Early April is usually a boring time in the NBA, what with good teams having all but wrapped up their playoff berths and bad teams going out of their way to tank for ping pong balls in the draft lottery.
It's one thing for teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat to secure postseason spots and division titles when doing so has been and will be matters of merely meeting lofty expectations.
But, for some teams, the final weeks of the regular season can be a time for celebration and broken streaks. Tuesday saw two teams officially snap lengthy playoff droughts and another pick up its first division crown since the mid-'90s. This, just two days after the Los Angeles Clippers nabbed their first-ever Pacific Division title.
Which teams nailed down hard-earned achievements, XBox style? And what else went on in the aftermath of what was a thrilling NCAA tournament championship game?
Read on to find out!
For 11 quarters, the Indiana Pacers may well have been the most perplexing team in the NBA.
After sweeping through a four-game Western Conference road swing and winning eight of their last nine games, the Pacers returned home for three days of rest...followed by two of their worst performances of the season in blowout losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards Friday and Saturday night.
A date with the Cleveland Cavaliers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse figured to give the Pacers a reprieve from their losing ways. Instead, Indy stumbled out of the gate and fell behind by 20 points after three quarters. The Cavs were tearing up the Pacers' league-best defense, with 84 points on 53.8 percent shooting, while Indy, at 35 percent from the field, could barely buy a bucket. The Pacers' subpar performance on both ends drove head coach Frank Vogel to the point of frustration and, eventually, ejection in the third.
Then, the Pacers remembered that they were the Pacers, that they were playing the Cavs, and, in turn, that they shouldn't be getting blown out. So, Indy ripped off a 17-0 run to shrink Cleveland's lead to three and outscored the Cavs 35-10 in the quarter to secure the 99-94 victory.
And lo, Paul George and George Hill (11 points apiece in the final frame) rescued their teammates from certain doom and delivered the Pacers' first win of the season when trailing at the start of the fourth quarter.
Indy's stirring comeback might've meant more if not for the resurgent play of the New York Knicks. The Knicks annihilated the visiting Washington Wizards, 120-99, to extent their season-best winning streak to 13 games.
With that victory, the Knicks clinched their first Atlantic Division title since 1994. That should complement their first taste of home-court advantage since 2001 quite nicely come playoff time.
As should Carmelo Anthony's ongoing scoring binge. Anthony exploded for another 36 points on 13-of-21 shooting—his fifth straight game with at least 30 points on better-than-50-percent shooting from the floor.
The only drawback? Tyson Chandler missed the game with discomfort in his neck and backup Kenyon Martin—who missed the previous two games with knee ailments—had a major scare in the fourth with what appears to be an ankle sprain. The Knicks will need their All-Star center back in action before long if they're to make the most of their No. 2 seed in the postseason.
That is, unless 'Melo keeps getting buckets at his current rate, in which case the Knicks will be as tough an out as anyone (including the Miami Heat) in the Eastern Conference.
The Milwaukee Bucks might as well start planning their summer vacations right about now.
Sure, they've already punched their ticket to the postseason, but if Tuesday's 94-83 loss to the Miami Heat is any indication, they won't be busy for too long beyond the end of the regular season. The Heat had little trouble dispatching the Bucks, despite Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh watching Brandon Jennings' 30-point night while in street clothes.
Of course, it helps to have LeBron James on your side. James piled up 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block in just 30 minutes of game time.
It also helps that all the Bucks not named Brandon Jennings combined to shoot 23-of-59 (39 percent), with nary a double-digit scorer among them.
If Milwaukee has this much trouble with Miami at the end of the regular season, when two of the Big Three aren't in uniform, then what chance do the Bucks have of winning even one game when the Heat are healthy and engaged?
Rebounding has been the Brooklyn Nets' forte all season, as it was once again in a 104-83 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Nets out-rebounded the still-Andrew-Bynum-less Sixers by an astounding 67-34 margin, thanks to a pair of peak performances from their starting bigs. Brook Lopez grabbed 11 caroms to accompany a game-high 29 points in just 26 minutes, while Reggie Evans went H.A.M. on the backboards by corralling 24 loose balls in 30 minutes.
Not that anyone should be surprised by Brooklyn rebounding so well. On the season, the Nets rank second in the NBA in both offensive rebounding percentage and total rebounding percentage.
For all the attention paid to the backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, the Nets' postseason hopes will ultimately hinge on the effort of its bigs. If Lopez can carry the scoring load and Evans and Gerald Wallace can provide a steady semblance of defense and hustle, Brooklyn may yet have a shot at winning a game or two against the Heat in the second round.
Which would be quite an accomplishment for a franchise that hasn't seen the light of the postseason in five years.
If I told you that Jimmy Butler dropped a career-high 28 points and Nate Robinson chipped in 22 of his own, you'd probably expect the Chicago Bulls to have won, especially against a team as terrible as the Toronto Raptors.
But the story changes when those two are counted on so heavily to carry the club, rather than simply provide some solid production off the bench. The Bulls' 101-98 loss to the Raptors makes plenty of sense when considering that Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and (of course) Derrick Rose were all out of commission for the evening.
This, despite Carlos Boozer's best efforts to represent the Bulls' ideal starting five. Boozer fell just two assists shy of a triple-double while scoring 19 points and ripping down 11 rebounds.
The loss was Chicago's second in a row and dropped the Bulls to within a half-game of the sixth seed in the East. Should they fall behind the Atlanta Hawks in the standings, the Bulls would more than likely wind up playing the Pacers in a first-round series that seems surprisingly winnable for Chicago.
Thanks in no small part to Indy's aforementioned struggles of late.
The Houston Rockets were all but bound for overtime against the floundering Phoenix Suns. The two teams had battled back and forth throughout regulation, with James Harden (33 points) and Luis Scola (28 points) picking up the scoring slack for their respective squads.
The score was tied at 98-all after a pair of Jeremy Lin free throws and a missed jumper by Scola when, with the clock winding down, Harden launched a three that bounced upward before clanging off the iron.
Which would've normally meant five minutes of free basketball for the fans, except the refs eventually ruled that the basket counted by way of a goaltending infraction. After further video review, the officials determined that Suns forward Jermaine O'Neal had his hand on the net and touched the ball while still in the cylinder, giving the Rockets the 101-98 victory.
Who says NBA refs are afraid to make game-deciding (and proper) calls in crunch time?
In any case, the loss was Phoenix's 10 in a row. On the other end, the win sealed Houston's first playoff berth since 2009.
Everyone and their mother knows that the Memphis Grizzlies are a big-man-based squad, thanks to the interior talents of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
But don't discount what Mike Conley has done for the Grizz of late. His game-high 20 points (8-of-13 shooting) in a 94-75 win over the Charlotte Bobcats was evidence of as much.
Granted, going for buckets against Charlotte's destitute defense in the midst of a blowout is hardly noteworthy in and of itself. But, when you consider Conley's performance in the context of his recent run of play, it certainly amounts to something. Conley's topped the 20-point plateau in each of his last five outings, with game-winning shots in two of those.
The Grizzlies will need Conley to provide some scoring punch from the perimeter in the playoffs now that Rudy Gay is long gone. So far, so good for the 25-year-old point guard.
The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't ones to do the Los Angeles Lakers any favors.
In one way, their 90-80 win over the Utah Jazz was hardly advantageous to the Purple and Gold. OKC's victory in Salt Lake City once again shaved the San Antonio Spurs' lead on the top seed in the West. If the Thunder wind up on top, they'd likely be headed for a first-round matchup with the Lakers, whose number they've had for the last two seasons.
But, much more importantly, the Lakers needed the Thunder to beat the Jazz to get themselves back in playoff position at all. In that regard, Kevin Durant (21 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, three steals, one block) and Russell Westbrook (25 points, five rebounds, two assists, three steals) came through for L.A. in a big way.
Whether the Lakers repay the Thunder for the kindness by sneaking their way into the postseason is another story entirely...
...Though the Lakers did well enough not to let themselves or their fans down entirely Tuesday night.
On the whole, the Purple and Gold were anything but impressive in their 104-96 win over the visiting New Orleans Hornets. But the play of (and interplay between) Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol was reminiscent of better days that seem so distant amidst this season of discontent.
Gasol registered arguably his finest all-around game of the season. The slender Spaniard tallied 22 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, a steal and four assists, including an incredible dish from his knees in the fourth quarter. A fourth quarter that Kobe dominated like a man five years his junior.
The Black Mamba scored 23 of his 30 points in the final frame alone, and finished with six rebounds, six assists and five steals to boot.
Now comes the hard part: a road game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night. The Lakers have yet to sweep a back-to-back this season, and have never fared particularly well at the Rose Garden to begin with.
The Knicks and the Rockets weren't the only teams to clinch something of significance. The Golden State Warriors secured their first playoff berth since the "We Believe" season in 2006-07—and just their second in the last 19 years—with a 105-89 win over the consistently shorthanded Minnesota Timberwolves at Oracle Arena.
The Dubs were propelled by three separate double-doubles among their starters: 24 points and 10 assists from Stephen Curry, 15 points and 12 rebounds from David Lee, and 15 points and 10 rebounds from rookie Harrison Barnes.
But the most impressive performance of all may have come from Klay Thompson. The second-year shooter scored a game-high 30 points (25 in the first half) on 10-of-19 from the field (6-of-10 from three) with five steals, three rebounds and two assists.
As many quality players as Golden State has on its roster, Thompson is the one whose accuracy can single-handedly swing the Warriors from a solid team to a tough out in the first round of the playoffs.