage drop from 53 percent down to just 40 in the past five games. The fact that he injured his ring finger makes the jokes all too easy, but if LeBron continues to struggle, so will the Heat. However, Miami has plenty of time to turn things around and be contenders in the playoffs even if they don’t finish the regular season on a strong note.

The irony of LeBron dislocating his ring finger is overwhelming.

A few more recent injury headlines. First, Daniel Gibson will likely miss the remainder of the season after an MRI revealed a torn tendon in his left foot. Gibson has averaged 7.5 ppg for the Cavs, who are reeling as it is. Gibson isn’t a huge contributor, but Cleveland needs all the help it can get it at this point. With another loss like this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland starts to tank. Next, Jerryd Bayless partially tore his left oblique muscle in Monday’s game against the Magic and will be out for the rest of the season. Bayless has averaged 11.4 ppg and 3.8 apg this season for Toronto and averaged 21.8 ppg and 7.6 apg in the five games he started in this month. This is a big loss for an already floundering Raptors team.

To wrap things up, after a week of speculation about Vinny Del Negro’s job security as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, reports emerged that the Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling and GM Neil Olshey are both behind Del Negro, who will finish the season as head coach. Previous reports had stated that Del Negro had lost support in the locker room and that his job was in jeopardy after a Clippers losing streak, but it appears that for now, Del Negro is here to stay. So you can expect the Clippers to continue to underachieve this year.

Vinny Del Negro is here to stay for the rest of the season. So are the Clippers' problems.

Recent Trends Around the League

Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.

Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.

But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…

The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.

Will Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis be able to coexist?

Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.

Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.

The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.

Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.

Gallinari and Nene led the Nuggets to a big overtime win over the Hawks last night

I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.

Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.

Andrew Bynum and Kobe powered the Lakers to a double-overtime victory on the road