Making sense of the race to the NBA finish line

Naveen Ganglani
Making sense of the race to the NBA finish line
The NBA regular season is coming to a close but the race for teams to secure the last few playoff spots remains tight

Thank God it’s the finale of the NCAA Tournament Tuesday, April 8.

For obvious reasons, the finals of March Madness is absolutely exciting and doesn’t need any promotion. It is, after all, the best collegiate tournament in the world – unless you count American college football’s BCS system over the past few years a tournament. 

Today’s finale where the University of Connecticut Huskies defeated the Kentucky Wildcats gave casual basketball fans in the Philippines a glimpse of stars that will one day wear the jerseys of their favorite NBA teams. Personally, I’m just excited to see Shabazz Napier do his thing, Aaron Harrison silence the critics with another ice-cold-dagger-to-the-heart three-pointer, and witness how the legendary John Calipari and an outstanding-mentor-in-the-making in Kevin Ollie do their coaching duel.

The spectacle also has its perks even if you don’t watch college basketball. If you’re one of those who prefer not to take a look at the NBA schedule in advance and would rather go at it day-by-day, well let me spoil it for you: there are no NBA games tomorrow.

And to be honest, you can’t blame NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and his predecessor – for opting every year to not hold NBA games the same day as the National Championship matchup. Of course, to the public, it will seem like an act of respect, for you know, basketball reasons? But to be truthful, the NBA cannot compete with the NCAA finals in terms of ratings – the views of the Kentucky vs. Wisconsin game from a few days back surpassed the viewership of almost each game of the 2013 NBA Finals. And those Heat-Spurs duels were pretty darn exciting.

But it’s a good thing that we’re taking a break from the pros, at least for one day. This gives us the opportunity to sit back, take a look at the standings, figure out what the hell is going on, realize who will most likely face whom when the postseason arrives, and get even more excited about the last two weeks of the regular season, which will undoubtedly yield the most unpredictable results.

Never in my entire life watching the NBA have I witnessed a sprint towards the playoffs this intense and closely fought. Think about it: a little over a week ago, the Phoenix Suns went from the No. 7 seed, to the No. 8 seed, and then to the No. 9 seed in a span of three days. The insane part about is they didn’t even play a single match while they were bouncing around those three slots. 

Let’s try to get some clarity on what the  is going on. In both conferences. Yes, even the LEASTern Conference.

(Note: How much does it suck that we won’t get to watch Kevin Love’s Minnesota Timberwolves, Goran Dragic’s Phoenix Suns, Marc Gasol’s Memphis Grizzlies, or Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks in the Playoffs because they play in a far-more superior conference? Meanwhile, a team that doesn’t even want to make the postseason, the Atlanta Hawks, will be in because the East has become so horrible lately. Adam Silver, forget about seeding by conference. Just get the 16 teams with the best records regardless of which conference they come from and pair them up similar to how the NCAA does it in each region of their tournament bracket. Who’s with me?)

The Least, uhm, Eastern Conference

The Race to No. 1

All season long, it was clear: either the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers would go on to take the No. 1 seed in the East.

Considering how important of a role home court played for the defending champions last season en route to their second straight title, it was obvious that playing a Game 7 at the American Airlines Arena should have been Miami’s top priority from the get-go. 

That was back in October. It’s now April, and two games in the loss column separate the two rivals. We won’t get into Indiana’s outlandish slide as of late – partly because I don’t want to discuss how crazy the Heat are for not taking advantage of the Pacers’ collapse sooner, due to some (a lot) head-scratching losses. Instead, let’s look at the remainder of their seasons, and what we can expect, discounting the possibility of injuries and other unforeseen circumstances.

Following today’s “What the (expletive) was that?” loss to the Atlanta Hawks, it’s clear Indiana has a lot of issues both on and off the floor. However, regaining the No. 1 seed isn’t an impossible task; as a matter of fact, it’s very reachable. 

Up next on Indy’s schedule are the Bucks. I want to say Milwaukee has a chance because of the Pacers’ horrible play lately, but there’s just no way Indiana is losing this game. Heck, they’ll even win by accident, because Milwaukee is THAT bad. I mean, can you imagine the outrage if Frank Vogel’s team loses to lowly, pedestrian Bucks after today’s embarassment? Those guys won’t be allowed to walk the streets of the Market City. Man, Erik Spoelstra might just decide to rest LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh until the Playoffs start and play Toney Douglas – Toney freakin’ Douglas – 48 minutes a game. 

PS: I’m actually starting to grow on Douglas.

After the Bucks (a road game), “King of the Hill” fan Roy Hibbert and his team will take a trip to South Beach to face Miami for their regular season finale. Two days later, Oklahoma City (which is suddenly in trouble of losing its grip on No. 2 in the West – more on this later) comes to town, and OKC is a bad matchup for Indiana, as proven by the last three encounters between both sides. The Pacers’ regular season concludes with a trip to Orlando, which should be an easy win.

Now, let’s take a look at the defending champs’ upcoming jousts: vs. Brooklyn, at Memphis, vs. Indiana, at Atlanta, at Washington, vs. Philadelphia. 

I predict Indiana will beat Milwaukee, lose to Oklahoma City, and take down Orlando. On the other hand, if LeBron and Bosh stick to their promise of playing each game the rest of the way – and if Wade could take an Advil and show up here or there – then the Heat’s contest against the Grizzlies (on the road, second night of a back-to-back following the Brooklyn match) should be their only loss. 

Obviously, the Brooklyn and Memphis games leading up to Indy won’t be cakewalks, which is why I have Miami losing the latter. And if Indiana does what it’s supposed to and beat Milwaukee, that means when they face the Heat this weekend, both clubs will be only one game apart in the loss column, with Indiana holding the tiebreaker advantage in case of a 2-2 season draw due to a better record against the East. A Pacers win over the Heat, however, would end up as meaningless if the latter wins the rest of its schedule (outside of Memphis) and if OKC defeats Indy again. 

Get up early for that game, folks. The atmosphere will be Game 7-like.

The struggle for No. 3

Both teams are knotted up at 45-32 right now. But because Toronto is the leader of its division, they get the benefit of having the higher seed. And with the path Brooklyn is on, it’s highly likely that the Raptors will end up winning the Atlantic Division crown, which doesn’t bode well for Coach Tom Thibodeau and his guys if both teams end the season with identical win-loss clips.

Both TOR and CHI have 5 games left in their respective schedules and with each having a three-and-a-half game lead over the Nets, it’s safe to assume Paul Pierce and company won’t have the necessity of homecourt advantage in the first round. Outside of the race to No. 1 between MIA and IND, the battle for No. 3 might be the most significant in the East playoff picture. 

Whoever attains the third spot will face either an inexperienced, playoff-newbie Washington squad, or an offensively-challenged Charlotte team. Meanwhile, No. 4 will have a tougher task of trying to hold-off the battle-tested and experienced bunch of Jason Kidd. Furthermore, with the way things are going, the struggling Pacers look like the group that will ultimately end up as No. 2. That means should the No. 3 seed beat its first round opponent, it will face an Indiana team that looks nothing like a championship contender right now, and who knows if they will ever regain top form. A potential upset is in the picture.

So, here’s the bad news for Bulls fans: taking logic into consideration, the Raptors look poised to grab the No. 3 slot.

Toronto has matchups against tanking squads like Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia, and has a home-and-home pair of games against the New York Knicks. The first three teams on the list are sure wins, but the Knicks are a wildcard. If Carmelo Anthony, who has a bum shoulder, and his team still haven’t been eliminated from playoff contention, then NYC will fight and could be a hot JR Smith shooting night away from stealing one of the two contests against DeMar DeRozan and his gang. Now, with that said, Toronto is going to go at least 4-1, especially if Kyle Lowry can come back sooner than later.

Chicago, meanwhile, has some freebies coming up against Orlando and Detroit that should be effortless victories unless their offense goes totally south (it’s possible). They have one more date with the Knicks, which could go either way since the contest will be at MSG, and some tough ones at Minnesota and at Charlotte. If the Bulls want to avoid a second straight postseason date against Brooklyn, they need to perfect the remainder of their schedule and hope Toronto loses at least one of its forthcoming contests. Though that scenario could happen, a smart bettor shouldn’t wager on that hope.

Locked in at No. 4

A few weeks ago, the Nets were in play to potentially snag the Atlantic Division from the Raptors. However, they crapped the bed against the Pelicans (understandable, since it was a road back-to-back), lost in overtime to the Bobcats (welcome to the Playoffs, MJ’s team!), and then got their asses whooped by their state rivals. Now at 42-34 and two and a half games behind of Toronto and Chicago, there’s practically no way Brooklyn chases either of the two. 

Because of this, Coach Kidd might consider resting his older guys, as they get ready for the postseason grind.

Surely, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett won’t miss their team’s upcoming game – against Miami – because of the whole rivalry thing. Adding to that, a Nets triumph over the Heat could cost the latter the No. 1 seed, which means Brooklyn will get to avoid their Florida-based rivals in the second round of the postseason, granted both advance past the first round.

After the defending champions, Deron Williams and company have two more meetings with the Magic, a game against the Hawks (wouldn’t it be amusing if BKN purposely sat all its starters in this match to strengthen Atlanta’s hold over the No. 8 seed, thus keeping the Knicks out of the Playoffs?), one more battle with the Knickerbockers, and a face-off with the Cavaliers.

With an inevitable rematch against the Bulls on the horizon, the wise choice would be for Brooklyn to rest its mainstays and reserve as much strength as possible for the hell Chicago will put them in.

Battling to avoid the titans

Thanks to Washington’s .500 efforts in its last 10 games, the Charlotte Bobcats have clawed their way to get in position of stealing the No. 6 seed. Usually, the difference being #6 and #7 isn’t that significant, but for this season, it could be very important for both clubs.

Attaining the sixth spot means avoiding Miami or Indiana in the first round. As I previously mentioned, the Raptors are essentially locked in at No. 3, but most of the guys from their team are going to be new to the Playoffs environment, making them a much more appealing opponent than the battle-tested Heat and Pacers. 

Ironically, Washington (40-37) and Charlotte’s (39-38) next games are against each other (Thursday morning in Manila), and the result of said contest may very well dictate which franchise avoids one of the two titans in the East.

After Thursday, the Wizards have only one playoff-caliber opponent in their schedule (at Orlando, vs. Milwaukee, vs. Miami, at Boston). The same can be said for Charlotte (at Boston, vs. Philadelphia, at Atlanta, vs. Chicago).

I know seeing “Charlotte Bobcats vs. Washington Wizards” on paper isn’t as sexy as it sounds, but the winner of their upcoming bout could affect the entire Eastern Conference Playoffs picture, so give it a watch.

Limping to No. 8

The Atlanta Hawks have had a season marred with injuries, the New York Knicks have been downright horrible both on the court and with off court issues, and the Cavaliers, well, why the heck are they even in the conversation? All three teams are in contention for the No. 8 seed in the East. Really, can’t we just give this to whoever finishes with the worst record between Phoenix, Memphis, and Dallas?

Anyway, the Cavaliers have a one in a thousand shot of attaining that final postseason slot. They need to win every remaining game of theirs and pray Atlanta loses every game on its schedule, which isn’t happening, so see you later, Dan Gilbert!

Now, the Knicks. Isn’t it just the Knickiest thing that two days ago they were in at No. 8, and now they’re three games behind the Hawks in the loss column? I mean, that’s just so Knicks! Let’s make this short: New York has four remaining games against Toronto (2), Chicago, and Brooklyn. They need to win all of those, and that isn’t happening. Furthermore, they need the Hawks to lose a bunch of games. Like, all, if possible. Atlanta has upcoming meetings against the tanking Pistons, Celtics, and Bucks. 

See you next season, New York!

(Note: With Mike Woodson 99.9% gone by next season and the Knicks not making the postseason, shouldn’t Mike’s last act be to just let JR Smith shoot 30 three-point attempts per game for the remainder of the season? Sounds good, yes? Do it, Woody!)

The Western conference

Would you look at that? There they are again.

I’m now convinced that the Spurs will still have the best regular season record in the NBA even if Tim Duncan is, like, 50 years old, and when all of Manu Ginobili’s hair finally falls off. Also, I think San Antonio will continue to dominate the West prior to the playoffs even when the time comes that Boris Diaw has eaten every Twinkie in the world.

But in all seriousness, how amazing is this team and their coach? Look, forget naming it the “Coach of the Year” award. Just call it the “Who Was Second Best To Popovich This Season.” No other mentor in the league has been better than San Antonio’s coach over the past few years. 

Here are the guys who have missed significant time for those old Spurs this season: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green. Four of those are in the starting lineup, and the other is the team’s designated closer late in games. Oh, have I mentioned they are 60-17, and will surely have homecourt advantage against whoever is unlucky enough to face them in the postseason? 

Pop is just a tremendous coach. He has created such an outstanding offensive system that “beautiful” wouldn’t be enough to describe it. Yes, they’ve struggled against OKC this season (0-4), but would you seriously bet on anyone in the West right now to beat San Antonio four out of seven times?

SAS has a four-game lead in the loss column against No. 2 Oklahoma City, and has already earned homecourt advantage regardless of who comes out from the East. They’ve got No. 1 locked up.

When it was obvious catching San Antonio in the standings was practically impossible, many had locked OKC in as the No. 2 seed in the West. But with recent losses to Houston (sans Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley) and Phoenix, the Thunder are now only two games above the No. 3 seed, the Los Angeles Clippers, in the loss column.

Kevin Durant and company can’t sleep through the rest of the regular season, now with the Clippers hot on their trails.

Assuming both take care of business in the first round of the Playoffs, they will face each other in the semis, and homecourt will be critical in determining which team advances to the Conference Finals. No team has given the Thunder more troubles ever since they became title contenders than the Clippers, and I’m sure Coach Scott Brooks would prefer playing Game 7 at Chesapeake Arena rather than having to fly to Los Angeles.

LAC and OKC have one more meeting this season, set to take place this Thursday (Manila time). All the Thunder need to do to secure the No. 2 seed is beat Los Angeles on that day. That would also enable them to sit out Russell Westbrook for the succeeding games, as he strengthens his knee for the playoff grind. However, should Blake Griffin and Chris Paul lead their team to a W, things can turn ugly for Oklahoma City.

A Clippers victory would give them the season series (3-1), thus the tiebreaker advantage. Obviously, after beating the Thunder, LAC will still need Durant and Co. to lose at least one more game while they have to win out the remainder of their schedule.

Following this Thursday’s match, the Doc Rivers-coached team will host Sacramento (easy win), welcome Denver (should be an easy win if LAC is locked in from the get-go), and then head to Portland the next day (could go either way). 

The Thunder, on the other hand, will face the Kings in Sacramento a day before visiting the Clips, which makes the latter game much tougher. They will then face the injury-riddled Pelicans, the imploding Pacers, the Pelicans again (second game of a back-to-back), then close out the season by playing host to the miserable Pistons. 

Looking at the entire picture, I don’t see the Thunder losing their grip over the No. 2 seed. Even if Los Angeles wins on Thursday, they will still need OKC to lose another matchup, and unless Indiana regains its NBA contender form from a few months ago, chances are the Thunder win out their remaining games. Adding to that, Los Angeles also needs to not suffer another loss heading into the Playoffs, and that second-game-of-a-back-to-back to close out the season against Portland has all the makings of being a spoiler.

Set at No. 4

Not long back, the Houston Rockets (51-25) were on the rise and were about to make a play for the top seeds in the West. But then, injuries took its toll on the team.

Nevertheless, Houston is expected to have Dwight Howard back soon, and his presence was sorely needed as the Rockets went 2-3 in their last five outings. Right now, Houston has a three-game lead in the loss column over No. 5 Portland, but five of its last six games are against non-playoffs teams: at Los Angeles (Lakers), at Denver, at Minnesota, vs. New Orleans, vs. San Antonio (HOU is 3-0 vs. SAS this year), and at New Orleans. Four of those jousts are away from the Toyota Center, and the Rockets haven’t been a great road team this year. But they should take care of business enough to get homecourt advantage in the first round.

Down to the wire for No. 5

Getting LaMarcus Aldridge back has been great for Portland, which is 5-1 since his return. That has enabled them to keep hold of the No. 5 seed in the West with a 50-28 record. However, the Golden State Warriors (48-29) loom as a potential usurper.

Here’s each team’s remaining schedule:

Portland: vs. Sacramento, at Utah, vs. Golden State, vs. Los Angeles (Clippers)

Golden State: vs. Denver, at Los Angeles (Lakers), at Portland, vs. Minnesota, at Denver

Right now, the Warriors lead the season series against Portland, 2-1. A victory over the Trail Blazers would tie each team in the loss column – expecting they both take care of business prior to their upcoming head-to-head – and give Marc Jackson’s boys the tiebreaker advantage. 

For Aldridge and company, beating the Warriors should most likely grant them the No. 5 seed. However, they also have to be careful about their following matchup vs. LAC. To be honest, whoever gets the fifth seed is a toss up. Anything can happen over the next few days with each team, making this the toughest spot to predict.

Who will be left out? The battle for No. 7 and No. 8

Thanks to today’s loss to the Spurs, Memphis (45-32) is now a game and a half back of No. 7 Dallas (47-31) and a game behind No. 8 Phoenix (46-31). Here’s the good news for Griz supporters: Memphis has the tiebreaker advantage over Phoenix, and will most probably earn one of the available slots if all teams end with the same records which means if they win their last five games (vs. Miami, vs. Philadelphia, at Los Angeles Lakers, at Phoenix, vs. Dallas) they’re certainly in.

In terms of strength of schedule, the Suns have the hardest set of games coming up, which makes their win against Oklahoma City earlier today much more important. Phoenix has to travel to New Orleans, San Antonio, Dallas, and Sacramento besides dealing with Memphis at home to close out their season.

The Mavs, meanwhile, have an easy match coming soon vs. Utah before having to meddle with San Antonio and Phoenix, and then heading out to Memphis.

All three teams fighting for the final two playoff positions have upcoming matchups against each other, which will likely determine which clubs will get tickets to the postseason and who will have to watch it at home. To make this short, absolutely anything can happen, and each prediction has as much a chance to take place as any other. Think of the competition going on amongst these three as a preview of the Playoffs. Man, the Western Conference is just so great, especially when you consider how bad the East has been.

Now, everything I mentioned above is assuming the current state of each team will continue to trend over the last week and a half of the regular season. Obviously, injuries can still happen, and some teams can go from title contender to pretender (see: Indiana Pacers) and vice versa in a heartbeat. But if what’s playing out now is going to continue over the next days, then it looks like we’re in for a hell of a ride.

For more questions on the current state of the race to the NBA Playoffs, don’t hesitate to give me a tweet. – Rappler.com


Naveen Ganglani is a part-time businessman and a part-time sports writer who has covered collegiate sports in the Philippines for The Lasallian (DLSU’s official publication) and other major sports leagues like the NBA, NFL, and Philippine Superliga for different outlets. A die-hard Miami Heat, New England Patriots, and DLSU sports fan, Naveen religiously follows a variety of sports both international and local, and considers sports as his first love. Follow him on Twitter: @naveenganglani

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