With seven weeks to go in the season, the jockeying for playoff seeding has already begun. At week's end Boston, Miami and Chicago were separated by two games at the top of the Eastern Conference standings while Indiana, Charlotte and Milwaukee were 3½ games apart in the race for eighth. Out west, Memphis and Utah were tied for the No. 8 seed, just 1½ games behind No. 5 Portland. Here are five under-the-radar players who could give their teams a boost during the stretch run.
Delonte West, G, Boston
A 10-game suspension for pleading guilty to carrying a concealed weapon plus a broken right wrist suffered on Nov. 24 have limited West to five games this season. He's due back this week, and the Celtics are counting on the 6'3" combo guard to reduce the workload on Rajon Rondo (37.7 minutes per game) and Ray Allen (36.1) while also playing alongside them in three-guard sets until Marquis Daniels, who is out indefinitely with a neck injury, returns to the lineup.
O.J. Mayo, G, Memphis
Mayo's season has been one problem after another: In November he lost his starting job, and in January he scuffled with Tony Allen on the team plane and drew a 10-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Still, Rudy Gay's shoulder injury could necessitate Mayo's return to the starting lineup, where he has been much more productive. His three-point percentage is 40.7 when he starts, 32.3 when he comes off the bench.
Timofey Mozgov, C, New York
Mozgov was handed a starting job that he wasn't ready for early in the season. Now the timing is right. After sitting out all but three games in January while he adjusted to the NBA, the 7'1", 250-pound Russian rookie started five of the Knicks' seven in February, averaging 7.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 22.4 minutes. Starting a natural center should take pressure off Amar'e Stoudemire, a power forward who has been forced to play out of position for most of the season.
Paul George, F, Indiana
Few players have benefited more from the Pacers' coaching change than George, who went from a fits-and-starts role under Jim O'Brien to steady minutes under Frank Vogel. The 6'8" George has demonstrated an ability to be a defensive stopper—he held Dwyane Wade to 5-of-14 shooting last month—while cracking double figures in six of the last 10 games.
Roddy Beaubois, G, Dallas
With Caron Butler out for the season, the Mavs desperately need another scorer off the bench. Enter Beaubois, who scored 13 points in his season debut last week after missing the first 54 games of the year with a fractured right foot. The wispy (6-foot, 170 pounds) second-year guard came on strong at the end of last season, doubling his scoring average to 10.2 points in the second half of 2009--10. Dallas is penciling Beaubois into their fourth guard spot behind Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Terry.
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The NBA and the players' union were able to agree on one thing during a two-hour meeting in Los Angeles last week: With four months left in the current collective bargaining agreement, the two sides are still miles apart. Owners are seeking sweeping changes to the system while players believe smaller changes, such as greater revenue sharing, will restore the financial balance. "You can't revenue-share your way to a profit as a league," said NBA commissioner David Stern. "It doesn't solve a problem if there are losses." Both sides are bracing for a lockout in July, and it will likely be a long one. An ownership source told SI that the feeling among owners is that the differences between the two sides are so significant it is "very possible" there won't be a 2011--12 season.
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DON'T HOLD THE MAYO The Grizzlies guard is more productive as a starter than he is coming off the bench.
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