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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 March, 2003, 01:07 GMT
NBA enters crucial stage

By John Amaechi
Utah Jazz forward/centre

The last 20 or so games is a crucial time in the NBA.

Most of the knocks on the players and the sport - lack of intensity, no defence, not playing hard until the fourth quarter - just do not apply any more.

Every team in the league currently in play-off position or right on the bubble, is fighting for position.

With a bad run of games during the end of March, teams could find themselves dropping out of the play-offs altogether.

There are a few notable teams that have really pulled themselves together to make a play-off run.

Michael Jordan
Jordan is looking to go out on a high

In the East, the Hornets are the real surprise.

Not because they are not loaded with talent, but because in the early season it looked as if the move from Charlotte to New Orleans had taken the wind out of them.

Now they sit comfortably in the sixth spot and you might look for them to oust a higher seed and move past the first round in the Eastern Conference.

The New York Knicks, who started this season with an embarrassing 5- 12 record, have pulled themselves together and are sitting in the ninth spot ready to make a run for the play-offs.

The main reason the Knicks are on the outside looking in? Michael Jordan.

This month has been full of newspaper reports of "Michael issues challenge to team" and "Michael expects more from team-mates".

Jordan is really asserting himself, not just on the court but in the locker room as well.

It seems he is essentially willing his Washington Wizards into the play-offs.

So far his team-mates' response has been less than stellar, but enough to gain and hold onto the eight and final spot in the East.

Things are extremely tight in the East, with little between the top seed and the number eight spot, so you can expect a great deal of change before the end of the regular season.

The Western Conference is always a battle, just to make it into the final eight.

Kobe Bryant
Bryant has helped the Lakers turn things around

There are only three teams that do not have a realistic chance of making the play-offs.

The top five of Dallas, Sacramento, San Antonio, Portland and Minnesota are in a struggle of their own for the top spots.

The Lakers and their two MVP candidates - Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant - are on a roll and have moved into the sixth spot ahead of my own Utah Jazz after two unexpected losses on the road.

It looks like we will fight it out with Houston, Phoenix and Golden State - another late season bloomer - for the two remaining spots.

I wish I could say the Jazz are a shoe-in for at least seventh place, but with our upcoming schedule we will have to be focused for every game.

We finish the season playing everyone in the Western play-off picture at least once, including Sacramento and San Antonio twice and Phoenix, Portland, Seattle and Golden State all on the road.

For now the battle is on for position because in the back of every player's mind is the knowledge very few low ranking teams make any progress through the play-offs and no-one wants to go home too early.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.





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Jordan to go out on a high
18 Feb 03 |  US Sport
Jordan is simply the best
17 Feb 03 |  US Sport

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