Nine Must-Follow Storylines for the NBA's Final Days of the Regular Season

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterApril 7, 2015

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Little is clearer as we count down the final moments of the NBA regular season than the perception that one team is an overwhelming favorite to reach the Finals.

The Golden State Warriors are 10 games better than anybody else in the West, they have recent beyond-first-round playoff experience that the East's No. 1 seed, the Atlanta Hawks, don't, and none of the other West contenders has any magical matchup thing going against Golden State.

The Warriors, toting the best point differential (plus-10.4) the NBA has seen since the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls, have been a rock of consistency in an otherwise turbulent regular season that is coming down to its final moments.

Let's run through nine far less stable, but very pertinent issues to monitor in these final nine days of the standardized NBA schedule…

1. Who is best positioned to emerge from the East?

Apr 5, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) passes around Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol (16) and center Joakim Noah (13) in the third quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, are the Cleveland Cavaliers ready to live up to their talent yet?

Not necessarily, even though the Cavs have been predictably better with a more engaged LeBron James the second half of the season. Since Jan. 15, Cleveland is 31-7, the best record in the league. The Cavaliers' season point differential despite James' early rest is plus-5.1, not far from Atlanta's plus-5.4. (The Spurs at 6.0 and Clippers at 6.5 are both better than the East's two best teams, though.)

We still need to see more from this crew, especially considering David Blatt, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love haven't been in the NBA playoffs before.

The pace of NBA playoff games slows down, and Cleveland's success has been driven by its easy offense: The Cavs have won 25 of their past 26 games when they score at least 100 points.

Cleveland is pretty much assured of the No. 2 seed in the East, so we probably won't see much more defensive improvement in the regular season. The Hawks will be the No. 1 seed, so they're not pushing for anything else, either.   

But one other East contender still has something to work with that could change everything, however: Derrick Rose. Unfortunately for the Chicago Bulls—10-10 since Rose went down with his latest knee injury—they haven't put things together to the point that Rose can just step in to play a lesser role. There is still a sweet spot out there for the Bulls to be a defense-first, balanced-offense team with Rose as an energizer—and Chicago would love to see it in the next week.

2. Are the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs rounding into form?

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

The Spurs did just become the only team to beat Golden State twice this season, but it was the second night of a back-to-back set for the Warriors, who had little incentive.

There is a burgeoning sentiment that the Spurs, who've won 17 of 20, have perfectly timed their ramp-up of intensity and cohesion for another championship run. The only Spur on the injury report right now is Tiago Splitter, with a tight calf, and keeping that list clean will be the main priority for San Antonio this week.

To be clear, the odds remain stacked against the Spurs.

The big picture is what's relevant here: how draining it is—lightly treated Gregg Popovich regular seasons or not—to lock in and push again and again and again for what would be San Antonio's third consecutive NBA Finals.

The Spurs would be better off easing up in the next nine days instead of pushing for the No. 2 seed in the West, which means being on the opposite side of the conference bracket from Golden State.

3. Which teams should be pushing themselves to get that No. 2 spot in the West?

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 2: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against Rajon Rondo #9 of the Dallas Mavericks on April 2, 2015 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
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The Houston Rockets lost all four games against the Warriors in the regular season. Despite that snippet quote from James Harden that the Warriors are not "that good," overheard in a pregame huddle, the Warriors dismantled the turnover-prone Rockets—with Dwight Howard on the court—twice in a five-day span in January.

The Rockets have been playing better lately and would be wise to grab that second seed, use the early playoffs to improve further and wait to stare down the Warriors in a potential Western Conference Finals.

Currently, the Rockets have that No. 2 seed and a game lead on Memphis, a game-and-a-half lead on the Los Angeles Clippers and a two-game edge on San Antonio. The Clippers, it should be noted, have the easiest remaining schedule in the West and have also been hot.

4. Voters, for your reconsideration…

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 5:  Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers drives to the basket against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 5, 2015 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
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Two players have a lot to gain down the stretch if their teams can surge in the final days: Chris Paul of the Clippers and Nikola Mirotic of the Bulls.

Both players deserve more consideration in the ballot box than they are currently getting as the awards discussions heat up. Paul is a legit MVP candidate, and Mirotic flat out is more deserving of Rookie of the Year than Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins with his usage-inflated numbers.

Paul has been the Clippers' rock all season, never wilting to expected injury, and he has been the reason why they've improved recently: Since Feb. 8, he has accounted via scoring or assist for 45.7 percent of the Clippers' points (compared to Russell Westbrook's 44.4 percent of Oklahoma City's and Harden's 44.0 percent of Houston's).

If the Clippers finish second in the West, it will encourage voters to recognize Paul in a race that Golden State's Stephen Curry almost surely will win but should feature Paul right there competing with Harden in a group that includes Westbrook, James and Anthony Davis.

If the Bulls can sharpen up down the stretch, it will help Mirotic get noticed, too. Last season it was Taj Gibson whom Tom Thibodeau helped make into a fourth-quarter stalwart, and this season it's the 24-year-old Mirotic.

His season scoring average should nudge comfortably into double digits when it's all over; Mirotic is up to 10 points per game now despite logging just 20 minutes per game. If the Bulls look more like a contender in the final week, it'll remind voters how Mirotic has been playing meaningful games throughout, while Wiggins has been practicing his individual game in semi-exhibition games all season long.

5. Losing will never be winning, but it does shift the draft odds

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 12: Phil Jackson, President of the New York Knicks and Jeanie Buss, President of the Los Angeles Lakers pose for a photo at STAPLES Center on March 12, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
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We interrupt this discussion of good basketball to mention the tanking agenda of many losing teams' front offices and fans. The Knicks (15-62), Timberwolves (16-60), 76ers (18-60) and Lakers (20-56) are in prime positions—with the Magic (24-53) three-and-a-half games "back."

Even though the Cavaliers pulled one out of the hat last spring with a 1.7 percent chance at the top pick, if you finish in the bottom four, you can realistically consider who you might want at No. 1 overall. The worst four's chances at the top pick are: 25 percent, 19.9, 15.6 and 11.9, respectively.

6. Paul George vs. LeBron again? Joe Johnson versus his old Atlanta mates?

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 05:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers waves to the crowd as he walks onto the court for the first time in  the game against the Miami Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 5, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Tonight is his
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If things break right at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, we could get some tasty first-round matchups for the Hawks and Cavaliers.

Although nobody but the people in the league office handing out the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award the past two weeks has noticed, Brook Lopez has been on fire and leading that still-sizable Nets payroll toward the playoffs. After collecting his second such award, Lopez dropped 32 points on the Blazers on Monday as Brooklyn won its seventh in eight tries.

If the Nets finish eighth, they—with Johnson, whose 2012 trade began the better days for the Hawks—would draw Atlanta.

Now back to some sense of a regular schedule after his emotion-filled return Sunday, Paul George could rally the Pacers to seventh in the East if he thrives in his comeback. And that would set up a duel with the Cavaliers and yet another installment of George challenging LeBron in the East playoffs.

Those would be neat matchups. We should all be rooting for Brooklyn and Indiana in the coming days, regardless, to beat out Boston, Miami and Charlotte for the final two East slots: The Nets and Pacers at least have the current health and talent possibly to give the Hawks and Cavaliers a first-round challenge.

7. And he won the 2015 All-Star Three-Point Contest, too

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Single-season records aren't the kinds of numbers NBA fans often remember, but it would be fun to be able to say (especially if he's rightly getting your NBA MVP vote) that Curry hit more three-pointers than anyone in any previous NBA season.

Except we already know Curry is a brilliant shooter, as shown by his 27 of a possible 34 points in the championship round of the most recent All-Star Three-Point Contest. And, well, Curry already holds the NBA single-season record with the 272 three-pointers he made in 2012-13.

In any case, he needs 10 more before this season is done to set the new mark.

8. Patching point guards back together

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 02:  Rajon Rondo #9 of the Dallas Mavericks during play against the Houston Rockets at American Airlines Center on April 2, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using t
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With all the excellent point guards in today's NBA, it's a shame that we might not see the best some have to offer come playoff time if they don't find their form soon.

We already discussed Rose's upcoming audition in Chicago. But guys such as Dallas' Rajon Rondo (knee), Toronto's Kyle Lowry (back), Memphis' Mike Conley (ankles, wrist) and even Atlanta's Dennis Schroder (toe) are desperately trying to get somewhat healthy before it's too late to help.

If Miami's Goran Dragic doesn't shake his sore back, the Heat won't even make the playoffs. And it is looking more and more like New Orleans' Jrue Holiday won't make it back in time from his leg injury to help the Pelicans get past the Thunder.

Of that group, Rondo is particularly interesting. The Mavericks swung for the fences in trading for him and predicted he'd be fully engaged and on board when winning time comes…so there's a lot still to learn before his free agency this summer.

9. Only thing worse than a division championship? A division championship banner

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 28: A fan of Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers holds a sign during a game against the Denver Nuggets on March 28, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
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The NBA would be wise to scrap all of its divisions, even if it doesn't want to get rid of the conferences. Geographic rivalries wouldn't be threatened by losing the divisions one bit, and then we wouldn't be talking about how dumb it is that the Portland Trail Blazers can't do worse than the No. 4 seed in the West this season because division champs are assured that much.

It'd be Portland's first division title since 1999! Woo-hoo! That glorious NBA Northwest Division.

So let's all hope the Blazers, despite the strong contribution now being made by up-and-coming guard C.J. McCollum, fall to the sixth-best record in the West and have to be gifted that No. 4 seed. That'll ramp up the discussion about how unnecessarily complicated the whole division concept is.

It's a shame the NBA Development League, the training ground for innovative NBA ideas, expanded from three divisions to four divisions (and two conferences) this season. Because of that, the D-League got rid of its awesome pick-your-opponent playoff system.

If NBA commissioner Adam Silver is serious about being open-minded to better ideas, that should be near the top of the list: the top-seeded team picking its first-round opponent among all the remaining teams, then the second seed picking its opponent and so on…

The pick-your-opponent system offers boundless intrigue.

The existing divisions, meanwhile, offer nothing.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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