The faltering Cleveland Cavaliers. The surging Miami Heat. The hard-to-peg-in-the-postseason Houston Rockets. Warriors vs. Spurs.
With the NBA regular season nearing its end, it’s time make sense of the frantic races that will play out for playoff seeds and what to expect once it’s sorted out.
Let’s start in the Eastern Conference …
And the East No. 1 seed goes to …
Let’s start off a little crazy and tell you right now the Boston Celtics lock up the No. 1 seed as the Cavaliers, with a markedly more difficult schedule, continue to flounder. Boston has more to prove, more hunger to be the top seed in the East and the Celtics host Cleveland in the final regular-season showdown between the two. And the Cavs keep struggling until they invariably figure things out in the playoffs. Congrats, Celtics, the No. 1 spot will be yours.
Race for the eighth seed. Winner is …
We would put the Miami Heat here, but they seem bound to end up at No. 6 or No. 7. The Hawks are a dumpster fire of late, and the Pacers have not played well. But it’s the Hawks who finish No. 8. Four of their remaining nine games are against the Cavs (twice), Celtics and Pacers, and they just got destroyed Sunday by the lowly Nets. But they still hold off the Bulls and Pistons and earn the honor of getting blasted by Boston in the first round.
East’s playoff teams, in seed order
1. Boston Celtics
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Washington Wizards
4. Toronto Raptors
5. Milwaukee Bucks
6. Miami Heat
7. Indiana Pacers
8. Atlanta Hawks
Teams falling just short
Oh, Chicago and Detroit, we’re looking at you. For the Bulls, it has been a season of former great stars defining a once-great franchise. Dwyane Wade? Injured. Rajon Rondo? Benched earlier, still a mess. Fred Hoiberg? Another disappointing season.
Same goes for Stan Van Gundy and a Detroit team I expected so much more from this season. The Pistons have their own disgruntled point guard in Reggie Jackson, and they also tried at the deadline to move what seemed like everyone, resulting in poor chemistry. The Pistons simply aren’t good enough, and even they seem to know it.
Most surprising team to make the cut
The Heat. All hail Erik Spoelstra, who should be (along with Mike D’Antoni) a Coach of the Year candidate. The Heat’s brutal defense and surprising scoring depth have offset the loss Chris Bosh to illness and Wade to the Bulls — and the hard feelings that came with those departures. Miami is the NBA’s best and most shocking story.
Most surprising teams to miss the cut
Technically, it’s the New York Knicks. They still have Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis and added Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee. And Phil Jackson is still ensconced as president of basketball operations. But — and this is the thing you can’t forget — they’re still the Knicks, always.
Maybe the truly surprising team is Charlotte, which was the sixth seed last season and was as high as fourth as recently as January. Last season’s top-10 offensive and defensive rating has fallen to the middle of the pack on offense and barely hung in the top-10 on defense. Not a sexy team, but Steve Clifford should be capable of much more. With Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson gone, it has been an excruciatingly disappointing season.
Now to the Western Conference …
And the West No. 1 seed goes to …
The Warriors sans Kevin Durant have found their mojo. Again. And that makes this easy, with all due respect to the Spurs. Despite the tough schedule in the days ahead, the Warriors hold onto home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Race for the eighth seed. Winner is …
Tough, tough call, but with Denver on the road for seven of its final nine games — and Portland boasting Damian Lillard, one of the game’s great closers — it’s the Trail Blazers by a hair. Denver has a really bright future, but all that youth still has to learn what Lillard has mastered: The art of grace under pressure in the NBA when the playoffs are on the line.
West’s playoff teams, in seed order
1. Golden State Warriors
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Houston Rockets
4. Utah Jazz
5. Los Angeles Clippers
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
7. Memphis Grizzlies
8. Portland Trail Blazers
The teams that fall just short
Denver falls out, and Dallas just can’t get it done. New Orleans has a bright future, too, but DeMarcus Cousins arrived too late to make an impact. It’ll be different next season.
Most surprising team(s) to make the cut
By far the Houston Rockets. What we can we say? We were wrong. All of us. What is surprising about Houston is not that it made the playoffs. It’s that the Rockets are legit contenders, and D’Antoni’s offensive genius — once stained by stints in New York and L.A. with the Lakers — has Harden playing some of the best basketball we’ve ever seen. Houston is a contender, and that’s simply a shock.
Most surprising team(s) to miss the cut
The Lakers. Kidding! There aren’t many in this category, but it is a bit surprising that Minnesota didn’t make a bigger jump. Many of us — myself included — thought the Timberwolves would contend. Alas, no. So, as they say, maybe next year.