NBA Teams Rolling with Most Momentum Going into the Playoffs
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Finding the right time to "get hot" has always been trickier-than-expected business in the NBA. You can never quite tell if a team's winning streak started too soon, or if it's too late for a stumbling squad to get back on track.
Just ask the San Antonio Spurs, who won 20 straight games between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs in 2012 before flaming out against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Or, on the flip side, ask the Miami Heat, who looked all too beatable for most of last year's Eastern Conference playoffs before catching fire once Chris Bosh returned from an abdominal injury.
Although, it's pretty safe to say that there's never a bad time to win games, nor is momentum ever a hindrance, so long as those ends aren't achieved in the immediate term at the expense of long-term goals.
Then again, with the way injuries pop up in pro basketball, it's more difficult that you might expect to predict which teams will pull through and which will fall by the wayside come playoff time. The Denver Nuggets are learning that lesson head-on, with Ty Lawson's torn plantar fascia and Danilo Gallinari's season-ending ACL injury seemingly spelling doom in the Mile High City. The absences of their top two scorers will serve as the biggest test yet to the Nuggets' celebrated depth.
And if they can pull off a Double Ewing Theory and continue to churn out wins without Lawson and Gallo, more power to them.
For now, though, these seven teams have mo' Mo on their respective sides than does anyone else.
7. Miami Heat
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Less than two weeks ago, the Miami Heat had all the momentum in the world on their side. Their 27-game winning streak was still alive, LeBron James was going strong, and the Los Angeles Lakers' historic 33-gamer was squarely in their sights.
Then, the Heat paid a visit to the Chicago Bulls, who bumped and bruised the defending champs to the point of no return. The streak was gone and, with the top seed in the Eastern Conference all but wrapped up, so was any reason for Erik Spoelstra to push his players to fight through pain and malaise.
Or for them to do it themselves.
Now, LeBron and Dwyane Wade are spending ample time in street clothes, cheering on Chris Bosh and company as they look to preserve the Heat's lead in the race for the NBA's best record. The absence of an immediate goal would appear to have left Miami without any compelling reason to rush into what they hope will be their third straight journey to the NBA Finals.
Luckily, the scheduling gods have bestowed upon the Heat a most favorable slate down the stretch. They'll face just two games against teams with winning records over their final eight games, at least some of which should feature LeBron and Wade in some capacity.
6. Golden State Warriors
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The Golden State Warriors aren't exactly sweeping their way into their first postseason appearance in six years, though they have played some solid, steady 'ball on both ends of the floor over the last month.
The Warriors have won two out of every three games since March 11 while holding the opposition under 100 points in all but one of their eight victories in that span. And, if not for a 1-for-13 clunker from Klay Thompson against the Sacramento Kings, Golden State might be skating along on a five-game streak right about now.
Thompson's inconsistencies aside, the Warriors have been buoyed by the superstar-caliber play of Stephen Curry. The All-Star snub has averaged 25.8 points and 7.0 assists with .483/.480/.864 shooting splits during this 8-3 Warriors run. If he continues to shoot the lights out, the Warriors—with their ever-improving defense, dynamic frontcourt duo of Andrew Bogut and David Lee and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jarrett Jack—shouldn't have too much trouble securing the No. 6 seed in the West...
5. Houston Rockets
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...Though the Houston Rockets figure to make the Warriors sweat it out a bit, at the very least.
The Rockets have won three in a row, six of eight, and 11 of 16 dating back to the beginning of March to narrow the gap in the standings between themselves and Golden State. James Harden's had some foot trouble of late, leading the Rockets' staff to handle him with care in preparation for the team's first playoff berth since 2009.
And wisely so. Houston will need all it can get out of its All-Star guard in the postseason, with a matchup against either the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the Denver Nuggets and the Memphis Grizzlies should the Warriors falter down the stretch.
Which the Rockets shouldn't do, given their upcoming schedule. Playing four of their last seven on the road isn't particularly promising, in light of a 15-22 record outside of the Toyota Center. But those roadies are against the collapsing Portland Trail Blazers, the beat-up Nuggets, the flunky Phoenix Suns, and the defenseless Los Angeles Lakers in the season finale.
The toughest test left for Houston may well be a home game against the Memphis Grizzlies, though even that's bookended by projectable W's against the Suns and the Kings.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
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Never mind that stretch of five losses in eight games in mid-to-late March; the Memphis Grizzlies are grinding their way toward the playoffs, with their sights set on a deep run.
Their defense is still top notch, thanks to Marc Gasol's direction up front and the lockdown talents of Mike Conley and Tony Allen on the perimeter, and their once-anemic offense has been producing at a borderline top-10 rate since Rudy Gay was shipped out. Without Rudy, the Grizzlies no longer have to pretend that they're anything but an inside-out squad, with Gasol and Zach Randolph responsible for the heavy lifting on the interior.
What makes Memphis so dangerous is that it has such a strong, well-defined identity, and that said identity is perfectly suited to postseason play. They play tough, physical defense on one end and wear you down with a slow, methodical offensive style that features no shortage of high-post passes and elbow jumpers on the other.
For those of you who are still worried about Memphis' lack of a perimeter shot creator in the wake of Rudy Gay's departure, remember that the Grizz made their surprising run two years ago without his services. Tony Allen's recent (tacit) admission as to the benefit of Gay's absence only confirmed what so many in the blogosphere (yours truly included) had already been thinking.
3. Indiana Pacers
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The Indiana Pacers seem to be the team best equipped to give the Heat problems in the postseason and are playing that way once again. They've ripped off five wins in a row and eight of nine to solidify their claim to one of the East's top three seeds.
Paul George is producing as consistently as he ever has, with a 23-point, 10-assist, six-rebound, four-steal, one-block virtuoso in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers fresh on his mind. David West is enjoying his home at the elbow as much as ever. Even Roy Hibbert is looking more and more like the All-Star of yesteryear with each passing game, after a slow start to the season on the offensive end.
But what's most impressive about the Pacers is that they've managed to improve over last year's squad despite losing Danny Granger for all but five games and seeing their bench pared down this past summer. Paul George's growth into an All-Star and Frank Vogel's ability to orchestrate the league's stingiest defense have had everything to do with Indy's inevitable march toward a 50-win season.
The Pacers certainly have the size, the athleticism and the requisite defensive acumen to give Miami fits. But, when the game is on the line, will Indy have the firepower to put the ball in the basket?
Their answer to that question may well determine how far they advance in these upcoming playoffs.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
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The Oklahoma City Thunder haven't secured the top seed in the West just yet, though they might as well have after their 100-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs. The Thunder are young, hungry, healthy, experienced and just a half-game back of the Spurs, who are old and reeling from injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
To be sure, that victory at the Spurs' expense was a much-needed one for OKC. The Thunder hadn't beaten an opponent of any reputable quality in nearly a month—unless, of course, anyone considers the Jazz, the Bucks or the Mavericks to be in that category—and seemed to be skating by a bit on their individual talent and confidence from last year's playoff run.
Both of which are substantial chips in OKC's favor.
Still, the Thunder's latest result should kickstart their engines for a stretch run that features four tough games—at Indy, vs. New York, at Utah and at Golden State—before finishing up against a pair of Western Conference lottery teams.
And the Bucks, whatever they are.
1. New York Knicks
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Say what you will about the New York Knicks beating up on Eastern Conference patsies and heavily bandaged opponents, but a win's a win, and 10 in a row in the NBA is an impressive feat at any time, regardless of the extenuating circumstances.
Which, for New York, were significant. The deleterious effects of old age (the Knicks are the oldest team in NBA history) and emergent injuries had sent Mike Woodson's squad spiraling into "meh" territory after a scorching hot start to the season.
Then, JR Smith caught fire, with three straight 30-plus-point games off the bench to earn Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Carmelo Anthony has since followed suit, dropping a career-high-tying 50 on the (depleted) Miami Heat before piling up another 40 at the expense of the Atlanta Hawks.
Now, Tyson Chandler is back from a neck injury, and though New York's AARP contingent (i.e. Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, Kurt Thomas, Jason Kidd, etc.) is still worn-and-torn, the team's core contingent is rounding into peak form.
Just in time to lead the Knicks to their first playoff series victory since 2000.