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The stretch drive is full of potholes

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Beware of strange things happening at the end of the NBA regular season. One of the most difficult characteristics to measure in a player is what's inside his heart and sometimes that comes into play in the final week of the season.

If your player is on a team with no shot at the playoffs, you will find out about his heart if he a) plays hard down the stretch or b) returns from an injury to finish off the season.

Does he play out the season because that's what professional athletes do or does he coast because he knows he can get away with it?

In the Eastern Conference, with 10-12 games remaining, teams like Detroit, New Jersey, Toronto, Washington and Cleveland have only remote chances, at best, to make the playoffs. In the Western Conference, Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento and Minnesota are going to be watching the first round of the playoffs on television just like you and me.

How will players on those teams produce down the stretch? Or will they play at all?

In Cleveland, Baron Davis has made just four appearances since February 23. In three of those he posted solid fantasy numbers, but at this point you can't put him in your starting lineup despite his listing as probably for the game against Detroit on Friday, because he's shown little desire to get on the court for the 13-57 Cavaliers.

The Clippers' Eric Gordon is the exact opposite. He broke his wrist back in late January, did his rehab work only to get re-injured after making two starts in early March. Instead of coasting, Gordon came back last Sunday and has averaged 23.6 ppg in the three games since his return. He could be a key player down the stretch.

So could Kevin Love if he can get back on the court. After becoming a fantasy superstar in 2011 (20.3 ppg, 15.4 rpg), Love suffered a groin injury that has kept him out of the lineup since March 20. Based on 53 consecutive double- doubles, his fantasy owners had come to depend on his production and are lost without it. But the latest reports say that he will likely be shut down for the season and with the Timberwolves' 17-55 record, there really is nothing to play for and sitting might get the team a larger number of ping-pong balls.

Those fantasy owners looking for a replacement for Love, might try Anthony Randolph who did a great impersonation of Love on Thursday night with 31 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a blocked shot.

Another fantasy star, Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets, is dealing with a wrist injury. His owners could really use his 20.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg and 10.1 apg, but he hasn't played since last Friday. The latest reports have Williams meeting up with the team for this Friday's game with Orlando and a healthy Williams would go a long way in assisting his fantasy owners down the stretch.

In Sacramento, guard Tyreke Evans is supposed to return from a plantar fasciitis injury on Friday. He's missed 19 consecutive games and even if it takes him a couple of games to get back into form, he's a star player who would be welcomed back by fantasy players everywhere. However, his return could put a damper of Marcus Thornton's late-season run. Thornton has averaged 22.4 ppg in March but will have to sacrifice some of his shots to Evans.

And in Washington, two players who have been solid fantasy players in 2011, Andray Blatche (15.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.4 spg) and Nick Young (17.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.2 apg) are hurting. Blatche's shoulder is in bad shape and he'll likely miss the rest of the season, but a healthy Young (knee) could help a fantasy lineup.

It's not just injured players you have to watch out for. Many players lose their focus as the days dwindle to just a few and the team isn't competitive.

Look at a talented young guy like DeMarcus Cousins for example. He was always on a winning team in high school and college and now with Sacramento he seems to be struggling with losing. He's having problems with his coaches, teammates and was tossed from a game the other day for fighting. Cousins hasn't scored 20 points or-more since March 9 and has produced 11-or-fewer points in four of his last eight games. He's too talented to produce so little.

On the other hand, many a young player gets a chance to star with their team out of the playoff picture.

Detroit's Greg Monroe has averaged 8.9 ppg for the season, but 14.1 ppg in March. The Nets' Kris Humphries is averaging 15.2 ppg and 16.5 rpg over his last 10 games and Toronto's DeMar DeRozan is averaging 19.6 ppg since March 1st.

There are a lot of potholes or your stretch drive to the championship, but if you continue to pay attention you can make the final turn into Victory Lane.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.

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