Friday , Mar , 30 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

Who wants to play Dallas in the first round?

(Sports Network) – There is a battle going on in the Western Conference for
the right to play, or act as the sacrificial lambs for, the defending
conference champions and NBA-best Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the
postseason.

The Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and New Orleans/Oklahoma City
Hornets are the three teams with the most realistic chance of advancing to the
postseason. Sacramento, which has qualified for the playoffs eight straight
years, and Minnesota still have an outside shot at sneaking in, but it doesn’t
look good.

With 11 games left on their schedule, the Clippers should be able to hang on
and advance to the playoffs for the second straight year. The last time the
Clippers appeared in the postseason in consecutive years was in 1992 and ’93.

The Clippers, who entered Friday’s action as the eighth seed, own a one-game
advantage over the Warriors and have played two less games than Golden State.
They are scheduled to host five of their final 11 games this season, taking on
the Lakers, Denver, Portland, Sacramento and the Hornets. Los Angeles will
visit the Kings, Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Hornets, Lakers and Suns.

Golden State has not advanced to the postseason in 13 years. The Warriors have
the longest playoff drought in the NBA, last appearing, however briefly, in
1994 when they were swept by the Phoenix Suns, 3-0, in the first round. They
have nine game remaining and will be on the road for five of those contests.

The Warriors, who are a dismal 8-28 as the visitor this season, will face
Houston, Memphis, San Antonio, Sacramento and Portland in their final road
games. They are scheduled to host the Grizzlies, Jazz, Timberwolves and
Mavericks.

New Orleans/Oklahoma City is 2 1/2 games behind the Clippers, with 10 games
left on its schedule. However, the Hornets should get some needed help for the
stretch run as forward Peja Stojakovic (lower back) could return to the court
for their next game against New York. Stojakovic, who is in his first season
with the Hornets, is averaging 17.8 points in just 13 games this season. The
sharp-shooting Stojakovic last played on November 24th.

The Hornets will split their final contests between the Ford Center and the
road, but the return of Stojakovic could be just the thing they need to help
them get hot. They have two more games against the Clippers and will also meet
the Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks, Seattle, Phoenix, Minnesota, Denver, Houston and
Sacramento in their remaining contests.

Elton Brand, who leads the Clippers in scoring and rebounding, is playing well
for LA. But, veteran guard Sam Cassell, who came up big in the clutch for the
Clippers last season and in the playoffs, is dealing with some nagging
injuries. The Clippers have a tough finish to their schedule and are going to
need to be at the top of their game to avoid a scare.

Golden State blew its chance. The Warriors have talent, but are missing the
total team effort. Baron Davis, Al Harrington and Jason Richardson are all
excellent players, and the emergence of Monta Ellis has been a big surprise.
But the lottery is where this franchise is headed once again.

Look for the Hornets to make a run and make things interesting for the
Clippers during the final days of the campaign. Chris Paul can do it all,
while center Tyson Chandler has played like a man possessed down low and David
West has been a solid contributor at the big forward. The return of a healthy
Stojakovic could be the final ingredient to help elevate New Orleans/Oklahoma
City to a big finish and a berth in the postseason.

Whoever grabs the eighth and final playoff berth in the West will have Dirk
Nowitzki and the Mavericks waiting for them. Bottom line, the final team to
qualify for the playoffs will have four games left on its schedule.