The Western Conference playoff race isn't what it used to be, and that's not a bad thing.
Just past the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA season, there are six teams crammed into the No. 7-12 spots, which is a far cry from what the standings looked like this time a year ago. All eight teams in playoff position had at least 25 wins (currently, there are just five), and the gap between the No. 8 seed and the No. 12 seed was a whopping eight games.
After a night in which the four teams most tightly clustered in the 7-10 range—the Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings—were all active, the congestion is more striking than ever.
|The Wild West|
|7. Houston Rockets||22-22||—|
|8. Sacramento Kings||18-23||—|
|9. Utah Jazz||18-24||.5|
|10. Portland Trail Blazers||19-26||1|
|11. Denver Nuggets||16-26||2.5|
|12. New Orleans Pelicans||14-27||4|
This is nothing like the days when one or two teams were fighting it out late in the year, hoping for the 48 or 50 wins it would take to secure that final spot. Now, we could see a squad or two reach the West playoffs with a sub-.500 record.
In fact, according to Basketball-Reference.com's playoff probabilities report, that's what we should expect. According to that simulation, the Rockets and Jazz are expected to occupy the seventh and eighth spots...and neither will win 40 games.
That's strange. But when you look at the specific teams involved in this downgraded competition, it's even stranger.
The Blazers tore their team apart, watched four of their five starters walk away in free agency and entered this year with a full-on rebuilding mindset. Damian Lillard was going to get his shots and, hopefully, not get too miffed about the constant blowouts. Except after dropping to 19-26 with a 104-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, Portland sits just one game out of playoff position.
The Jazz are hanging in despite brutal fortune on the injury front. Dante Exum's torn ACL, Rudy Gobert's meniscus, Derrick Favors' back and Alec Burks' ankle have staggered Utah throughout the season. Yet the Jazz, even after falling in overtime to the New York Knicks, 118-111, are a half-game up on the Blazers.
The Sacramento Kings, who ran over the Los Angeles Lakers in a 112-93 laugher, went a little nuts and mortgaged their future last summer for a shot at postseason contention—and here they are, volatile as ever, in playoff position.
The Rockets aren't supposed to be here, but the inclusion of a crumbling powerhouse in the No. 7 spot, five games ahead of the what-are-you-doing-here Denver Nuggets at No. 11, is just delightfully absurd. And then there are the New Orleans Pelicans, everyone's preseason favorite to push for a top-four seed, languishing at No. 12 with a 14-27 record brought on by injury and disappointing defense.
In any other year, the Pels would be completely finished. In 2016, they're within easy striking distance of the Kings at No. 8.
Sure, this is all a surreal head-spinner. This isn't how the top-to-bottom dominant West is supposed to be.
But it's fun! And that's kind of the point.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, we're going to be surprised somehow.
There's a darker side to all of this, if you're into fatalism: The reason so many more teams are vying for these low-end playoff spots is because two teams at the top of the conference have laid waste to everyone else in cruel, unfeeling and equal measure.
Golden State and San Antonio have gone a combined 23-3 against the six postseason hopefuls we've highlighted. And all six of those teams are essentially fighting for the right to be eaten alive in a first-round series with one of those two juggernauts, destined as they seem to be for the conference's top two seeds.
Enjoy the wild uncertainty out West while you can. Things will get a whole lot more predictable when whoever finally secures those final two spots runs up against some historically great competition in the first round.
The Celtics Can't Afford This Stuff
Lacking a transcendent star, the Boston Celtics don't have the luxury of covering up lapses with superior talent. They've struggled to close games out on offense because there's no real scoring hierarchy (short of Isaiah Thomas attacking), and though the defense is generally dialed in, there are still too many hiccups.
Case in point: Boston came out sleepwalking against the Toronto Raptors, giving up too many easy buckets early, per Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe:
Though Boston recovered behind some hot shooting from Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko in the second quarter, the defense surrendered another 40 points to Toronto in the third.
On the night, the Celtics allowed Toronto to shoot 55.4 percent from the field in the 115-109 loss.
The Raps are no joke, but Boston knew that coming in. That makes the early defensive snoozing all the more worrisome. The Celtics, hoarding assets and biding their time, seem unlikely to go all knee-jerk panic and swing a big trade for a star this season. So unless the C's tighten up their focus, the going could be rough in the second half.
Porzingod Giveth, Porzingod Taketh Away
As far as New York Knicks fans are concerned, the deification of Kristaps Porzingis was complete sometime in early November. But as is often the case with mythological higher powers, Porzingis' decisions are inscrutable, and it's really not the place of mortals to question them.
So when he hit two clutch free throws to put the Knicks up late against the Utah Jazz only to foul Gordon Hayward on a three-point attempt with two seconds remaining (after which Hayward tied the game by making all three freebies), it was best to just accept the tradeoff.
The Knicks then had to accept overtime. Gratefully, they secured a 118-111 win in the extra frame that got them to .500 for the first time since Dec. 4.
A win against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 22 could get New York above the break-even mark for the first time since it was 2-1 on Halloween. The Knicks will take that, and they'll also take the ups and downs that come with pinning franchise hopes on a 19-year-old as divinely promising as Porzingis.
Finally, a related note: Rudy Gobert only taketh away.
Get. It. Out.
You Could Feel This One Coming
True Story: My pregame notes on the game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic included the scribbled shorthand, "Magic slipping, schedule catching up, might drop this one."
With Victor Oladipo out again, a soft slate rapidly toughening and little success against some of the East's better competition, the Magic were vulnerable heading into Wednesday's contest against the better-than-you-think 76ers.
After Philly's 96-87 win, things are now even worse for Orlando.
Just 1-8 since January 1, the Magic have been generally awful. Their net rating of minus-12.7 is the league's second-worst during that span. Only the Phoenix Suns, who've stopped trying altogether, have fallen flatter.
The Sixers, for what it's worth, are 3-7 and have been outscored by just 5.1 points per 100 possessions in that same stretch.
The Magic are headed in the wrong direction, and it's hard to see how they'll turn this thing around.
The Cavaliers Produced an Anti-Takeaway
You can't go the redemption route with the Cleveland Cavaliers' comfortable 91-78 romp over the Brooklyn Nets. You just can't.
The Nets are barely an NBA team these days, and beating up on them doesn't tell us anything about whether the Cavs have recommitted to defense or ironed out the offensive kinks that led to an embarrassing blowout loss to the Warriors on Monday.
And tempting as it is to get giddy about Kevin Love responding with 17 points and 18 rebounds after disappearing against Golden State...no. Can't do it.
LeBron James ran up and down the floor pretty hard, which doesn't always happen. And he got a bunch of dunks for his trouble.
But even that's not a sign of anything meaningful.
The truth is: Cleveland has nothing to prove against 27 other teams. We know the Cavs are as good or better than everyone but San Antonio and Golden State. So the takeaway is there's no takeaway here.
Check back on Jan. 30 when the Cavs host the Spurs.
The Warriors Stayed Woke
If the destruction they wrought in Cleveland was the result of a wakeup call after getting blown out by Detroit, maybe there was a chance the Dubs would hit snooze again when they met the far less intimidating Bulls on Wednesday.
Nope. The Warriors waltzed to a 125-94 win at the United Center.
Golden State smashed Chicago, getting 25 points from Stephen Curry, 20 from Klay Thompson and a defensive gem from Andrew Bogut, who grabbed a dozen rebounds and completely controlled the paint in just 20 minutes of playing time.
The Bulls hit just 37 percent of their shots and did the Warriors a real favor by missing loads of open threes en route to an unfathomable 1-of-20 performance from beyond the arc.
The best news for Chicago came in the form of 29 points from Derrick Rose, who worked his way into the lane repeatedly, hit a few floaters and even tossed in a vintage crossover—probably his best in years—before exploding to the rim for a first-half finish.
It took a disappointing loss at the outset, but the Warriors found something on their three-game road trip east. After weeks of dozing, they woke up. And when they did, they put the Cavs and Bulls to sleep.
Golden State will need to sustain this focus if it wants to distance itself from those pesky Spurs, who've pulled even with the coasting Dubs since early December.
The Heat Can't Catch a Break
With just 10 players dressed at the outset of Wednesday's game against the Washington Wizards, the Miami Heat didn't have much chance of correcting the downward trajectory they've been on for most of January.
Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic were both out, and things got worse when Hassan Whiteside went down early with a noncontact injury that turned out to be a strained oblique. Luol Deng later got poked in the eye and had to leave as well.
The resulting 106-87 loss was Miami's third in a row and sixth in its last seven games. At just 23-20, it's hard to remember the Heat were once among the East's more formidable.
CBS Sports' Zach Harper recalls simpler times:
Miami is quickly sinking into the East's middle tier, and things could get worse than that if the physical breakdowns don't stop soon.
This Has Gone Too Far
In news of records nobody ever wanted to see broken, the NBA's intentional fouling epidemic has produced a new all-time mark for missed free throws.
The Houston Rockets fell to the Detroit Pistons by a final of 123-114. James Harden had a triple-double in the process, but the only numbers of real note were 13 and 36, Andre Drummond's free-throw makes and attempts, respectively.
Drummond's hack-induced foul-line parade was historic, per Bleacher Report and ESPN Stats & Info:
The absurdity may have peaked when K.J. McDaniels fouled Drummond five times in the first nine seconds of the third quarter, putting Houston immediately over the limit.
This has to stop, right? Nobody wants to watch basketball this way.
The NBA is an entertainment product. It is not married to arbitrary rules. This can change. This has to change.
Russell Westbrook Really Does Listen to Kevin Durant
For anyone still clinging to this silly idea that KD and Russ are incompatible (seriously, give it up), digest the clearest evidence yet that Westbrook not only pays attention to but, more importantly, carefully considers Durant's comments.
"Sometimes I get a little nervous and afraid that he's going to hurt his wrist at some point because he's throwing the ball in the rim so hard," Durant told reporters, per Royce Young of ESPN.com before OKC's Wednesday meeting with the Charlotte Hornets.
Cut to Westbrook doing this in the Thunder's 109-95 win:
Maybe the ball slipped. But maybe Russ was just sensitive to Durant's concerns. Maybe he was being a good listener, holding back because he knew his vicious dunks worried his teammate. It's kind of sweet when you think about it that way.
Oklahoma City remains just a hair below the Spurs and Warriors in the West's upper tier. But maybe we're seeing the kind of team spirit and unselfishness the Thunder will need to close that gap.
Let's go with that.
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Karl-Anthony Towns might turn into a nice little player someday.
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