Holding Court - Who will make the cut down the NBA Playoff stretch?
MANILA, Philippines - With 15 games to go, give or take a couple of games for each team, who’s in and who’s out of the playoff picture is becoming clearer, and the 14 teams that will subsequently console themselves with a designated number of pingpong balls, depending on their final win-loss record (well, except New York, that is, which traded its first-round pick this year), can begin the process of focusing more on the draft than on the actual games being played.
Make no mistake, only Indiana and Miami have so far officially made the postseason party as of games played this morning (March 18 in the US), but let’s not kid ourselves. Probably the only playoff slots out of the 16 being contested that are up for grabs are the eighth and final spot in each conference.
These are the slots currently occupied by Atlanta in the East and Memphis in the West, where a last-ditch challenge can very well be still waged by No. 9 New York and No. 9 Phoenix, in that order.
The Knicks currently have a 27-40 record that, under normal circumstances, would be almost hopeless, but the East this year is so bad that the last two clubs that occupy a playoff slot – Charlotte and Atlanta – have a losing record.
The Bobcats, who have never given four-year owner Michael Jordan a taste of the playoffs, last made the postseason before Jordan assumed ownership in 2010 after the team posted a franchise-best 44-38 record, but even if the Bobcats, who are set to reassume their original name Hornets next year after New Orleans renamed itself Pelicans this season, do not considerably improve their current 33-35 mark, they’ll likely make it safely to the postseason for the first time under Jordan’s aegis with a 5½-game lead over the Knicks.
The Hawks, meanwhile, may be 4½ games in front of New York at 31-35 going to the stretch run but they have to make sure they win their share of games (they’re currently on a five-game winning streak) with Carmelo Anthony and company, who are expected to get a spike in play with Phil Jackson taking over as team president, in the midst of a six-game winning skein of their own.
Ten of the Hawks’ remaining 16 games will be played at home while only six of the 15 contests the Knicks still have on their slate will be held at Madison Square Garden. The Bobcats, on the other hand, have as many home games left as road contests with seven.
Cleveland and Detroit, which are running 10th and 11th with 26-42 and 25-41 marks, in that order, are long shots, with the Cavaliers expected to miss star guard and All-Star Game MVP Kyrie Irving for about two weeks with a shoulder injury and the Pistons hurt by various injuries of their own.
It’s out West where a virtual shootout at the OK Corral is expected to take place for that eighth and last playoff slot, and the protagonists – Memphis and Phoenix – are so closely bunched not even 10th-ranked Minnesota, with a winning record of 33-32, is expected to be able to sniff the gunpowder in that battle with the four games it has to make up against the Suns.
Only 1½ games separate the Grizzlies (39-27) and the Suns (38-29), the surprise team in the league this year under rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek which lost five of last year’s top six scorers but has thrived with a backcourt attack anchored on Goran Dragic and Gerald Green.
The battle between Memphis and Phoenix can’t be any tighter. The Suns have nine road games and six home contests remaining, with eight of those games coming against teams that would be in the playoffs right now. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, also have nine road assignments and seven home matches still on their slate, with seven of those versus clubs that would make it to the postseason if it began now.
What could eventually decide this tight contest is the head-to-head matchup between the two squads in Phoenix two days before the end of the regular season on April 14. But both teams have to make sure neither one of them has yet suffered irreparable damage for that matchup to count.
At this point, Indiana (50-17) and Miami (46-19) have made their playoff bids formal, but Toronto (37-29), Chicago (37-30), Washington (35-32) and Brooklyn (34-31) are virtual locks for a playoff slot of their own in the East.
Out West, San Antonio (50-16), Oklahoma City (49-18), the LA Clippers (48-21), Houston (45-22), Portland (44-24), Golden State (43-26) and Dallas (41-27) are also practically a shoo-in for the postseason party.
But the playoff positioning is by no means over as teams will try to earn at least homecourt advantage in the first round by getting the No. 4 ranking in their conference, and jockeying for more favorable matchups at least in the opening round will also be a concern. Teams would understandably try to avoid going head-to-head right away against such loaded ball clubs as the Pacers, the reigning champion Heat, the Spurs, the Thunder and the Clippers.
But when one is fighting for his playoff life even before he punches a ticket to the postseason, he’s left with hardly any choice but to suck it up and face whatever hand he is dealt. Such is life in the NBA’s fringes one is bound to pay his dues first before he can move on to the next level.
Davis arrives. The man they call “The Brow” (for his unibrow) has arrived this season. After losing last year’s Rookie of the Year trophy to Damian Lillard of Portland, Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans’ All-Star power forward-center, has shown he could be the NBA’s next big star with his impressive play as a second-year pro.
The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Davis scored 40 points and grabbed 21 rebounds, both career highs, in the Pelicans’ 121-120 overtime victory over Boston last March 16 to became the first player to post a 40-20 game since 2012 and the fourth-youngest player (21 years and five days) to do it.
Dwight Howard, now with Houston, had 45 and 23 on January 12, 2012 while with Orlando while only John Drew of Atlanta, who did it twice in 1974 and was 20 years and 47 days old when he first did it, and Shaquille O’Neal of the Magic in 1993 (20 years and 347 days) were younger when they pulled off the feat.
“I think he’s unreal… if there are 10 better players in the league I haven’t seen them,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Davis after his performance.
Celtics broadcaster Tom Heinsohn was even more positive. “Once LeBron (James) cools off a little bit, he is going to grow into stardom,” the Celtics Hall of Famer said of Davis.
In addition to his career game, Davis set a franchise record with six straight games of at least 28 points, breaking Glen Rice’s mark of five straight in the 1990s. It was also the first 40-point performance by a Pelican/Hornet since David West, now with Indiana, did it on February 26, 2010.
“I think he can do this 10 to 15 times a year just because he is so gifted and does things for the right reason,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said of his prized star. “Obviously, he has great athletic ability but some of that stuff is just him. We try to put him in a position where he can be a dominant player.”
With Davis leading the way, the Pelicans, 27-39 this season after All-Star guard Jrue Holiday (stress fracture in right leg) and Ryan Anderson (herniated disc) were lost for the season, figure to become a force in the coming years. Davis is averaging 21.4 points (on .527 floor shooting and .787 free-throw clip), 10.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, a league-leading 2.91 blocks and 1.40 steals thus far this season.
Certainly, the former National College Player of the Year at Kentucky can conceivably still improve his already-prodigious game as he gains more experience.
SHORTSHOTS: The US State Department is teaming with coach Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat this week to host 16 players and two coaches from the Philippines as part of the ongoing rehab efforts following Typhoon Yolanda last year. Spoelstra, who was actively involved in fundraising efforts for the typhoon victims in his mother’s home country, will provide the group with basketball clinics, facility tours and pre-game interaction with current Heat players before they host the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday (Saturday in Manila). Activities that promote volunteerism, teamwork, community building, and youth development are also planned… Philadelphia set a franchise record with 21 straight losses when the 76ers dropped a 99-90 decision to Indiana on March 17. The Pacers’ victory, their 50th, also made it just the sixth 50-win season in franchise history, and the first since 2004 when they won a club-record 61 games before their next season was marred by that infamous brawl that all but destroyed the team’s next five seasons… The Washington Wizards have signed Drew Gooden for the rest of the season just as the Brooklyn Nets have Jason Collins… Ray Allen passed Allen Iverson for 21st place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 24,370 points, two more than Iverson’s 24,368, by scoring a season-high 25 points in Miami’s 113-104 victory over Houston last March 16. Allen also appeared in his 1,287th game to move to solo 15th past Sam Perkins on the career list. He could pass Mark Jackson (1,296) and Elvin Hayes (1,303) later this season… What his former players have to say about Phil Jackson’s taking over the reins of the New York Knicks: “I think the Knicks are fortunate to have him. I know they gave him a big contract and a big investment, but I think he’s worth every cent of it.” – Pau Gasol. “Phil can do some good things with them because he’s gifted. Phil is fantastic at managing egos and personalities, getting everyone on the same page and maxing out whatever potential is there for what should be the common and ultimate goal.” – Michael Jordan. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.