Just two playoff berths — seeds No. 7 and No. 8 in the Eastern Conference — remained unclaimed entering the Wednesday’s last night of the NBA regular season, and only three teams remained alive to claim them. That scenario put the pressure on the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, and Miami Heat on what was otherwise a fairly low-stress slate of final games. The math was clear — the Pacers and Bulls could each clinch their spots in the bracket with a win, but the Heat would have to win and see at least one of those rivals lose to avoid elimination.
That dramatic situation proceeded rather anticlimactically on Wednesday night. Facing opponents that chose to rest key players, all three contenders won to change the standings in no way. The Pacers beat the Atlanta Hawks 104-86 to finish No. 7, the Bulls blasted the Brooklyn Nets 112-73 to finish in the eighth spot, and the Heat took care of business 110-102 against the Washington Wizards to grab a 41st win that matters only to posterity. With the Boston Celtics clinching the No. 1 seed on Wednesday, as well, the East playoff matchups are set.
That’s not to say their weren’t tense moments during these victories. That’s especially true of the Pacers, who hosted a Hawks team resting Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap, Dennis Schröder, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Kent Bazemore after locking up the conference’s No. 5 seed with a win on Tuesday. The Pacers appeared to end any chance at an upset after excelling in the third quarter to take an 84-68 lead into the fourth, but a brief Hawks run cut it to 92-84 with roughly half the period still to play. In the end, though, Paul George (32 points and 11 rebounds) simply would not let the Pacers lose, just as he has so many times over the past two weeks.
Unfortunately for Indiana, starting point guard Jeff Teague turned his ankle with the result already sewn up and had to leave for the locker room with 2:08 on the clock. The Pacers will be underdogs against the No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers no matter what, but missing Teague for any length of time could put them at risk of an early exit. Fortunately, head coach Nate McMillan is optimistic he can return in time for Game 1.
The Bulls’ win against the Nets was frankly a bit of a snooze. Brooklyn rested six veterans after a 20-win season in an act of mercy, and Chicago took advantage by not falling prey to whatever lack of focus plagued them during Saturday’s surprising loss to the Nets. Jimmy Butler had 25 points in the win, but the real story was that the Nets starting lineup combined for just six more. A Bulls loss in this game would have gone down as one of the worst in recent NBA history, and their prize for not blowing it is a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Boston Celtics.
Those wins for Indiana and Chicago sealed Miami’s fate, but one of the best stories of the second half of the season impressed anyway with a solid win over a Washington side that rested stars John Wall and Bradley Beal with the No. 4 seed in hand. Goran Dragic (28 points) and Hassan Whiteside (24 points and 18 rebounds) starred to overcome a minor early deficit, but the season will end with the Heat at the bottom of the draft lottery.
Nevertheless, Miami deserves ample credit for overcoming an 11-30 start to finish at .500, as good as Chicago by win-loss record. Those early struggles will haunt Erik Spoelstra’s team into the summer, but at least the strong finish could provide momentum heading into free agency and next season. If nothing else, this turnaround taught a lot of people not to count out the Heat, and Spoelstra will probably earn some Coach of the Year votes for his efforts.
The NBA Playoffs start on Saturday, although the Bulls and Celtics’ Game 1 will tip off on Sunday. Set your alarms accordingly.
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