Note: This is a comprehensive analysis of the NBA’s playoff picture as of April 5, 2016. As is customary, this is all subject to change as teams flip-flop position, either volleying for their ideal matchups or free falling out of their preferred standing.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets have all locked up playoff spots in the East, with only a half a game separating the teams in 3rd through 6th place. The Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards, currently at 9th and 10th place respectively, have to hope that the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons – 7th and 8th – falter down the stretch if they hope to steal their postseason spots.
The Western Conference is a story of two-headed dominance, as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs both still have 70-plus win seasons in play. Nipping at their heels are the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, currently slotted at the third and fourth spots. Five teams – the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trailblazers, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets – are competing for the last four playoff spots.
A lot can change between now and April 13th, the last day of the NBA’s regular season. Here are 4 things to look for heading into the final 9 days of the NBA’s regular season.
1. The Cleveland Cavaliers should be weary of the current 4 versus 5 match-up. If the regular season ended today, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat would currently be slotted to play each other in the first round, with the winner moving on to play the winner of the 1 versus 8 match-up. Assuming the Cavaliers beat whomever they get in the first round, they would face either LeBron James’ old squad or his former nemesis. Against both of these teams this season, the Cavaliers are 3-3.
Back in March, after the Heat bested the Cavs 122-101, LeBron James expressed concern at the prospect of a playoff matchup with his former team. “The way they’ve beat us here is a little concerning if we face them,” he said. “I think we’ll be ready for it more. We didn’t play up to our potential. We didn’t play our game. We let them play their game, and they took it to us.” The Heat have wing players in Dwyane Wade, Gerald Green, Luol Deng and Josh Richardson to throw at LeBron in a series. Their pick and roll game, centered around Hassan Whiteside, may give the Cavaliers fits considering their best lineup statistically is centered around Tristan Thompson, and undersized center, playing the big man position.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have versatile wing defenders in Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, as well as a cerebral playing style headed by Isaiah Thomas’ playmaking ability. They just upset the Warriors and look to be rounding into form heading into the postseason.
2. The Memphis Grizzlies are freefalling. Having lost their last six games, this once vaunted Grizzlies squad is limbering toward season’s end. They are surely feeling the absence of Marc Gasol, lost for the season with a broken foot. In fact, the team’s injury report bears greater resemblance to an army infirmary than a list of beaten up NBA athletes. Their next five games are against the Chicago Bulls, fighting for their playoff lives, a Dallas Mavericks squad doing the same, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors (twice) who are going for the league’s all-time wins’ record. These could all be losses, putting the Grizzlies at 41-41 and at great risk of missing the playoffs. Every game for the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz bears greater importance as they all try to leapfrog the Grizzlies to escape the Warriors-Spurs gauntlet at the top of the conference.
3. The middle of the West looks good again, albeit futilely. Over the last month of the regular season, the Utah Jazz have sported the league’s best defensive rating, and the third best net rating. They have lost all three of their games against the Warriors in the regular season, but have taken them down to the final minutes in all but one of these contests. Against the Thunder, they had a stretch in December of back-to-back losses, however they both went down to the wire. The Portland Trailblazers represent one of the few up-tempo teams who have actually given the Warriors problems and the Los Angeles Clippers have secured a top-four position in the conference despite not having Blake Griffin for the majority of the regular season.
All of this is fodder to fill a season’s synopsis which should be entirely dominated by the exploits of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. The only team that may crash their conference finals party might be the Oklahoma City Thunder, but even they have demonstrated a susceptibility to softminded play unbecoming of a team who hopes to contend for a title.
4. Will any East team beat the Cavaliers in the playoffs? All teams in the 2-5 portion of the East represent interesting matchup problems for the Cavs. The Raptors, if they can integrate a healthy DeMarre Carroll back in time for a potential conference finals matchup, have the wing versatility that could give the Cavaliers nightmares. The Hawks just played them down to the wire on a recent ESPN game and have playmaking and three point shooting at all five positions, which forces the Cavaliers into some tricky lineup maneuvering. The problems the Heat and Celtics present have already been covered in this piece. Against all four of these teams, the Cavaliers are a combined 6-5, with an April 11 matchup versus the Hawks still to be decided.
As is the case with any LeBron James outfit over the last five years, it just seems like it is their year to make it to the Finals. However, this is undoubtedly LeBron’s most volatile group since his reign of dominance began in the 2010-2011 season. The 2016 Cavaliers have ebbed and flowed week to week. For the first time since 2012’s conference finals against the Boston Celtics, LeBron might have his back to the wall before he even gets to the Finals.