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By this time next week, most NBA teams will be preparing for their final regular-season game.
Right now, it’s crunch time, filled with talk of tanking, preferred matchups and strategy that adds yet another element to the handicapping game.
The Eastern Conference picture looks to be closer to focus, as the top three seeds are virtually locked in barring an unlikely Bulls collapse and the next three are all jockeying for position secure in the knowledge that they'll be avoiding Chicago and Miami.
Out west, it's wilder. Whether you're booing or cheering that bad pun, let's move on to Wednesday's implication-filled card.
New Orleans at Memphis
The Grizzlies still hold out hope for opening their first-round series at FedEx Forum, but there's little wiggle room to make it happen. An unexpected loss in New Orleans (75-88) on Sunday removed any room for error, but Memphis does have an easier schedule than the L.A. franchises they're attempting to catch, especially since both the Clippers and Lakers are each due just one more home date at Staples Center. Memphis begins a stretch of four out of five at home against the Hornets and they know its only excursion will take it to hapless Charlotte. Winning out is possible, but it has to start tonight against a team that's still playing with integrity for coach Monty Williams, fueled by career backups Greivis Vasquez and Jason Smith making the most of increased minutes. Marc Gasol is expected to try and play through a knee issue that contributed to a 2-for-8 night in Tuesday's 91-84 win at Minnesota. The Hornets have covered six straight and eight of 10 while the Grizzlies are mired in a 0-4 slump against the spread.
Houston at Dallas
The Mavericks have been cursed by the basketball gods this week, putting in four overtime periods with nothing to show for it but a pair of costly losses. Dallas felt a blown basket-interference call on a Pau Gasol 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring contributed greatly to a 112-108 loss in L.A., which was followed up by a triple-OT setback (121-123) in Salt Lake City on Monday. The Rockets were exposed as the inferior team in a home-and-home with Denver, backing them into a position where they'll have to hold off Phoenix and Utah for the No. 8 seed. Dallas will be squarely in that mix if it fails to secure this home date with an in-state rival it has beaten twice since the All-Star break. A win would put the Mavericks in the clear as far as making the postseason is concerned, as they have just three games remaining after tonight. The Rockets could be without centers Marcus Camby and Samuel Dalembert, both of whom are dealing with back issues. Dallas has won and covered both games against Houston this season. The Rockets are 0-4 both SU and ATS in their last four games, behind a suspect defense that has allowed 105.3 points per game during this stretch.
L.A. Clippers at Denver
Sweeping Houston cleared a major hurdle for a Nuggets squad that dropped an Apr. 7 game at Golden State (97-112) and looked to be spiraling out of the playoff picture. Since, they've won four of five and got the good news that Orlando will be coming to town next Sunday without All-Star Dwight Howard. The Nuggets aren't going to reach the 40-win mark necessary to secure a top-four seed in this shortened season, but have an opportunity to continue building momentum and send a message to a potential first-round foe, these Clippers. L.A. is hoping to beat out the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers for the Pacific Division title and has seen Chris Paul elevate his game over the past few weeks, sending his young teammates the message that it's time to get serious and justify the hype Lob City has enjoyed all season. The Clippers are 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS in their last 10, plus they’ve beaten the Nuggets in two of three encounters this season.
Oklahoma City at Phoenix
The Suns are in position to qualify for the postseason because of their road prowess this month, but fortunately for them, the rest of the heavy lifting is set to be done downtown at US Airways Center. Unfortunately, it will have to be done exclusively against playoff teams, as the Thunder, Clippers, Nuggets and Spurs all come through. Steve Nash has been dealing with a bum hip and Grant Hill is cautiously coming back from knee surgery, so the Suns will certainly need a boost from the home crowd against a Thunder squad that's tied with San Antonio as the top road team (19-11) in the Western Conference. Oklahoma City badly wants to finish as the No. 1 seed to secure the homecourt edge over the Spurs, but is just 5-5 this month. Playing their third of a five-game road swing, the Thunder come in confident with wins in five of their last six meetings with the Suns, including a pair this season by double-digits. This series has been known for high-scoring affairs, which has helped the ‘over’ cash in six straight. The Suns have gone 6-4 ATS as home underdogs this season.
San Antonio at Sacramento
Gregg Popovich has always said he's not going to put acquiring the No. 1 seed above the health and maintenance of his players, so don't expect him to deviate from that core belief as the Spurs play their third game in as many nights in Sacramento. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all played their normal complement of minutes in Tuesday's demolition of the Lakers (112-91), so you shouldn't expect to see them out on the floor against the Kings, especially since each made cameos in Monday's win at Golden State (120-99). DeJuan Blair sat against the Lakers and will undoubtedly replace Duncan as the focal point inside alongside Tiago Splitter, which means DeMarcus Cousins should have another big night. The visitor has won and covered both of the two meetings between the Kings and Spurs this season.
Utah at Portland
Surviving Dallas kept the Jazz in serious contention for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, so it bodes well for them that they'll see the Blazers twice in their final four games, starting with this stop at the Rose Garden that represents the final road trip of the regular season. The Blazers are among the most banged up teams in the NBA, limping to the finish line without LaMarcus Aldridge as Raymond Felton, Nicolas Batum and Joel Przybilla all deal with various ailments that have affected their play of late. Utah has overcome a myriad of injuries on the wing thanks to the play of Gordon Hayward and D-League pickup DeMarre Carroll, currently achieving cult status in Salt Lake City. Ironically, he'll see a lot of former Jazz standout Wes Matthews here, who similarly came out of nowhere and wound up being plucked out of Utah by a lucrative offer from the Blazers in 2010. Utah has won both of its battles against Portland this season, but the victories were by four and five points.
L.A. Lakers at Golden State
Kobe Bryant will miss another game as he continues to try and get his body back to 100 percent for a playoff run, but after last night's beatdown at the hands of the Spurs, it's up to his teammates to regain the swagger they had begun developing in winning four straight despite his absence. Luckily for L.A., the Warriors are in tank mode, looking to ensure they wind up with a Top-7 pick as any selection higher would be defaulted to Utah thanks to an existing trade clause. Unless they come out comatose, this should be a gimme win for the Lakers, whose ability to hold off the Clippers for the Pacific Division will likely be determined this weekend. With Bryant potentially returning to the mix, L.A. is at San Antonio on Friday and hosts Oklahoma City on Sunday in massive statement games. The Lakers opened as 6 ½-point favorites over the Warriors and it should be noted that L.A. is 3-0 SU versus Golden State this season but 0-3 ATS.