With just under two weeks left in the 2014-2015 NBA season, it’s time to evaluate the race for eighth and the probable playoff picture. This season has surely been characterized by the breakout of the Golden State Warriors in the West and the Atlanta Hawks in the East. The Warriors, led by MVP hopeful Stephen Curry, have been one of the best teams the NBA has seen in years. The Hawks, after an absolutely fire January when they went 16-0, have since cooled down, losing five of their last eight right in the face of playoff time. Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers have also been an interesting story line due to a miserable start of 19-20, but since then, the Cavs have been arguably the best offensive team in the league, now sitting at second place in the Eastern conference with a record of 50-27. That is an astonishing 31-7 record since January 15. The only team that could rival the Cavs’ long term winning tear is the San Antonio Spurs.
Last year’s champs did not start the season incredibly well, leading some people to say that their age is finally catching up with them and putting the kibosh on talks of a repeat. Those naysayers are eating their words right about now, as the Spurs are playing arguably the best basketball in the league. The Spurs have won 16 of their last 19 games going back to February 27, solidifying themselves as contenders in the West. While they are currently in sixth, they are only two games outside of second place and have been rated as second in ESPN’s most recent power rankings. While Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have still been the anchors that fans have come to expect from the Spurs year in and year out, this year’s success has been largely attributed to Kawhi Leonard as the go-to guy. Leonard is the team’s leading scorer, and plays great defense as a result of his length and athleticism. Also, as has become classic from Gregg Popovich-coached teams, role players have been crucial.
Looking ahead to the playoffs and the race for eighth place in the East and the West, there are a few interesting storylines. With most teams having only four or five games left, there are sure to be some exciting down to the wire finishes. In the West, the New Orleans Pelicans are only half a game out of the last playoff spot, behind the Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder. In the East, somehow the Boston Celtics occupy the eighth place spot, led by a couple guys named Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller. They are currently holding on for dear life, as the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets are breathing right down their backs all being within one and a half games of the last playoff spot.
In terms of probable matchups, based on ESPN’s most recent playoff projections, there could be a lot of interesting storylines. In the East, any of the potential eight seeds would have a hard time matching up with the one seed Hawks, who have run through the East this year. A potential two seed vs. seven seed matchup between the Cavaliers and Heat (if they can make a run) would create a great storyline, as Lebron would be matching up against his former team where he won two championships.
Beyond that, the Cavs have been playing out of their minds, whereas the Heat are merely trying to claw their way into the playoffs. An interesting matchup that could go to seven games would be the five seed Washington Wizards vs. the four seed Toronto Raptors. Both teams have played good basketball this season in total, but coming into the playoffs having been losing more than they are winning. Also coming out of the East will be the likely three seed Chicago Bulls with a healthy Derrick Rose. After sitting out the past few weeks due to a second knee surgery, Rose says that he is likely to come back this week. If he can be pre- 2012 ACL tear Derrick Rose again, than the Bulls will be a force to be reckoned with, but that seems unlikely. In all likelihood, he will play solid minutes but won’t be asked for superstar output until next season.
The West seems to be a little more interesting because any matchup, besides Warriors vs. the eight seed, is completely up for grabs. The Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and Spurs are all within two games of each other. That means that seeding really doesn’t matter. Any matchup between any of these teams will likely go six or seven games. The Spurs, for all reasons mentioned above, and the Rockets seem to have the best shot at upending the Warriors. The Rockets have an MVP hopeful of their own, James Harden, who has led them to the third best record in the NBA. Behind Harden, Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza the Rockets could make a run.
The recent history of NBA playoff basketball has been dominated by the Spurs because of the genius of coach Gregg Popovich. If there is one thing that Lebron and the Heat can tell you is that you don’t bet against Pop in the playoffs! I’m taking the Spurs over Lebron and the Cavs in the finals.