The NBA will enjoy a day off three weeks from Thursday, as the league’s regular season ends the night before. Fourteen teams will take to the offseason, some of them happily, while some clubs will rue the fact that they’ll miss out on the postseason because of either disappointing play (New York) or stellar competition (whichever 48-win team is on the outside looking in on the Western bracket). Two days later, 16 teams will begin what could be a two-month playoff run, as the NBA sets to deciding its champion.
And though the East looks comparatively weak, and though in an instant a poorly timed injury could lay waste to 5 1/2 months of regular season work, this still factors to be a fascinating, evocative playoff turn. It doesn’t just take yet another heart-stopping Indiana Pacers-Miami Heat game to remind you of this, though that doesn’t hurt, because this could wrap up to be the Greatest Playoffs Ever.
Don’t believe me? Need a little Magic and Larry in your bracket? Prefer a 72-game winner tossed in there? Still yelling at fluffy clouds and innocent schoolchildren? Do you watch cable TV news?
Consider the talent, and consider the storylines.
There is no storyline to the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers rivalry. They will likely meet each other for the third year in a row for a playoff series, the team houses equal amounts of respect and enmity for each other, and the varying “go big” versus “go small” matchups are already in place even if the faces (Greg Oden, Andrew Bynum, Evan Turner) have changed.
Indiana went huge down the stretch on Wednesday once Lance Stephenson was (rightfully, sadly, as he could have earned five or six technicals in that game had the refs not felt bad about handing him the first one) thrown out. With C.J. Watson out and Donald Sloan struggling mightily upon his ascension from third string to second string point guard, Evan Turner was moved down to shooting guard and asked to finish the game. Turner has been alternately too aggressive and too hesitant in his time as a Pacer, but he was fantastic in the final five minutes – hitting 2 of 4 shots for five points while adding a board, assist and steal. That little burst of late-season confidence, we’ve seen Phil Jackson try these things before with his championship teams, could be huge some two months later.
Miami, meanwhile, just has to steel itself for both another attempt at a statement game (at this point, there aren’t any) when they meet Indiana on April 11, and the realization that a third consecutive championship will have to come after yet another long, arduous journey.
It’s absolutely nuts to consider the Heat basically signed three franchise players, including the game’s best player, in 2010 alongside several highly regarded role players, and that they could bow out of a four-year run with “only” two titles through no fault of their own (outside of regrettable attempts to dismantle Dallas’ zone defense in 2011). LeBron James and company could fall short of a three-peat this year, to any number of teams, and it wouldn’t really feel like that much of an upset. The league is that good.
The Chicago Bulls made the Brooklyn Nets look foolish last spring, showing far more heart, mettle and willingness to value possessions as it “upset” the Nets on their home court in a Game 7 win. Teams just aren’t supposed to lose Game 7s at home, much less to a rotation working without Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, and yet the Nets frittered things away.
Much as they did for the first two months of this season, even after adding a new coach alongside Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko. The Nets turned things around, though, vaulting all the way up to the East’s sixth seed, allowing the $190 million monster the chance to play … the Chicago Bulls in the first round. A Bulls team without Derrick Rose. Or Luol Deng. Or possibly Kirk Hinrich, assuming he has a body part left that hasn’t already been injured. What’s different this time around? Show us some red, Brooklyn.
San Antonio will beat you when they rest Tim Duncan. They’ll beat you when they rest Tony Parker, and they’ll beat you when Manu Ginobili sits after pulling something. Though it should be noted that the team has a bear of an upcoming schedule, and they’ll likely sit most starters if they clinch the top spot in the West with games to spare, the team is still technically on pace for 64 wins – a ridiculous notion when you factor in that Duncan’s first championship with Gregg Popovich happened 15 bloody years ago.
Nobody truly expected San Antonio to act demoralized and beaten after losing the last two games of its season and eventual NBA title to Miami last June, but the notion of yet another 100-game season pitched in order to build Timmy another winner did seem daunting at the outset of autumn. Here we are, though, with a 15-game winning streak still alive, with that youngster who was supposed to help sustain the team’s legs over the course of the regular-season haul (Kawhi Leonard) suddenly playing sparkling ball on both ends. It’s true the Spurs will have to put in another 11 weeks of work if they want another ring, but at this point, who is left to doubt this crew?
The Phoenix Suns knocked the San Antonio Spurs out of the playoffs in 2010, in a borderline shocking sweep that was spurred on by Goran Dragic’s magnificent 26-points-in-17-minutes effort. Gregg Popovich does not like Goran Dragic.
If the season ended today, which would be a shame, the Suns and Spurs would meet in the first round.
Meniscus injuries are frightening. The Chicago Bulls don’t want Derrick Rose even considering a rush job back from his tear, as he’s started only non-contact drills in practice. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook has had two follow-up surgeries following his initial meniscus surgery in the spring of 2013, and his iffy play in his most recent outing (an eight-turnover game against the defensively woeful Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday, following a knee strain from last week) has the team considering monitoring his minutes – even in the playoffs.
Dimming such a high-usage, franchise-altering point guard’s output would seem to be a championship-killer for most teams, but a second consecutive solid season from reserve point guard Reggie Jackson and the ascension of Kevin Durant’s all-around (and especially passing) acumen leave the Thunder a stout championship contender even if Russell is playing “just” 32 minutes a night.
Kevin Durant shouldn’t win the MVP because of the Russell Westbrook storyline. He should win the MVP because he’s played better basketball than any basketball player this season.
At this point, the Washington Wizards and especially the Toronto Raptors have been unofficial playoff locks for weeks now. Neither team has made the playoffs in six years, and the rabid fan bases behind each squad will no doubt have the home arenas rocking, especially if the teams meet in the first round. That’s how the NBA’s bracket is currently constructed, and both rosters should feel good about their chances to move on to the second round.
The run likely ends there, with the winning squad meeting up with Miami in the conference semifinals, and as soon as Miami wins its fourth game the questions take over from that point.
Toronto was only partially made to make the playoffs. Former general manager Bryan Colangelo dealt for Rudy Gay while retaining various other players last year in the hopes that a healthy 2013-14 season would result in a Gay and Andrea Bargani-led postseason trip. Both players were gone before the calendar switched over to 2014, as was Colangelo, and though the team has charmed everyone with this run to the top of the Atlantic Division, the squad is still without a real franchise player (which is apparent, sometimes, late in games) and new GM Masai Ujiri may feel trepidation at retaining the players and coaches acquired by the man whose mess he was hired to clean up.
Washington is proud of its mess, but this is also a team featuring two big free agents in Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza, working in their primes. Re-signing them doesn’t put the Wizards anywhere near the Indianas and Miamis of the East, even if John Wall takes a big leap next season, and the team is without a first-round pick this year. Considering that two out of the past three Ernie Grunfeld lottery selections were big duds, Wizards fans may not have an issue with this.
This postseason run will be nice and wholly deserved. But both teams are paying dearly to be in the middle. Is it worth keeping that up?
Houston is slowly creeping up to the top 10 defensively, it has a top five offense and two players in Dwight Howard and James Harden who have proven to be absolute killers in a playoff series if they’re handed the right matchup. It’s looking certain the team will be paired up with a reeling Portland Trail Blazers squad in the first round, and more than likely they’ll take on the San Antonio Spurs in the second round. Provided the white hot Memphis Grizzlies don’t take the eighth seed and topple the Spurs, as they did in 2012, which would only be a slight upset. The Grizzlies are that good. The West has talent.
Houston has taken all three meetings with San Antonio this year, in close wins that have proven the Rockets’ mettle. Houston GM Daryl Morey is taking a slow approach with his rebuilt, asset-heavy squad, but he could have a conference finalist on his hands earlier than he expected.
Of course, the West could enter the postseason with seven or eight genuine conference finalist contenders. We’re not as sold on Dallas or Phoenix extending their runs into late May, but there’s no reason to think any other team in that bracket cannot. Even the in-fightin’ Golden State Warriors, full of defensive helpers and top-notch shooters, have the rotation in place to do some great things.
The West is great – all-time great – and the East will feature a classic conference final after, at worst, a competitive first few rounds featuring inviting story lines. It’s going to be brilliant.
We just have to figure out how to get through this final month, first. Maybe partying will help.
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