As we approach the last two weeks of the NBA regular season, we are starting to see major storylines develop. Over the years, no part of the regular season has been more exciting than the closing weeks, where over half of the league fights for a playoff spot, a higher seeding, and/or sometimes, strategically rests to avoid a particular bad match-up.
In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat have locked in the top seed (seems like this was done months ago), and most fans are left wondering who will fall into the 8th and final seed heading into the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics aren’t necessarily safe from a first-round match-up with the defending champion Heat just yet, but one question does stir the pot a bit: are there a couple of teams who would rather play Miami right off the bat? After all, it was Chicago who ended the Heat’s 27-game winning streak just nights ago, a Bulls squad that tackled the record-seeking Miami team without Derrick Rose (who has been out all season long), Joakim Noah, Marco Belinelli or Rip Hamilton.
Boston nearly tripped the Heat during the streak as well, and may have succeeded with Kevin Garnett in the lineup (who missed the game due to injury). Jeff Green played like a man possessed that night, and LeBron James and Co. needed a 17-point comeback to eventually disarm the Celtics.
Sneaking back into contention are the New York Knicks, who are currently on a nine-game winning streak, finally regaining the second seed after overlapping the Indiana Pacers, who are also running a win streak of their own (five games).
The Western Conference may be the most exciting of the two, though. While the East has nearly established their eight playoff teams, the West has an intriguing battle brewing between the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks. Utah has pulled away with five consecutive wins to take the eighth spot, possibly temporarily, as they hold the tie-breaker against the Lakers, who are now 2.5 games up on the Mavericks after their win against them last night.
The Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, and the Memphis Grizzlies have fallen into a particularly interesting situation. Much like you’re seeing with the Heat, teams are wanting to avoid the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs, depending on the style of play and size of the team. Memphis wouldn’t mind a rematch against the older, more experienced Spurs, and after proving they could run with the Thunder, the Nuggets may be in favor of that second round series. Meanwhile, the Clippers lost all three games against the Thunder this season, and after cooling off in 2013, their best bet to land them a spot in the Western Conference Finals would be to run into the Spurs.
Are the Lakers the most dangerous lower-seeded team in the playoffs? It’s debatable. Teams with a returning star or superstar player (the Bulls with Rose, the Celtics with Garnett) can make things complicated for any top four seed, while a team like the Lakers, which contains two superstars and two capable star role players, can win a series based on talent and drive alone.
Are there any clear upsets in the first round? It’s tough to say, but the Golden State Warriors didn’t have a lot of trouble with the Clippers this year, and there’s still a chance we see that series play out. A series featuring the Celtics and Knicks could be one of the better match-ups of the round, as well as the Bulls and Pacers (both defensive monsters).
Two weeks, and the regular season is over. Fortunately, the excitement doesn’t end there, and we could very well see a playoff run for the ages. Win or go home.