NBA @ 2: Final Regular Season Predictions
The 2011-12 NBA regular season is nearly done. The playoffs will start this weekend and yet the league can’t schedule a single series as teams jockey for final position.
The Eastern Conference has eight franchises locked in, but just one set match-up (although it’s unclear exactly where that series will start). Two teams are battling for the final spot in the Western Conference and they’ll meet on Tuesday night to settle the score.
Eight in the East
The Chicago Bulls and Miami HEAT are still vying for the best overall record in the conference. The two teams split their season series, but the Bulls have a two-game advantage with a pair to play.
The Bulls have a tough one on Wednesday in Indiana against the Pacers and then finish their season up in Chicago on the second night of a back-to-back against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The HEAT finish at home against the feisty Boston Celtics and the awful ( but recently surging) Washington Wizards.
All the Bulls have to do is beat the Cavaliers and they lock in their position atop the Eastern Conference. If the Bulls lose and the HEAT win their final two, Miami would have the tiebreaker with a slightly better conference record.
The Pacers are locked in at the three seed, one of the few true certainties with less than a week to go in the season.
The Celtics will be the fourth seed, playing the Atlanta Hawks in the first round – the only established pairing. The question remaining is home court advantage. Even though Boston has the four seed by virtue of their Atlantic Division title, the Hawks currently have the better record.
To start the series in Boston, the Celtics will need to finish with at least the same record as the Hawks (since they own the tiebreaker). The Celtics finish their season at home against the HEAT and the recently eliminated Milwaukee Bucks.
The Hawks host the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. If the Celtics win out, Atlanta better as well. One loss and they’re going to Boston.
All the Orlando Magic need to do to lock in the sixth seed is win a single game. Given their list of injuries, most notably to Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu, that may not be a lock.
Then again, Orlando just has to beat the Charlotte Bobcats, losers of 21-straight games, on Wednesday. Given the Bobcats’ 10.9% winning percentage (worst all-time), the Magic may very well prove to be safe at six. Orlando finishes the season on the road in Memphis against the Grizzlies.
The New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers share 34-30 records. The Knicks are seventh by virtue of the tiebreaker. New York won the series against the Magic, but winning out isn’t enough unless Orlando loses twice.
The Knicks host the Clippers before visiting the Bobcats. The Philadelphia 76ers are on the road on back-to-back nights in Milwaukee and Detroit.
Whatever Philadelphia does the next few days, New York needs to match to hold position.
1- Bulls vs. 8 – Sixers
2 – HEAT vs. 7 – Knicks
3 – Pacers vs. 6- Magic
4 – Celtics vs. 5 – Hawks
(The only change from the current standings is Boston gaining home court advantage).
West Still Settling
The San Antonio Spurs have locked up the top seed in the Western Conference. Their competition over the next few days would be beating out the best in the East (Bulls) for the top overall record and home court in the NBA Finals. Chicago has the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Spurs.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are set at two. The question for both the Spurs and Thunder is whether they’ll rest up for the playoffs or think ahead to home court in the NBA Finals?
The Spurs will probably rest. It’s not in the Thunder DNA, but James Harden certainly needs a day or two to shake off that Metta World Peace elbow.
The Los Angeles Lakers have one game remaining, a visit to the Sacramento Kings. A win and the Lakers will be the third seed. A loss opens the door for the Clippers.
LAC may climb, hold or drop with back-to-back games in Atlanta and New York. Winning out only helps if the Lakers lose, although the Clippers need to hold off the Memphis Grizzlies from below.
Memphis has just one game left, at home against the Magic. Pencil in a win for the Grizzlies and the Clippers have to take one of their final two to hold onto the fourth seed since they have the tiebreaker over Memphis.
The Lakers also have the tiebreaker over the Grizzlies, so the lowest LAL can sink is fourth. Memphis, at five, can only climb or hold.
The Denver Nuggets have a slight lead over the Dallas Mavericks, but Dallas has the tiebreaker. The Nuggets play back-to-back in Oklahoma City and Minnesota. The Mavericks have just the one game left in Atlanta.
Both the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns control their own destinies with the eighth seed up for grabs. They meet on Tuesday in Utah but regardless of who wins, the Suns have the tiebreaker.
If Phoenix loses to Utah, they’re done. The Suns won’t be able to climb higher than eight, but it’s all about getting in.
In one scenario, if the Nuggets and Mavericks lose out and the Jazz win their final two, all three teams finish at 36-30. In that case, the Mavericks would hold the sixth seed followed by the Jazz and then Nuggets.
The Jazz also play the Portland Trail Blazers in Utah. The Suns host the Spurs.
1- Spurs vs. 8 – Jazz
2 – Thunder vs. 7 – Nuggets
3 – Lakers vs. 6 – Mavericks
4 – Clippers vs. 5- Grizzlies.
On the bottom-side of the coin, the Charlotte Bobcats own the top lottery pick. The Washington Wizards are going to hold onto second (unless for some reason they win out).
The New Orleans Hornets, who have played quite well late in the season, visit both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. They just need to lose one of the two to preserve their third position in the lottery.
The New Jersey Nets, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings all stand one loss behind the Hornets, tied at 43.
The Warriors have their 2012 first-round pick protected through seven and yet they’re two losses behind the pack at 41. They’ll host the Hornets and Spurs and while losing out is certainly a possibility, Golden State will still be subject to the whims of lottery tiebreakers and combinations.
Who did they acquire to give up a pick in such a nice draft? Long-gone guard Marcus Williams. The Jazz may make the playoffs and still pick in the 8-9 range.
Also at 41 losses are the Detroit Pistons, followed by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and whomever drops out between the Jazz and Suns.
The Blazers will get the Nets’ pick as long as New Jersey doesn’t win one of the three lottery positions. The Hornets get the Minnesota pick unprotected, via the Chris Paul trade (originally conveyed to the Clippers in the Sam Cassell trade).
Thunder Keep Improving
The Oklahoma City Thunder have gotten better each and every year. From the lottery to the playoffs to the Western Conference Finals in short time. The goal now is the NBA Finals and a title.
“It’s been a process [starting] four years ago,” said head coach Scott Brooks. “We’ve always focused on not skipping steps, learning good habits and there were a lot of tough times. We’ve had some very tough times behind us. Hopefully those experiences helped us going forward but I think the biggest thing is that I haven’t lost all my hair and I’m not gray coaching all of these young guys. It’s been fun.”
The Thunder have gone from upstart to respected contender. At 46-18, at worst they’ll have a top-four record this season.
“One thing I love about our guys, they practice hard every day,” continued Brooks. “I’ve told our guys . . . ‘If we practice hard every day we’re going to be successful. I don’t know when but if you just stay together, keep building good habits and stay together, good things are going to happen.’”
Star forward Kevin Durant has taken that philosophy to heart.
“If I go out there and play as hard as I can, I’ve got to live with the results,” said Durant. “I can’t worry about anything else, what people say because people don’t know how much work I put into this game.”
Of course, effort doesn’t always equate to the desired result.
“Things don’t go your way all the time but me growing as a person and as an individual and as a player, I know how to take that,” said Durant. “If we win then the team gets the praise which I’m totally happy with. If we lose and it comes down on me and Russell [Westbrook], then so be it. We’ve got to be men and take it.”
Brooks believes his team has a chance to win but the focus day-to-day is simply on the task at hand.
“Kevin and Russell, our young guys and even our veteran guys come into work every day and never put a limit on how high they will, or how good they will become and we still haven’t,” said Brooks. “I don’t know how good Kevin will become. I just know that he’s a good player now – that he has to keep getting better and has to improve and he wants to improve.”
With the playoffs starting this weekend, the Thunder have great expectations and a real shot at the title.
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