The clock is quickly ticking down on what is left of the NBA regular season and a few interesting stories are playing out.
Teams are positioning for postseason
Among the top-seeded teams in both conferences, only the San Antonio Spurs have played well heading into the final three weeks of the season. San Antonio won its past 10 games to move two games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder heading into Tuesday night’s games. Other than forward Kevin Durant, the play of most of the Thunder players has been up and down, and they have posted some disappointing losses. In the upcoming week, only the Spurs face a playoff team, when it takes on the Indiana Pacers on Monday at 7 p.m. EDT on NBA TV. (In Indiana, the game also is on Fox Sports Midwest.) Both the Spurs and Thunder remain ahead of the Pacers and Miami Heat, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
Indiana and Miami seem to be feeling the strain of staying among the best teams in the league, with both teams going 5-5 in their past 10 games heading into Wednesday’s schedule. LeBron James and Chris Bosh have expressed frustration with how the Heat have played, which is a concern for a team with three stars who could become free agents at the end of the season. There also could be some fatigue as the team attempts to make the NBA Finals for the fourth season in a row.
Indiana, which had been touted for its strong team play, seems to have lost its mojo with some disappointing losses lately. But the Pacers remain two games ahead of the Heat. Those teams were scheduled to meet twice before the end of the season, including Wednesday night’s game on ESPN. Those games could decide the winner of the East and perhaps any changes made in those teams in the offseason. After that game, the schedule eases up some for Miami, which faces only one other playoff team in the next week. The Heat play host to the Toronto Raptors at 7:30 p.m. EDT Monday on NBA League Pass.
The Pacers, on the other hand, have three additional games over the next week. That includes two games against playoff teams, the Wizards in Washington at 7 p.m. Friday on NBA League Pass and the Spurs at home next Monday on NBA TV. Both those games also will be on Fox Sports Midwest in Indiana.
In the Western Conference, the standings themselves could set up some interesting upsets once the playoffs begin. If the postseason started today, the Los Angeles Clippers would be seeded No. 3 and would take on the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round. Those teams have had contentious matchups all season and have split their four games. Those teams might prefer to face a different team to open their playoff run.
Thinking down the road, the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs probably would prefer not to take on the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets in the second round, because Houston has won all their matchups this season. If the playoffs started today and both teams advanced to the conference semifinals, they would meet then. For that reason, Houston might prefer staying in the No. 4 spot, rather than moving up to No. 3 because it has lost two of its matchups with Golden State, which at No. 6, would be its first-round matchup.
In the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, and Dallas Mavericks are battling to stay out of the lottery. They are virtually tied for the last two playoff spots heading into Wednesday night’s games, so only two of those teams will make the playoffs. The other team will end up with a lottery pick, which could improve an already strong team for the 2014-15 season. Each of those teams plays the other once before the end of the season.
The Mavs will play host to the Suns but go on the road to face the Grizzlies, with Dallas holding the head-to-head tiebreaker if they finish tied at the end of the season. Memphis goes to Phoenix and plays host to Dallas, and the Grizzlies hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Suns if the teams remain tied. The Suns play at Dallas in a game that will decide the tiebreaker between those teams, but Phoenix hosts the Grizzlies. Memphis has one more game than the Suns and Mavs. In key games for those teams this week, the Mavericks play the Los Angeles Clippers at 8:30 p.m. EDT Thursday on NBA League Pass, the Grizzlies face the Golden State Warriors on Friday at 10:30 p.m. EDT on NBA League Pass, and the Dallas Mavericks also play the Warriors at 8:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday, also on NBA League Pass.
In the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks have won eight of their past 10 games, despite a bad loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night. They could very well chase down the Atlanta Hawks for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference over their final 11 games of the regular season. The Hawks, who held a three-game lead over New York heading into Wednesday night’s games, have played .500 basketball over the past 10 games. They take on seven playoff teams but will play nine of their final 13 games at home.
Race for the Worst 2014
With three weeks to go in the season, seven of the league’s 30 teams already are eliminated from playoff contention, and six of them are guaranteed spots in the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery: the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, and the Sacramento Kings. The seventh team, the New Orleans Pelicans, might not have a pick in this year’s draft because it traded the first-round selection to the Sixers in the deal that brought them point guard Jrue Holiday, and the second-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves. However, the Pelicans could keep their first-round pick if it ends up among the top five in the draft lottery because they added protection to the pick through 2019.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers have pretty much guaranteed themselves the top odds of getting the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the draft, and the schedule is going to help them with that. Both teams had 11 games left as of March 26, eight of which are against teams that likely will make the playoffs. The Bucks do have six of those games at home, while seven of Philadelphia’s games are on the road. The 76ers were on track to tie the NBA record for consecutive losses at 26 when they faced the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night and have a good shot at falling below the Bucks in the standings and gaining the best odds at landing the No. 1 pick through the NBA Draft Lottery.
The Orlando Magic are not locked into third-best odds, but their spot looks secure. They have won three fewer games (20) than the next group of teams ahead of them, the Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz at 23 wins. Even though seven of the Magic’s final 10 games are at home, the Magic went into Tuesday night’s home victory against the Portland Trail Blazers on a nine-game losing streak, with three of those defeats coming at the hands of teams such as the league-worst Bucks. In addition, eight of the Magic’s final games are against playoff teams.
The main questions are which teams will end up falling out of the playoffs and into the lottery and which players will decide to enter the NBA Draft. A number of the top college players – notably projected top 3 picks Joel Embiid of Kansas and Jabari Parker of Duke — had said at some point during the college basketball season that they might end up staying in school. What if they do and all these teams spent an entire season tanking for a smaller field of top talent?
The coming makeovers of the Knicks and Lakers
They are the two richest franchises in the largest markets in the country, and both are likely out of the playoffs this season. It does not happen often and does not sit well with their fans, who pay the highest ticket prices in the league. The entire rosters of the existing Knicks and Lakers are being evaluated as those teams look to ensure they make the playoffs next season.
With Phil Jackson taking a position that puts him in control of the Knicks’ personnel decisions, the way New York finishes the season could impact how it moves forward and with which players. Before a trouncing by the Lakers on Tuesday night, the Knicks had played much better since talk began about Jackson possibly joining their front office. New York still has itself in position to at least have a shot at getting into the playoffs.
Jackson has said that he sees Carmelo Anthony playing an important role in the Knicks’ future. Anthony can opt out of his contract after this season and become a free agent, and he held a lot of the power with the team before Jackson arrived. Jackson also could bring in a new coach who will change the Knicks’ offense and the freedom Anthony has to operate within it. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic between them develop and how that affects the team.
In Los Angeles, injured All-Star guard Kobe Bryant already has been making a lot of noise about changes he wants to see in the offseason. With perhaps only two years left in his long NBA career, Bryant has stated emphatically that he doesn’t want to be part of a protracted rebuilding. In fact, before Jackson joined the Knicks, Bryant had publicly expressed that he thought the Lakers should bring him back and that Bryant had concerns about Coach Mike D’Antoni. Since Bryant is owed more than $48 million over the next two seasons and has helped deliver five championships to the Lakers over the years, you would expect him to have input into what the Lakers do in the offseason. But General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Bryant won’t have a say in all the decisions that will have to be made to get the Lakers back on track.
The Lakers have limited financial flexibility and would like to maintain enough salary cap space to be big players in the summer of 2015, which is expected to be loaded with star free agents. With Bryant urging the organization to make changes to try to win more championships before he retires, it will be interesting to see whether the Lakers keep the high draft pick they will get because of their poor record this season. The Lakers could opt instead to try to trade that pick for a top-of-the-line current player to help Bryant now and start the rebuild.
NBA League Pass
One of the best ways to follow along and see what happens is by purchasing the special NBA League Pass sports package “Race to the Playoffs” with a price of $59. The Race to the Playoffs covers every out of market game from now until the end of the regular season on April 16. That will ensure that you have access to watch all the remaining regular-season games. With key national networks broadcasting more college basketball for the next couple of weeks, NBA League Pass is also a great option for catching most out-of-market NBA games.
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