The NBA season enters its post-deadline stretch run, where a few teams will get hot, a few will fall back and the playoff picture will come into focus. Avoiding injury and finding consistency are the keys here, and the Spurs, who just lost their starting point guard for up to a month, might be in trouble.
We look at what the top 15 teams in the league need to show the rest of the season.
1. San Antonio Spurs (49-10, Previous: #1) -- From here on out, the Spurs need to survive Tony Parker's (hopefully brief) rehab from a strained calf; the chasers in the West will be watching intently, hoping Parker's injury does to the Spurs what Dirk Nowitzki's injury did to the Mavericks. That's unlikely, given the presence of Manu Ginobili and San Antonio's fairly remarkable backcourt depth. But stay tuned.
2. Miami Heat (43-17, Prev: #2) -- The Heat probably need to knock off an elite team for confidence's sake. They'll have opportunities galore, with a trip to San Antonio scheduled for Friday (on the back-end of a back-to-back, of course) and a Sunday showdown with the Bulls.
3. Boston Celtics (43-15, Prev: #3) -- Boston need to prove to itself its defense can survive heavy minutes for Nenad Krstic. The Celtics were at the top of table in defense during Kendrick Perkins' absence, rolling with heavy doses of a Kevin Garnett-Glen Davis frontcourt and Shaquille O'Neal when available. But Krstic might be a minus on defense, and Boston will have to work to protect him for explosions like what Al Jefferson did on Monday.
4. Dallas Mavericks (43-16, Prev: #7) -- The Mavericks really might have the pieces to go all the way. The stretch run is all about remaining solid, and beating teams they are supposed to beat. Dallas' margin of victory should steadily increase.
5. Los Angeles Lakers (42-19, Prev: #4) -- Pau Gasol needs to prove that the Black Swan version of himself is real, and not a phantom that will revert to onlooker when Kobe Bryant grabs the reins. Sunday's win in Oklahoma City was not a good start; Pau deferred to Kobe, who was shooting terribly, all game.
6. Chicago Bulls (41-17, Prev: #5) -- The Bulls need to prove they can survive their relative lack of three-point shooting, especially in the starting line-up. Derrick Rose keeps defenses true with a solid mid-range extended jumper, but the lack of a legit, regular three-point option in Tom Thibodeau's most trusted line-ups could be an issue against great defensive teams.
7. Orlando Magic (38-22, Prev: #6) -- The Magic need a productive bench, and while that doesn't necessarily depend on Gilbert Arenas, a consistent Gil would certainly help.
8. Denver Nuggets (35-26, Prev: #9) -- George Karl wants to push for home court. I think a playoff berth is more reachable. Finding the right balance with Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton, and Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith will be a huge key.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder (36-22, Prev: #10) -- The Thunder have plenty of games without Kendrick Perkins; that will be a strain on the team. In the meantime, Serge Ibaka showing that he can be as good as a regular starter as he was off the bench would be a nice gain.
10. New Orleans Hornets (35-26, Prev: #8) -- The Hornets need to show that they can score more than 30 in a quarter once in a while.
11. Memphis Grizzlies (33-28, Prev: #11) -- The Grizzlies have done OK without Rudy Gay so far. But can they improve their defensive rebounding enough to spook a Western power in the first round?
12. Philadelphia 76ers (30-29, Prev: #12) -- It looks like we may just have one East playoff team with a losing record, as the Sixers are actually making a run at the Knicks for No. 6. The Philly frontcourt is a question mark: can they get more out of Spencer Hawes? Will Elton Brand hold up all season?
13. Houston Rockets (30-31, Prev: #13) -- The Rockets are crawling back into the playoff race, but the loss of Shane Battier won't help a porous defense. Kyle Lowry needs to prove that he's worthy of the starting point guard spot, and that he can fit with Kevin Martin.
14. Portland Trail Blazers (33-26, Prev: #15) -- Four starters -- Gerald Wallace, Brandon Roy, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews -- for two spots. Nate McMillan's job might be on the line (fair or not), and balancing his teeming rotation will be the biggest challenge from here on out.
15. New York Knicks (30-27, Prev: #16) -- God bless Knicks fans for getting so excited about one close win. Now beat the Cavs, OK?