The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors have been the clear class of the East thus far, but both could be susceptible to playoff upsets at the hands of the conference's second tier.
On Saturday, the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets—the Eastern Conference's third, fourth and sixth seeds, respectively—made hay against lesser competition from that side of the bracket.
Of those three, the Hawks had the toughest draw of the night, though you wouldn't know it from the final score. They went into the Motor City suburbs and throttled the Detroit Pistons, 112-95, in a game they led from wire to wire.
Atlanta played prototypical Hawks basketball on both ends at the Palace of Auburn Hills. On offense, eight Hawks finished in double figures, led by Paul Millsap's 23 points and facilitated by Jeff Teague's 12 assists. All told, Atlanta logged helpers on 34 of its 43 makes—not including the team's 11 secondary assists and two dimes leading to free throws, per NBA.com.
On the other end, the Hawks, who've played the league's stingiest defense of the calendar year, held the Pistons to 38.6 percent shooting, including 7-of-29 (24.1 percent) from three.
The victory narrowed the Hawks' playoff-clinching number to two while snapping the Pistons' five-game winning streak. If Atlanta wins in Chicago on Monday, the Hawks will officially be headed to the postseason for the ninth year in a row.
They'll have their sights set on more than just qualifying, though. If the 2015-16 regular season ended today, the Hawks would have to go wing-to-wing with the Charlotte Hornets, who torched the Milwaukee Bucks on the road, 115-91.
Steve Clifford's squad, which ranks sixth in three-point percentage, shot the lights out at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Hornets shot 16-of-29 from beyond the arc, with Nicolas Batum (25 points, seven rebounds, eight assists), Kemba Walker (18 points, six assists), Marvin Williams (21 points, eight rebounds) and Courtney Lee (12 points, four rebounds, five assists) combining for all but two of those treys.
Like Atlanta, Charlotte flexed its two-way mojo away from home. The Hornets' eighth-ranked defense swarmed the young Bucks into 44 percent shooting, with just four long-range makes to boot.
The Celtics seemed to be headed for a blowout win of their own over the Phoenix Suns. They led by as many as 21 points in the first half and owned a 20-point edge shortly after the break in Arizona.
But a 24-8 Suns spurt, sparked by nine of Brandon Knight's 19 points, closed the gap to 74-73 before Isaiah Thomas (28 points, six rebounds, three assists) came to the rescue with 10 straight Celtics points of his own.
Phoenix fought back to 100-99 in the waning seconds on a jumper from Devin Booker (21 points, four rebounds, four assists), but only after Knight blew an opportunity to take the lead with a deep three that drew only air. Thomas and Marcus Smart (nine points, eight rebounds, four assists off the bench) hit one free throw apiece to seal the deal for Boston's 43rd win of the season.
All this while the Miami Heat, the East's fifth-place team, spent the weekend resting.
Between the C's, Heat, Hornets and Hawks, the Cavs and Raptors could find the sledding through the Eastern Conference to be uncommonly treacherous.
Miami, which won two of three against Cleveland this season, could face the Cavs in the second round if it hangs on to fifth place in the East. Should Chris Bosh return in time for the playoffs, the Heat would have as much talent as any team Cleveland could face—along with oodles of experience, unmatched institutional knowledge of LeBron James' game and a burning desire to end the King's half-decade reign over the conference.
The Hawks and Hornets will both get sneak previews of a potential Round 2 tiff with Toronto. Atlanta, 0-2 opposite the Raptors so far, has two more meetings left against Canada's club. Charlotte, which has split its two meetings with Drake's hometown team, will test its mettle north of the border April 5.
And while the C's combined 2-5 record against Eastern Conference royalty isn't encouraging, neither of the top two seeds can afford to overlook Isaiah Thomas' attacking talents and Boston's frenetic defense.
So while the West may be more likely to put forth the next NBA champion, the Eastern Conference could host the more compelling postseason.
King James Keeps Rolling
According to CBS Sports' Ken Berger, James has been on a tear since getting a stern talking-to from Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue:
Then there was Saturday night in Miami, when James spent most of the halftime break chumming around with his buddy Dwyane Wade instead of warming up with his team, which was getting its doors blown off by the Heat. According to Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, this was not some vague tweet that was open to interpretation; this was unacceptable.
Lue addressed it with James, who acknowledged his coach's concerns and has proceeded to turn in three consecutive brilliant performances -- including an efficient and explosive 30 points, six rebounds and five assists on 13-for-16 shooting against Brooklyn.
Make that four consecutive brilliant performances. James tallied his second triple-double of this stretch (27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) to help the Cavs blow out the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, 107-93.
With Kyrie Irving resting, James got his teammates involved early and often. Kevin Love (28 points, 12 rebounds, 4-of-9 from three), Matthew Dellavedova (10 points, 3-of-6 from three) and J.R. Smith (13 points, 3-of-8 from three) answered the bell, as did Mo Williams (eight points) off the bench.
That wasn't the case Thursday, when James' running mates shot under 36 percent from the floor in a shocking loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
Despite the tumult in Rock City, the Cavs (52-21) own a two-and-a-half-game lead over the Toronto Raptors in the race for the East's No. 1 seed with nine games to go.
Sorry, Vinsanity, but this season's Toronto Raptors are the best version of the club to ever stalk the NBA landscape.
Dwane Casey's squad has the record to prove it. With a 115-91 thrashing of the Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans, the Toronto Raptors locked in their 49th win, tying a franchise record set last year.
DeMar DeRozan scored a game-high 23 points. Kyle Lowry missed all eight of his three-point attempts but compensated with eight assists.
Toronto's All-Stars were two of seven Raptors to hit double figures, including Norman Powell (15 points), who celebrated the team's almost-milestone with a slam over Pelicans forward Dante Cunningham.
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Powell's poster may not be on par with Vince Carter's best, but with one more win over the team's final 10 games, the former will have been a part of something the latter never even sniffed: a 50-win season.
Spurs Take—and Give Thunder—a Night Off
Under the cover of Elite Eight frenzy in the NCAA tournament, Gregg Popovich decided to trot out the San Antonio Spurs' B-team for a 111-92 beatdown at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Kawhi Leonard rested a right quad contusion while LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili just plain rested. In their stead, Kyle Anderson, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Boban Marjanovic combined for 40 points while Danny Green, the lone member of Pop's top five who started on Saturday, finished with two points on 1-of-6 shooting (0-of-4 from three).
That crew kept things close in the first half, during which Anderson and Jonathon Simmons (17 points) joined forces for an un-Spurs-like alley-oop on the break.
San Antonio Spurs @spurs
We're just gonna leave this here... #JuiceUnit https://t.co/yhs1Bx6DmE2016-3-27 00:50:55
Come the third quarter, the Thunder blew the game open with a 35-19 edge. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook scored 60 points between them—none on a wild and wacky toss-in by Westbrook—with Serge Ibaka (15 points, eight rebounds, four blocks) and Enes Kanter (20 points, 10 rebounds) offering OKC's only double-digit support.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Of course it went in… #Westbrook https://t.co/sUBJxGAJZi2016-3-27 01:18:39
The win moved OKC one step closer to claiming the season series from San Antonio.
Not that their head-to-head record will matter. At 61-12, the Spurs sit 10 games ahead of the Thunder in the standings with nine to play.
All the more reason, then, for Pop to give his top guns another night to relax.
Jazz Tighten Screws in 'Sota
Wins are wins for the Utah Jazz, even if they come ugly.
Or, rather, especially if they come ugly.
The Jazz limited the Minnesota Timberwolves to 10 points in the first quarter and led by as many as 16 in the fourth on the way to a 93-84 win in the Twin Cities. Minnesota managed to hit just 38.1 percent of its shot attempts against Utah, with the frontcourt of Rudy Gobert (five points, 11 rebounds), Derrick Favors (19 points, five rebounds) and Gordon Hayward (18 points, five rebounds, five assists) accounting for all eight of the team’s blocks.
Not that the Jazz were a picture of efficiency themselves—not early, anyway. They combined with the Wolves to shoot 35.4 percent during a first half that, per the Associated Press’ Jon Krawczynski, was the most anemic the league has seen this season.
Jon Krawczynski @APkrawczynski
Jazz 35, Wolves 34 at half. 1st time in NBA this season that neither team has scored more than 35 in the 1st half2016-3-27 01:13:55
Utah, though, needn’t argue with the results. The win moved the Jazz ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and into a dead heat with the Houston Rockets for eighth place in the Western Conference.
Sixers Test Blazers in Rip City
Usually, the Portland Trail Blazers are the ones taking teams by surprise at the Moda Center. On Saturday, the Philadelphia 76ers nearly flipped the script, albeit in a 108-105 defeat.
The NBA’s worst team trailed by as many as 16 points before riding a 24-8 fourth-quarter spurt to tie the score at 100. A deep three by Damian Lillard (16 points, five rebounds, seven assists) and a pair of free throws from Maurice Harkless (16 points, eight rebounds) held the Sixers at bay before Ish Smith (17 points, 14 rebounds, nine assists) evened things again, at 105-105, with a step-back jumper.
The Sixers forced Lillard to give the ball up on the next possession but couldn’t stop C.J. McCollum (25 points, five assists, five steals) from winding his way through traffic for a hoop with harm.
After two missed foul shots from Jerami Grant (13 points, seven rebounds, three assists), the Blazers ran out the clock to secure their 38th win and maintain a game-and-a-half edge over the Rockets and Jazz in the Western Conference standings.
Nets Play Spoiler Again
BREAK UP THE BROOKLYN NETS!
Two nights after taking down the Cleveland Cavaliers by way of a dominant fourth quarter, the Nets pulled the same trick on the Indiana Pacers, 120-110.
Brooklyn rode a game-ending 31-11 run to erase a double-digit deficit and secure a safe advantage of its own. Brook Lopez scored 13 of his team-high 23 points during that spurt and assisted on a dagger three by Bojan Bogdanovic (18 points). Sergey Karasev, who recently told Russian media in an interview with RT (h/t SB Nation's Nets Daily) he wants to stay in the NBA, strengthened his case with 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists in just his third start of the season.
"We played like a team today," Karasev said, per the Nets. "Everybody helped each other."
Despite giving up a game-high 27 points to Paul George and allowing the Pacers to shoot 45.8 percent (11-of-24) from beyond the arc, the Nets came away with back-to-back wins for just the fourth time this season.
For all its internal turmoil and roster turnover, Brooklyn has been building toward victories like these for a good chunk of the season. Since bringing in shooting coach David Nurse at the start of February, the Nets have shot a league-best 41 percent from three-point range.
There's no getting around Brooklyn's lack of first-round draft picks in the coming years. To their credit, though, the Nets aren't waiting around until 2019 to improve their prospects internally.
Indy, meanwhile, will have to up its own ante to avoid a second straight spring without playoff basketball in the Hoosier State.
Bottom Falls Out for Bulls
In a season marked by turmoil, the Chicago Bulls may have finally hit bedrock.
The stakes of a tight Eastern Conference playoff race apparently weren't high enough to keep the Bulls from laying an egg against the Orlando Magic, 111-89. Fred Hoiberg's squad shot just 40.9 percent while letting Orlando convert 53.9 percent of its field goals.
For ESPN.com's Nick Friedell, this Chicago performance, in which Taj Gibson (16 points on 8-of-9 shooting) was the only noteworthy contributor, was the "worst loss of the year for [the] Bulls to date":
Nick Friedell @NickFriedell
This team is devoid of a leader that the players and coaches rally behind.2016-3-27 01:05:28
Nick Friedell @NickFriedell
Noah used to be. Gibson is trying to be. Butler wants to be. Hoiberg probably should be. But there isn't a player or coach who can do it.2016-3-27 01:06:51
That said, it's still too early to hammer any nails into Chicago's coffin. It sits two games back of eighth place in the East, with matchups against the Pacers and Detroit Pistons on deck. And given how Indy and Detroit fell flat Saturday, the Bulls may have the talent and leeway to back into the postseason, even with seven games against potential playoff teams among their remaining 10.
Then again, with the team facing a murky future, the Bulls may be better off sliding into the lottery and hoping another building block falls into their lap on draft day.