AFTER THREE YEARSof finishing out of the postseason, Woodson saved his job in 2008 when theHawks grabbed the last playoff spot and extended the Celtics to seven games intheir first-round series. His reward: a contract extension of just two years.While his Hawks already had 46 wins through week's end, their most since1997--98, Woodson still needs a strong playoffs to secure his future.
Why? Part of thereason is the way the Hawks struggle away from home, with a record of just16--24 at week's end. "They don't have a lot of fight when they get down onthe road," says a Western Conference scout. "When they fall behind,they stop playing hard." Of greater concern is Woodson's troubledrelationship with talented forward Josh Smith. The two have butted headsfrequently, with occasional well-publicized blowups. The latest came lastmonth, when Woodson benched Smith, 23, for the second half of a loss toCharlotte after the two had a halftime shouting match. "The thing is, theyare both at fault," says the scout. "Josh is immature. And [Woodson]wants to be a no-nonsense, in-your-face coach, but you can't do that when youhaven't won anything. The guys who coach like that—Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown,Jerry Sloan—are all proven winners."
Hawks G.M. RickSund has praise for Woodson, saying that he likes how the Hawks can win with anup-tempo style or by slugging it out. But it's also true that Sund, who came onboard in 2008, hasn't had the chance to handpick his own coach. A first-roundwin could be the difference between Woodson earning a contract extension andspending next season answering questions about his lame-duck status.
BEFORE ADEVASTATING injury to his left knee two seasons ago robbed him of hisathleticism—changing him from "a paragraph in the scouting report to acouple of sentences," as one scout put it—Jermaine O'Neal was one of themost dangerous low-post players in basketball. Miami is pinning its postseasonhopes on his ability to once again be a force. The team is built to spread thefloor and play two-man games: NBA scoring leader Dwyane Wade is one of the bestfinishers off the pick-and-roll, and Miami has a wealth of three-pointshooters, including Daequan Cook (39.4% from three-point range) and JamesJones, who has been regaining his stroke after struggling with a right wristinjury. If O'Neal can force teams to double-team him in the post and knock down15- to 18-foot jump shots off pick-and-pops, he will open the floor foreveryone. Since coming to Miami in a trade on Feb. 13, O'Neal has been solid,averaging 12.8 points and 5.2 rebounds while playing in 26 of 27 games."When I get completely comfortable, I'm confident I'm going to regain myAll-Star form," O'Neal says.
A strongpostseason will help O'Neal, 30, shed a perception that his work ethic has beenless than stellar in recent years. Sources from his previous teams, Toronto andIndiana, say that the coaching staffs were often frustrated by O'Neal's effortin practices and in the weight room. Says one source, "He would talk aboutall the work he was going to do, and then he would go in, ride the exercisebike for a little while and be done." Such words sting O'Neal. "That'sb.s.," he says. "I played hurt. I played to the detriment of my health.It's extremely sad for anyone to suggest I didn't work hard."
THE RELATIONSHIPBETWEEN the Boston Celtics and their two most recent acquisitions, Mikki Moore(left) and Stephon Marbury (right), is a symbiotic one. The Celtics arecounting on these midseason pickups to contribute to a title defense; theplayers, if they come through in the postseason, can resuscitate careers thatwere on life support due to inconsistency (Moore) and inscrutability (Marbury)."We absolutely need them," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But oneof the reasons they are here is that they wanted a shot at showing they canstill play."
In the playoffsthe 7-foot Moore will be expected to use his jumper to space the floor onoffense and give the Celts some size on defense. But it's Marbury whom theCeltics are banking on the most. When Boston traded Sam Cassell to Sacramentoin February, it left the team with only three-point specialist Eddie Housebehind playmaker Rajon Rondo. "House cannot be your backup pointguard," says an Eastern Conference scout. "He's not a ball handler. Wepress as soon as he comes into the game because it takes the team out of itsrhythm." This is why the Celtics decided to gamble on Marbury, a formerAll-Star whose rancorous Knicks years ended in a buyout. Since signing withBoston in late February, Marbury, 32, has struggled to find his grooveoffensively, making just 33.0% of his field goal attempts and 20.8% of histhrees. But he also has a respectable 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. If hecan effectively run the Celts' offense this postseason, Starbury will turn outto have been a bargain, and the point guard will, for the first time in awhile, look as if he made a wise move.
New Orleans Hornets
OH, WHAT ADIFFERENCE a year makes. Last April the Hornets, with a nucleus of Chris Paul,23, David West, 28, and Tyson Chandler, 26, were being trumpeted as the NBA'stop young team. That impression was only reinforced when New Orleans reachedthe conference semifinals and pushed defending champion San Antonio to sevengames. But one year later the Hornets could be on the brink of beingdismantled.
The first to gocould be Chandler, who was an ex-Hornet for a few hours in February before afailed physical nullified the deal with Oklahoma City. Chandler is owed $24.6million over the next two seasons, and with Paul scheduled to receive a $9.2million pay bump next year, ownership is anxious to avoid having to pay theleague's luxury tax. But the market for the center may have cooled. A sprainedleft ankle has kept Chandler out of 30 games this season, and his surgicallyrepaired left big toe was suspect enough that it spooked the Thunder. If theHornets are stuck with Chandler, that could force them to consider trading West(above left, with Paul), who is an All-Star forward but has three years and$24.8 million remaining on his contract. If West, averaging 20.7 points and 8.5rebounds this season, is dealt, that would deprive New Orleans of its bestlow-post threat.
Hornets playersare acutely aware that only a prolonged playoff run can keep the team's corefrom being broken apart. "We know our time to win is now," says West."We want to show that this team should stay together. We can be competingfor championships for a long time."
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WOODSON)
VICTOR BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (O'NEAL)
JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (CELTICS)
LAYNE MURDOCH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HORNETS)