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Fight to the finish

Boozer, Pau rise while season takes toll on other stars

Posted: Friday April 6, 2007 2:04PM; Updated: Friday April 6, 2007 2:10PM
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So this is how the season, very nearly, ends: not with a bang, but with half of the players showcased on the "no reproduction without the express written consent of the National Basketball Association" promo whimpering toward the shelf. Gilbert Arenas, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, Michael Redd, Zach Randolph, Ray Allen, Joe Johnson ... these are the men whose headshots you've come to find comfort in since we started these rankings last October. And yet, after scrolling through this week's list, we think you'll agree that their spots are being more than capably filled.

(All statistics and records through April 5.)

NBA Player Power Rankings
Rank LW   Player
1 1 Nowitzki couldn't have picked a better time to hobble around. The Mavericks are 6 games ahead of second-seeded Phoenix in the cutthroat Western bracket, they've established their supremacy as the most versatile team in the NBA, and Nowitzki has been the league's most consistent and best player all season. So, after leading his team to wins in 84 percent of its first 74 games, it's probably high time for Dirk to take a break (rest those ankles, mellow that belly) before the postseason hits.
2 4 The impetus behind Duncan's ascension to this spot came long before his team's solid win over the Suns on Thursday. Not only is he contributing 20 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.3 blocks in just 34 minutes a game, but he's also acting as a linchpin for a Spurs defense that is tied for the lead in overall defensive efficiency and has been head and shoulders above the rest of the league (with Houston and Chicago lagging far behind) since mid-January. Duncan has Ben Wallace's ability to patrol the paint and ease into rejections while still holding firm defensive position long enough to gather double-figure defensive boards. It's a dynamic that, over the course of NBA history, only two or three active big men at a time are able to employ. What's so amazing about Duncan is his ability to play both sides of the coin on defense, and, unlike a Wallace-type, still have the energy to contribute big numbers on the offensive end.
3 2 The Lakers have lost four of five and are threatening to fall to the seventh seed in the West as Denver continues to find its way. While it's hard to classify Los Angeles' recent funk as a tank job (more like a "no defenders at the guard positions" job by GM Mitch Kupchak), a drop may be in its best interest. The seventh spot would likely have the Lakers playing Phoenix in the first round, and while the Suns would have to be considered an overwhelming favorite in that series, the Lakers would have a far tougher time against their current projected opponent, the Spurs. San Antonio would take away the one thing the Lakers do well (execute in a half-court offense), and run circles around that defense.
4 3 Yao continues to play well, but Houston's old demons (an inability to throw a basketball in the general direction of a 7-6 guy with skills) returned in Wednesday's loss to Golden State. The Warriors continue to employ Al Harrington at center, taking advantage of his quick feet and sturdy frame while ignoring his laughably poor rebounding skills, and he fronted Yao with great success. Still, Yao had nearly a foot on Harrington, even when fronted, and Rockets guards reacted as if they'd never seen such defensive tactics before. Yao finished with just four shots in 30 minutes (nine points, 11 rebounds total). Replace Rafer Alston with a real point guard, and this team is a conference finals threat.
5 5 The Timberwolves are spiraling toward their third straight lottery appearance, which means the usual batch of bored sportswriters and TV analysts will begin to wonder aloud about why such a great player can lead his team only to the ranks of the mediocre. And, especially for the TV analysts who only happen upon the odd national telecast, I implore you to take in a few of Minnesota's remaining games. The team is full of substandard parts that deserve to be scattered about the league, taking on the eighth-men roles that they're best suited for. Garnett, meanwhile, is still trying to guard five guys at once, still playing 40 minutes a night and still averaging 22.8 points, 12.8 boards, 4.1 assists and nearly three combined blocks and steals.
6 6 It's been another career year for Nash (his third straight, remarkable for a 33-year-old), and there may not be a more entertaining player in this league, but he's got to watch those turnovers. Since returning from a right shoulder injury in mid-February, Nash has averaged 4.4 turnovers in 23 games. Now, his team's fast pace and the sheer amount of touches Nash gets tend to pump up these sorts of numbers, but he still turns the ball over on a little more than 13 percent of his possessions. That's not so hot, though it is easily the only chink in the armor of his offensive arsenal. Defensively? Not as pretty a picture. Though Nash was only one of the Suns Tony Parker burned for 35 points Thursday, his defensive missteps were the most obvious.
7 7 After a brilliant March in which he averaged 30.3 points and seven assists and shot 75.2 percent from the foul line, we can at least say that young LeBron is fast approaching ... well, about what we saw of him last season. Not the greatest of achievements for someone who seems well on his way to Springfield, but it bears repeating that the 2005-06 version of LeBron James was pretty darn good. That version also took too many jump shots late in close games, which was pretty frustrating to watch and may have cost his team a chance at the conference finals last season. That particular trait sparked up again during Wednesday's overtime home loss to Miami.
8 9 Bosh averaged 34.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in 46 minutes in three games against the Magic this season (he missed the first meeting with an injury). More impressive, those stats are in the face of a Magic team that likes to slow things down, limit possessions and keep bigs away from big numbers. But matched up against Orlando's Dwight Howard, Bosh knew his station, knew what it would look like if his Orlando counterpart outplayed him, and made darn sure Toronto came away with a series sweep.
9 15 Mehmet Okur gets a lot of the (rightful) credit for nailing a series of game-deciding shots, but Boozer is nearly at his teammate's level when it comes to clutch finishes. Boozer's physique, and coach Jerry Sloan's careful dosage of minutes (just 35 a game), mean the burly forward is usually the only lane participant not tugging on his shorts during a fourth-quarter free throw attempt. That may not mean much during the dead ball, but on the next possession, when Boozer has to finish after a quick pass among a series of defenders playing their 39th minute of the night, he has that edge to work off of. He's averaging 21.1 points and 11.9 rebounds for the season.
10 11 While both stars and semistars alike are showing up in street clothes on the sidelines for expected lottery teams, the Grizzlies continue to fight. Gasol, just seven months removed from breaking his leg during the FIBA World Championships semifinals, has played nearly 40 minutes a game this calendar year. And while a reshuffled Memphis roster may escape the season short of 20 wins (come talk to me on May 22), Gasol continues to bring it: 20.9 points, 9.7, and 2.15 blocks, in 36 minutes a game (he played but 25 minutes a game in December).

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