What seemed impossible a mere few months ago is now days away from fruition: an NBA regular season, albeit a condensed version, is nearing completion as the month of April winds down. Despite suffering through a lockout that nearly wiped away the NBA for a year, fans have been treated to perhaps one of the most enthralling regular seasons in recent history. A plethora of subplots have emerged and faded over the course of the past few months, and this trend shows no sign of abating as the grind of the season comes to a close in anticipation of the playoffs.
Even with only five or six games left for most teams, the playoff picture remains unclear. While this late season race for playoff berths and seeding occurs every year, the amount of shuffling and the presence of dangerous teams at the bottom of the playoff picture make for an especially interesting final days of the season. In fact, only eight of the 16 eventual playoff squads had clinched a berth at press time. While this alone may not mean much, a closer look at the standings shows the fluidity of the seeding situation.
In the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat have established themselves as the teams to beat, rising to the top of the standings and looking down on the shifting seeding puzzle of the teams below them. However, Miami’s recent string of losses has cast them in a vulnerable light despite their incredibly talented duo of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. After last season’s debacle in the NBA Finals, the spotlight and pressure lies squarely on Miami’s shoulders, especially the broad ones of James. If the Heat doesn’t win a championship this season, the experiment of assembling a superstar trio with spare parts around them may require some tinkering from Heat president Pat Riley.
The recent loss to a Bulls team which played with a recovering Derrick Rose certainly did not ease the tense atmosphere surrounding this squad. This insecurity has prompted some sportswriters, such as Grantland founder Bill Simmons, to proclaim a fervent hope for a New York Knicks/Miami Heat first round playoff matchup. While Miami is undoubtedly the better team, their problems with pressure situations could manifest themselves against the talented Knicks if Carmelo Anthony and company can play as a cohesive unit. Conversely, Chicago rides into the playoffs with momentum and confidence, seemingly ready to reverse last year’s result and knock off Miami if the two teams meet again.
Confusing the matchups in the East may be due to Miami’s instability and the races for the last playoff spot between Philadelphia, New York and Milwaukee, howver the West proves even more unpredictable. After Oklahoma City and San Antonio, who have played themselves into large leads for the top two seeds in the conference, the race remains wide open for teams to move up in the seeding or sneak into one of the last playoff spots. For example, the traditionally dominant Los Angeles team, the Lakers, only hold a small lead in playoff seeding over their intercity rival, the Clippers. At times this season, the Lakers squad has resembled anything but a championship contender, but by working themselves into the three seed and depending on their big men in Kobe Bryant’s absence, they have morphed into a formidable playoff foe despite the coaching ineptitude of Mike Brown. The Clippers, on the other hand, have struggled of late, reminding many pundits why an early proclamation declaring them instant championship contenders was premature. Nevertheless, the ‘Lob City’ squad still entertains on a nightly basis and has brought legitimacy back to the Clipper franchise. The close proximity of these teams in geography and in the standings has brought back an aura of competitive basketball to Hollywood, which is always a positive for the league.
One cannot mention Hollywood and the NBA in the same sentence this year without thinking of the disastrous shotgun marriage of Lamar Odom and the Dallas Mavericks. However, even after losing their primary defensive stopper in Tyson Chandler and other key players like J.J. Barea, the Mavericks are still hanging around for the playoffs. The relatively low-seeding position of the defending NBA champions proves indicative of the regular season parity in the NBA. Although Dallas is only three games ahead of the Houston Rockets for the final Western playoff spot, the team remains confident in its potential to repeat last year’s magic. This disregard for the seeding structure proves apparent in other places on the schedule, as well; for example, Memphis, Dallas, Denver and Houston could all switch spots in the seeding order before the next few days come up. In particular, Memphis has already shown the ability to test the strongest squads to the breaking point, making for an interesting potential early round battle.
On the very opposite side of the winning spectrum, tanking games for better draft picks has also taken hold in the past few weeks, inducing bottom-feeding teams like the Charlotte Bobcats to try for better lottery odds. While such behavior is disdained in most NBA circles, the comedy of watching teams extend the ‘injuries’ of their starters and trot out D-League signees proves intriguing but sad to watch. However, this is the only mode of hope that fans of bad teams can use to look to the future, so for the non-playoff contenders, the race for last keeps fans somewhat engaged in the team’s endeavors.
Ultimately, however, the true intrigue lies in the playoff implications of the final weeks of the regular season. In a short fortnight, TNT will begin to run its “40 days in 40 nights” campaign to market the playoff matchups, and the playoffs themselves will be underway. Will Miami lose or dominate the first round? Will Chicago sustain its domination when playoff time arrives?
Will the Mavericks be able to recapture last year’s playoff touch?
All of these questions and more will find an answer soon enough, a fact that should hearten NBA fans and raise anticipation for the wild postseason that should ensue soon.