The 2016-17 NBA regular season, thankfully, is nearing an end. Though the tops and bottoms of the standings have all been straightened out since January or so, little has been made certain yet beyond the Golden State Warriors’ move to ensure home-court advantage through the Finals. Even with just a short run left, there is still plenty to figure out as the NBA takes to April.
Since we all need the reminders as to who is set to start the playoffs where, who needs a bump during awards season or with a statistical accomplishment, and who is doing their best work in losing in order to grab improved lottery ball odds, Ball Don’t Lie is set to look at what should be your game of that particular day between now and the end of the term on April 12.
Monday’s Game of the Night: Cleveland at Miami, 7:30 p.m. ET
If, last autumn, you had pitched the idea of an early-April Cavaliers/Heat game having a significant return, a contest to determine the order of the top and bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, you wouldn’t have been laughed out of the NBA’s scheduling offices. This was a hoped-for No. 1 vs. No. 8 showdown last August, because sometimes the guesswork works out.
In a league with so much to figure out (the NBA still has half of its playoff matchups to determine with just three nights left in the regular season), there are still holes to fill in. Even with just a few hours left and weirdly, unless you count the still-amusing Brooklyn/Boston pairing, even though there are no in-division games on Monday night.
The Cavaliers probably expected to be in this position, with the Raptors and Wizards gearing for an all-out attack on this team’s top seed entering 2016-17, and with the Celtics having their own assets to work with as the year moved along. This team always knew that it would have to protect its standing in the East, and the unsettled tone has less to do with the sterling set of combatants (we’re still not swayed) that the conference has sent Cleveland’s way, and more to do with the Cavs’ uninspired use of its collection of talents.
Similar uneasiness also sits in with the Heat, who enter Monday tied on record with the Chicago Bulls for the No. 8 slot in the East. Chicago sits eighth, and the Heat ninth, because the Bulls own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Neither could have presumed the way they’ve gotten here — Cleveland’s carping, Boston hardly makes a move, Miami stays together even after an 11-30 start — was the way it was always going to be. Especially when those of us in the media get involved.
The cute takeaway from Miami’s run through the last half-season is that Pat Riley and his club would never tank, a charming lie told with the confidence that only a 28-11 sprint could create.
Riley, as coach and GM, TOTALLY tanked during the summer of 2002. Staring down what the 2003 draft would eventually provide, he did most of his 2002-03 offseason player shopping after store hours (Sean Marks, Travis Best, LaPhonso Ellis) in August and September, after everyone had gone home. By 2007-08, with either Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley acting as the prize, Riley (as coach and GM) shut down Dwyane Wade with five weeks left in the season and started Earl Barron down the stretch in order to acquire better lottery odds.
Riley and the Heat tank. They just haven’t had to in 2016-17 because Erik Spoelstra is a damn good coach (certainly better suited for rougher waters than Riley has ever been as coach, as Riley would be the first to acknowledge), and because the Heat, when healthy, are better than 11-30. Even if they’re not as great as 28-11.
The Cavs aren’t hurting, and they can clinch the top seed in the East with a win on Monday. The team had a chance to do that, and a 26-point cushion, against Atlanta on Sunday, but those damn referees (to hear LeBron James and coach Tyronn Lue, half-jesting, tell it) got in the way again.
The zebras not only forced the Hawks into a needed win (a loss would have put ATL in danger of dropping to No. 6 by playoff time) but created one last form of “what if?” for the Celtics. Boston, tied with Cleveland atop the East, will be working at home against the Nets on Monday and, presumably, winning.
The Heat work with no such assurances in the team’s “fight” for the eighth spot with the pathetic Bulls, who couldn’t be counted on to show up for work in full on Saturday against those same Nets. This is a franchise that, by any reasonable account, would deserve to fall well short of the playoffs on principle and in a vacuum.
Many close Chicago observers would argue that a determined Heat team would do more with, and better appreciate, the postseason appearance. Especially after the series of injury woes this Heat club has suffered, a brutal batch that would leave the Bulls weeping into their press releases.
Dion Waiters is only “questionable” for the Heat, still recovering from an ankle injury suffered on St. Patrick’s Day. He’s long hoped to return in time for this week, in order to ensure his team’s presence next week.
That sense of postseason security has always been in place for the Cavaliers in 2016-17. Perhaps why that’s why they’ve played like it for long, mostly annoying, stretches of the season.
If you’re only checking in now, do understand that the Heat play nothing like the Cavaliers. That might not be enough for a win – even in Miami and with several Cavs stars having played over 40 minutes on Sunday – but it will be enough to earn your respect.
Also worth watching
Yes, Boston does host the Brooklyn Nets, the team that owns the NBA’s worst record, the team that owes the Celtics its top (and, for the entire league, possibly toppermost) draft pick this June … Chicago will be forced to do its playoff battling in the face of the Orlando Magic, a group partially put together by an ex-Bulls front office performer, a team that has every reason to lose and, as such, has every reason to beat the shameful Chicago Bulls … Indiana should have a win in place with Philadelphia hosting the Pacers, and that conquest combined with either a Heat or Bulls loss would clinch the team’s 2017 playoff berth.
The best-case scenario for the Wizards still has them stuck in the No. 4 seed, they should be happy with where 2016-17 turned out, so on Monday its game in suburban Detroit will receive the most attention for acting as the bittersweet farewell to the Palace at Auburn Hills … Charlotte and Milwaukee has no playoff implications, the Hornets are out of the bracket, yet should provide its moments (I’m not quite yet ready to stop watching the Hornets play basketball this year) … The Spurs and Trail Blazers also boasts no playoff passwords … Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers will attempt to grab hold of the chance to play four games out of seven at home in the earliest round with hoped-for wins over Golden State, or the Rockets.
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