Winners and Losers from Season-Defining Week in the NBA

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 12, 2013

Winners and Losers from Season-Defining Week in the NBA

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    The NBA may feature one of the most generous playoff formats in the professional sports realm, but that hasn't saved 13 different teams from scratching playoff basketball off their summer to-do list.

    At this point in the season, wins and losses carry different meanings for nearly every team in the league.

    A strong week might buy a postseason seat or help a club slide into a more comfortable chair. It may mean simply closing the season on a high note, alleviating a bit of the disappointment with hope of better days to come.

    Then again, a lousy week is just that, regardless of a team's current standing.

    It means delaying the inevitable for those aforementioned 13 teams struggling to find reasons to keep competing. Or it leads to some untimely questions about a club's chemistry and character as it gets set for the grueling second season.

    Most destinies have been defined at this point of the season, but this past week still took a number of teams in opposite directions. 

Winner: Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets are right where they want to be, enjoying relative anonymity inside their billion dollar home.

    They are peaking at the right time of the season, having won their last three games and 12 of their last 18 overall. 

    And things may only be getting better from here.

    Deron Williams has continued his scorching play, pouring in 24 points a night on 54 percent shooting from the field over the last week. Reggie Evans is still rebounding at an astronomical rate, better than 19 per game over the same stretch, and packing a strong offensive punch (10.7 points per game).

    Joe Johnson is back in action after a five-game absence and looks more comfortable each night on the floor. He's averaged better than 14 points a game since returning to the floor and has shot at least 50 percent from the field his last two times out (via Basketball-Reference.com).

    Barring a miraculous surge, the Nets won't be moving into the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference. But without a painstaking collapse, they will still be opening their first-round series at home.

Loser: Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Portland Trail Blazers won't be going anywhere this season, but they've been resigned to their fate for a while now. 

    Their slim playoff hopes were nearly extinguished long before their nine-game losing streak left them lottery-bound for the second straight season.

    Still even in the absence of hope, this past week has been tough to stomach for Blazer fans.

    Terry Stotts appears to be mercifully shutting down some of his vets for the remaining schedule, giving Portland's youngsters a chance to shine. 

    Maybe someone should have reminded the coach that his new home prefers a more gloomy overcast. The young guns haven't all jammed, but they have been prone to the same misfirings that plagued Portland's season from the start.

    And general manager Neil Olshey can't even afford to spend his summer searching solely for answers on his second team. With J.J. Hickson likely on his way out (via Jason Quick of The Oregonian), Olshey has to find a starting center first.

Winner: Golden State Warriors

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    This isn't quite how the patient Golden State Warriors fanbase had envisioned it.

    After five straight lottery appearances, the Warriors officially punched their playoff ticket with Tuesday night's 105-89 rout of the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Considering this will be just the second Warriors' trip to the postseason since 1994, they deserve a spot on the winning end of this list.

    But unabashed jubilation didn't last long in the Bay Area. The Oklahoma City Thunder stormed through the Oracle Arena with a 116-97 dismantling of Mark Jackson's squad that put the sixth seed back on the auction block.

    Golden State entered Friday night just a half-game up on the Houston Rockets. And treading water won't cut it as the Rockets hold the all-important tiebreaker, thanks to a 3-1 advantage in the season series.

    Falling back to the seventh seed would mean a first-round pairing with either the Thunder or the San Antonio Spurs, with both clubs holding a collective 5-2 edge in the regular season.

    Then again, it might not matter whom the Warriors end up matched up against as big man Andrew Bogut reaggravated an ankle injury, during the loss to Oklahoma City, that he's been battling all season (via Jeff Faraudo of the San Jose Mercury News).

    The playoff bid still makes this week a win, but the Warriors might be facing an uphill battle to tally any victories before the season's finished.

Loser: Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers haven't dented their playoff position, but they have been dealt a few body blows to their team psyche.

    On the heels of a five-game winning streak, Indiana spent the past seven days stumbling to a 1-2 week. And as painful as those two losses were, that lone victory didn't feel a whole lot better.

    The Pacers opened the week with a 22-point loss to the Thunder last Friday and followed that up with a 19-point throttling by the lottery-bound Washington Wizards.

    Without a woeful fourth-quarter showing from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers would be staring at a three-game slide.

    Indiana channeled its best Miami Heat impression against the Cavs and not in a good way. The Pacers rallied from a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit against Cleveland on Tuesday night, as coach Byron Scott's team managed just 10 points in the final 12 minutes.

    It's tempting to credit that unsightly figure to Indiana's typically stifling defense, but Frank Vogel's squad hasn't been nearly as threatening at that end of the floor of late. The Pacers have allowed 101 points per game over their last five outings, more than a 10-point increase from their season average (via ESPN).

Winner: New York Knicks

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    If not for a late-season appearance in the arena where streaks are laid to rest, the New York Knicks would be the hottest thing going in the NBA right now.

    But while their 13-game surge met its maker in a 118-111 overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night, the Knicks are still the biggest threat to emerge from the East outside of Miami.

    Frankly, the Knicks have no business being in the position that they are. Their frontcourt has been devoured by the injury bug to the point that Carmelo Anthony and Chris Copeland both saw time at the 5 against Chicago.

    But Anthony's proving that he's an opponent's nightmare from any spot on the floor.

    If LeBron James hadn't already locked up the MVP award, Anthony may have won it on the strength of his last eight games alone.

    Since March 29, he's averaging 36.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, while converting 53.3 percent of his field goals, 50.0 percent of his three-point attempts and 89.1 percent of his foul shots (via NBA.com).

    The Knicks have major injury concerns and question marks surrounding their supporting cast.

    But they've got Anthony, and that's a win by any measure.

Loser: Boston Celtics

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    Boston Celtics fans will tell you that none of this matters, that Doc Rivers' team can erase a season of inconsistencies when they flip the light switch come playoff time.

    With championship-experienced vets like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, they might be right.

    But is there a worse way to enter the postseason than how Boston will?

    The Celtics dropped two of their three games this past week, including a head-scratching 97-91 loss to the lowly Cavaliers last Friday. They have now lost 11 of their last 17 games overall.

    And while the recent absences of Kevin Garnett (ankle) and Paul Pierce (ankle) may be more about rest than any legitimate injury concerns, there's still going to be an adjustment period when the Celtics get back to full strength.

    If that doesn't happen before the playoffs start, if the Celtics have to rediscover their rhythm inside Madison Square Garden against a surging Knicks squad that has a 29-10 home record on the season, then don't be surprised if the lights are flickering when that switch gets flipped.

Winner: Miami Heat

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    Of course, Miami's the big winner of the week. That's all they do any more, isn't it?

    So what if they didn't catch the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers' 33-game winning streak? We're still talking about a team that has lost just two games since Feb. 1.

    What's been impressive of late, though, is that the name on the front of the jersey has elicited the same reaction without some All-Star names lining the back.

    Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh played a combined 97 minutes in Miami's four games this week. Yet the Heat still found the path to victory in all four contests, by an average margin of 11.3 points no less.

    And it's not only that the Heat second-teamers are building on what's already a franchise-best win total. It's that they're proving their worth to Erik Spoelstra, giving him even more options for his rotation in Miami's quest to defend its title.

    If the Heat's starters are good for 27 straight wins, and the reserves are good for four straight, how will this team not win 16 games in the postseason?

    If you're giving me Miami or the field, I'm putting my house on the Heat at this point.

Loser: Dallas Mavericks

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    So wait, the Dallas Mavericks had to endure sporting these awful beards for no reason?

    The Mavs had three cracks at trimming their whiskers, none greater than a home meeting with the worst of the West Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night.

    But after Dallas' 102-91 disastrous defeat, hopefully, the team finally lets Omar the barber go back to his family.

    The Mavs now to have to win three of their final four games just to finish the season at .500, no easy task, considering they've still got dates left with the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies.

    Clearly, this wasn't the first team that's tried to bond over common facial hair, a tradition that only makes some semblance of sense inside the professional sports world. And it wasn't a bad ploy, either. This was, after all, a team that underwent a massive overhaul last summer—a transformation that yielded not a single superstar talent in the process.

    But can you imagine a more depressing image than the clogged drains in the Dallas locker room if these players are shaving their beards not because they reached their goal, but simply because they ran out of time to get there?

Loser: Basketball

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    Whether you love Kobe Bryant, or you love to hate Kobe Bryant, there's no doubting that we all lost what should have been an entertaining part of the rest of the regular season, and possibly the rest of the month and beyond.

    He's a player that everyone always seems to have an opinion on, and remains a constant source for controversy. Now he's going to be watching the final few games, and perhaps the postseason, on the sidelines.

    It might seem a bit overdramatic to say that basketball is a cumulative loser this week, but it's completely true. Just imagine a playoffs this year without Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade. There's a definite overall sense of disappointment.

    There was never a guarantee that we would see Kobe in the playoffs anyway with the Lakers on the verge of missing out on the eighth seed, but they were finally starting to put themselves together.

    Sure, their defense has been rather poor all season long and Kobe wasn't contributing much to the cause in that sense, but the fact that they were starting to figure out how to win games in bunches was promising.

    Kobe was pushed all season long. His teammates were getting injured left and right, surgeries were as normal as winning streaks in Los Angeles, and the one constant was number 24, trucking along.

    Like any other season he pushed himself to the brink of collapse. Unlike any other season, he finally collapsed.

    While the basketball world seems to eulogize a player who merely seems to be out until sometime next season, the Lakers have to forge on and continue to fight for the playoffs. The only problem is that they're without their best fighter.