Hey, you. Wake up. The long, at times unbearable slog known as the NBA regular season is finally over.
Following injuries, rampant tanking and even more injuries, the 16 teams not awarded entry to the Andrew Wiggins Sweepstakes have been decided—leading to just two more months of NBA basketball. The playoffs have become a stretched-out and overlong process, due mostly to a lack of back-to-backs and a possibility of 28 games for the two teams that play in the Finals.
That said, let's not act like we're disappointed to say goodbye to the regular season. No more forcing ourselves to watch the Sixers, Jazz or Bucks on League Pass just to make sure we're still hip with our Twitter friends. Goodbye to J.R. Smith's shot selection, Kevin Love's habitual sourpuss expressions and everything about Sam Hinkie's dumpster-fire roster. And a special goodbye to the delusional Lakers fans who thought their team had any chance of making the playoffs this preseason.
It's been real.
Sure, there were some good times. Like Kevin Durant's all-out assault on defenses and LeBron James' battle with inhuman efficiency and Blake Griffin's completed ascent into the true-superstar conversation. Luckily, those things all keep happening in April, May and (possibly) June. The NBA playoffs give all the good stuff without all the dreadfully horrible stuff.
Well, except for the Eastern Conference. We can't really do anything about that. Believe me. We tried. With the playoffs tipping off Saturday, there is just not enough time to revamp the playoff picture into something that makes actual sense no matter how much we wish it would.
Here's a quick look at when and where you can watch all the action over the next umpteen weeks, with some nuggets on the first round thrown in.
|4/20||(8) Mavericks vs. (1) Spurs||12 p.m.||TNT|
|4/23||(8) Mavericks vs. (1) Spurs||7 p.m.||NBATV|
|4/26||(1) Spurs vs. (8) Mavericks||3:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/28||(1) Spurs vs. (8) Mavericks||8:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(8) Mavericks vs. (1) Spurs||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(1) Spurs vs. (8) Mavericks||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(8) Mavericks vs. (1) Spurs||TBD||TBD|
|4/19||(7) Grizzlies vs. (2) Thunder||9:30 p.m,||ESPN|
|4/21||(7) Grizzlies vs. (2) Thunder||8 p.m.||TNT|
|4/24||(2) Thunder vs. Grizzlies||8 p.m.||TNT|
|4/26||(2) Thunder vs. Grizzlies||9:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/29||(7) Grizzlies vs. (2) Thunder||TBD||TBD|
|5/1||(2) Thunder vs. Grizzlies||TBD||TBD|
|5/3||(7) Grizzlies vs. (2) Thunder||TBD||TNT|
|4/19||(6) Warriors vs. (3) Clippers||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|4/21||(6) Warriors vs. (3) Clippers||10:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/24||(3) Clippers vs. (6) Warriors||10:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/27||(3) Clippers vs. (6) Warriors||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|4/29||(6) Warriors vs. (3) Clippers||TBD||TBD|
|5/1||(3) Clippers vs. (6) Warriors||TBD||TBD|
|5/3||(6) Warriors vs. (3) Clippers||TBD||TNT|
|4/20||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/23||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/25||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||10:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/27||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(4) Rockets vs. (5) Trail Blazers||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(5) Trail Blazers vs. (4) Rockets||TBD||TBD|
|4/19||(8) Hawks vs. (1) Pacers||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/22||(8) Hawks vs. (1) Pacers||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/24||(1) Pacers vs. (8) Hawks||7 p.m.||NBATV|
|4/26||(1) Pacers vs. (8) Hawks||2 p.m.||TNT|
|4/28||(8) Hawks vs. (1) Pacers||8 p.m.||NBATV|
|5/1||(1) Pacers vs. (8) Hawks||TBD||TBD|
|5/3||(8) Hawks vs. (1) Pacers||TBD||TNT|
|4/20||(7) Bobcats vs. (2) Heat||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|4/23||(7) Bobcats vs. (2) Heat||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/26||(2) Heat vs. (7) Bobcats||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/28||(2) Heat vs. (7) Bobcats||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(7) Bobcats vs. (2) Heat||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(2) Heat vs. (7) Bobcats||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(7) Bobcats vs. (2) Heat||TBD||ABC|
|4/19||(6) Nets vs. (3) Raptors||12:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/22||(6) Nets vs. (3) Raptors||8 p.m.||NBATV|
|4/25||(3) Raptors vs. (6) Nets||7 p.m.||ESPN 2|
|4/27||(3) Raptors vs. (6) Nets||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/30||(6) Nets vs. (3) Raptors||TBD||TBD|
|5/2||(3) Raptors vs. (6) Nets||TBD||TBD|
|5/4||(6) Nets vs. (3) Raptors||TBD||TBD|
|4/20||(5) Wizards vs. (4) Bulls||7 p.m.||TNT|
|4/22||(5) Wizards vs. (4) Bulls||9:30 p.m.||TNT|
|4/25||(4) Bulls vs. (5) Wizards||8 p.m.||ESPN|
|4/27||(4) Bulls vs. (5) Wizards||1 p.m.||ABC|
|4/29||(5) Wizards vs. (4) Bulls||TBD||TBD|
|5/1||(4) Bulls vs. (5) Wizards||TBD||TBD|
|5/3||(5) Wizards vs. (4) Bulls||TBD||TBD|
Round 1 Storylines to Watch
Miami and Indiana Are Going to Turn It on Now, Right? RIGHT???
The saving grace of the resourceless hellscape known as the Eastern Conference has been the looming inevitability of a Heat-Pacers rematch in the conference finals for months. Calling them appreciably better than their conference counterparts would be a disservice to the word. Miami and Indiana both had championship aspirations; the other six teams were lucky to aspire to anything.
Then a weird malaise struck South Beach and Indianapolis, leaving the co-favorites to answer legitimate looming questions.
The Pacers' offense is a mess. There's no other way to put it. Since the All-Star break, Indiana is averaging 99.8 points per 100 possessions. Only the Sixers, who qualify as an NBA team simply because American sports do not believe in relegation, have been worse. Among playoff teams, only the Hawks and Bulls have been comparably poor...which should tell you all you need to know about the East.
Paul George, the recipient of MVP buzz in December, has taken a hard swerve back to the regression curve. He's averaging 20.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists since the break, but has done so on 39.6 percent shooting. The Pacers have actually been outscored while George is on the court, indicative of their team-wide struggles.
Indiana's starting five, a world-beating unit that buoyed its existence going back to last season, has even started showing cracks. The unit has only barely outscored opponents since the midseason hiatus, which doesn't seem like a problem until looking at the Pacers' roster composition. Frank Vogel has pushed his starters as hard as any coach this side of Tom Thibodeau over the last couple years, in large part because the bench hemorrhages points in extended minutes.
The Evan Turner experiment has largely gone bust, as has the Andrew Bynum acquisition. The supposedly reloaded Pacers are still a tick better in terms of bench talent than last season—just not nearly as much as they'd hoped. Luis Scola is among the league's worst defensive bigs, Ian Mahinmi is a roll of the dice every time he steps on the floor and C.J. Watson is, well, C.J. Watson.
That doesn't mean the Pacers will have a difficult time with the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1, but a disciplined defensive team like the Bulls or Wizards could give the team trouble in the second round. With how Indiana's been playing, one can almost throw the No. 1 seed out the window because it's difficult to forecast a blowout series win once (if) the Pacers advance past Atlanta.
It says something about Miami that it allowed the Pacers to hang in the race for the top seed down the stretch. And by "says something," I mean very little good.
The Heat aren't nearly as close to panic mode as their counterparts. Many of their foibles can be attributed to the prolonged absence of Dwyane Wade. Miami's second in command missed 28 regular-season games with myriad injury problems, most recently a hamstring issue. Erik Spoelstra has struggled keeping Wade healthy each of the last two postseasons, though, so it will be interesting to see how he handles minute distribution in what should be a first-round walkthrough.
Miami has also earned a long leash by winning two straight titles. This team has an on/off switch, and we've seen it ever since the Big Three has been together. Midseason concerns about team defense were mostly assuaged down the stretch, though I'm curious to see how Spoelstra schemes the first two rounds. The Heat coach has experimented with dropping back his bigs on pick-and-rolls more throughout the regular season—though still slightly more aggressive than Indiana—rather than having them blitz the ball-handler.
A lot of Miami's breakdowns came when its defenders hesitated in one way or another—or, frankly, were just plain lazy—which I suspect will be cleaned up during the postseason. That said, between the Wade injuries and continued defensive lapses, our preordained Eastern Conference final isn't as guaranteed as we may have thought a couple months ago.
The Heat's playoff experience should be enough to push past the upstart Bobcats, but things will get much more interesting if another experienced team like the Nets should advance past the third-seeded Raptors. Brooklyn definitely has something to prove, and going through the defending champions would be the best way to prove it.
Can I Interest You in Some Clippers-Warriors?
This is the best Round 1 series. It is not close. Anyone who argues this point should have a tomato thrown immediately at their face, assuming they are not allergic to tomatoes and are not on their way to an important business meeting. (I have a soul, people.)
The Clippers are quietly a legitimate title contender. They rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, usually the minimum qualifier for hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy. While offense has been an expected calling card—Los Angeles battled Miami most of the season for tops in efficiency rating—the team's defensive improvement has been just as significant.
DeAndre Jordan is now a legitimate defensive anchor instead of someone overrated due to his prodigious athleticism and blocking ability. Jordan has adapted well to Doc Rivers' defensive system, which has bigs drop on pick-and-rolls to force bad mid-range jumpers or bad passes close to the rim (aka the Thibs system). The checks and balances, along with consistent preaching from Rivers, has allowed Jordan to learn on the fly and markedly improve as the season went along.
Blake Griffin isn't a perfect defender, and he'll probably peak at above average. But his improvement on both ends of the floor allows Rivers to trust having the Griffin-Jordan pairing on the floor in crunch time, something to which Vinny Del Negro seemed allergic. Getting J.J. Redick, a vastly underrated team defender, back in the lineup should also help fortify the Clippers' attack.
The Warriors, meanwhile, may have to worry, with Andrew Bogut out with fractured ribs. Mark Jackson's opening unit has outscored opponents by 15.4 points per 100 possessions this season, best among the five-man lineups that have played at least 300 minutes. That's a semi-arbitrary cutoff, but teams inherently rely more on their starters for heavy minutes during the playoffs. Having Stephen Curry on the floor for 40-plus minutes a night rarely hurts anyone.
It's the minutes where the non-starters pop into the game where the Warriors have struggled. Specifically, the team has fallen apart all year without Curry. In 1,072 minutes without Curry on the floor this season, Golden State has averaged 93.2 points per 100 possessions. That number makes the Sixers look like a competent NBA outfit. Overall, the Dubs are almost 15 points better with their star on the basketball court, making him among the league's most valuable players under the traditional definition.
If Steve Blake is able to hold the fort in those eight or so minutes Curry sits, the Warriors could make this a long series. Golden State's bench as a whole will have to assume a much larger role—and do so competently—with Bogut on the mend.
But none of these are reasons the Warriors-Clippers series is so compelling. We care because these two teams really seem to dislike one another. Starting with a Christmas Day victory for Golden State in which Griffin was controversially thrown out, the ensuing games between these teams have grown increasingly contentious. Bogut received a coupon for being the 1,000th NBA player to successfully antagonize Griffin into an altercation needing referee intervention, and the Aussie has also gotten into it with Jordan at different points.
We may not be getting Clippers-Grizzlies III this year, but this is the next-best thing.
Will a Lurking Contender Emerge? Or Are We Just Lying to Ourselves?
I feel relatively comfortable saying there are four teams considered consensus NBA title contenders at the moment: Indiana, Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. There are only nine teams in league history to win a title seeded No. 3 or lower. Take that one seed lower and just two teams (1969 Celtics, 1995 Rockets) pop up.
To eliminate 12 of the 16 playoff teams right off the bat seems both totally illogical and right in line with what history tells us. Perhaps more than any other major professional sports league, the champions the NBA produces are by and large the best teams.
By any possible measure, the Spurs, Heat, Thunder and Pacers are among the league's upper echelon. Indiana is the only outlier not sitting in the top four of scoring margin on a per-possession basis—a far better measure than per-game margin of victory. The Pacers hanging out in the bottom 10 of offensive efficiency doesn't bode well for their chances, either, but we've very much established general rules don't apply to the Eastern Conference.
Looking at the numbers, at least one—if not two—sleeping giants emerge. The Clippers quietly hold the NBA's second-best scoring margin. They're the best offense in basketball, have improved into a top-10 unit overall defensively and are finally rounding into full health after numerous injury issues. That Los Angeles came into the season's final night with a chance to win the West's No. 2 seed despite Chris Paul missing 20 games is a testament to Griffin's leap and the depth of the roster.
If Doc Rivers can coax anything out of Glen Davis, a solid defensive big when engaged, the Clippers have a chance of upsetting Oklahoma City in Round 2. If not, the lack of big depth behind Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will probably end up costing them a chance at a title. But, hey, it's not like we've all been saying since the preseason that the Clippers needed a reliable third big or anything. [As Doc Rivers signs another former Eastern Conference wing.]
For all of the talk about Brooklyn and Chicago in the East, the most dangerous team to the Indiana-Miami meeting may reside in the Great White North. The Raptors have been world beaters since the beginning of 2014 and largely since jettisoning Rudy Gay. The only Eastern Conference team with a better point differential (per possession) since Jan. 1 is Miami.
Brooklyn and Chicago loom, but both are more "tough outs" than actually able to beat Miami or Indiana over the large sample. If there's any team that will spoil the party, it's the Clippers. I'm just not expecting it.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise cited.
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