In the Eastern Conference, the unspoken truth among all teams not hailing from Miami is that nobody wants to finish 4th or 5th because of the looming threat of the LeBron and the Heat in round two. Makes you think about the playoff structure itself. In the playoffs, when match-ups become critically important, choosing your opponent might be equally important to home court advantage.
Eastern Conference Playoff Outlook
Imagine that the first round works exactly as it currently does: 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6, 4 vs 5. But consider a wrinkle to the way the second round works. Where there are four teams left in each conference, the new wrinkle would give the choice of opponent to the team’s with the highest two remaining seeds in each conference. Assuming the top seeds win in the first round, this would mean that they would be able to choose their opponent in Round 2.
If Miami and Oklahoma City had to choose whether or not to face the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, or 7th seed (depending on which two teams advanced), that would avoid the playoff maneuvering that often happens in the last two or three weeks of the season. It would take away some of the anticipation of those championship teams likely paths to the Finals, but it would add a level of mystery to the second round, and would also add underlying drama. Imagine this scenario, to end the regular season: The seeds (with games behind) look like this:
The Likely Division Winners
LeBron. Hats off. Shoes off. Socks off. Incredible season. Making his mark. Loving the 4-spot.
2. New York (7.5)
After tonight’s TNT bout with OKC and a home date with Utah, the Knicks are about to embark on a difficult road trip, similar to Boston’s recent Western swing, where they face Golden State, Denver, Portland, the Clippers and Utah, over the span of eight days. These next seven games may cut that 5 game cushion in half. Remember, the Celtics play New York two more times at the end of March. If Kidd and Smith can regain that early season touch/swagger, and Felton and Anthony can show the defensive prowess and play-making they had in the first half, the Knicks will survive this stretch. If not, things could get very interesting in the Atlantic.
3. Indiana (8)
Paul George has as much upside as any player in the NBA, but he’s still learning. Last night’s loss to Boston was an example of what happens when a team doesn’t have a pure point guard or a pure 4th-Quarter finisher. Indiana is very dangerous, but still flawed offensively.
The middle bunch
4. Boston (12.5)
5. Atlanta (11)
6. Brooklyn (11.5)
7. Chicago (12)
The log-jam between the 4th and 7th seeds is very much uncertain. Doc Rivers has made it clear that he’s going to rest Garnett and Pierce until the playoffs, which might keep the Celtics from winning a game or two, but the invigorated bench play of Jeff Green, Courtney Lee and Terry might keep those losses from happening. Either way, fans are hoping to avoid Miami in a second round match-up. Internally, the Celtics have complete confidence that they can beat the Heat, which makes the round in which they meet less important. As fans, though, we certainly want an added round of playoffs to savor before clashing with Miami.
8. Milwaukee (15)
Larry Sanders! We will watch you again on Saturday!
If the teams finish in the above order, it’s likely the first round goes according to plan, unless Derrick Rose makes a miraculous return and changes the trajectory of the playoff landscape. We’re left with Miami, New York, Indiana and Boston.
If teams could choose their second round opponent:
If Miami chooses to play Indiana rather than Boston (1 vs 3 instead of 1 vs 4), Boston has the psychological advantage of knowing the Heat avoided them. Choosing to play a team with a higher seed, which might be a better match-up (Indiana is not a great match-up for Miami, but nobody wants to play the championship-tested Celtics) adds another layer to the playoff conversation.
In the West, all of the playoff talk revolves around the Lakers and the 8th spot. Tony Parker’s injury notwithstanding, the three game-lead San Antonio owns on Oklahoma City (they meet on Monday night in San Antonio) continues to garner little national media focus, while the press eats up Kobe’s announcement that the added competition of trying to make the playoffs as the 8th seed, rather than jockeying for position as was expected is going to make the next month “fun.”
Here’s what wouldn’t be fun for NBA fans in Oklahoma City and San Antonio: instead of playing Houston or Utah in round one, you have to deal with a suddenly healthy (Gasol just began running drills on his plantar-fascitis-ridden foot) Lakers team that has the added momentum of sneaking into the playoffs in the last week of the season, while San Antonio rests Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Of course, the NBA’s front office is drooling at the added intrigue, the ratings boost a Thunder-Lakers first round match-up would provide.
The seeds currently look like this:
Close to Guaranteed Division Winners
1. San Antonio
2. Oklahoma City (3)
3. LA Clippers (4,5)
Parker’s injury reveals the endless depth that Popovich and Buford put together. Nando de Colo gets more on the job training and Kawhi Leonard gets to play point-forward from time to time. Durant’s monster season continues. The question: did the Clippers peak too early? The spark of depth that worked so well early (Odom, Barnes, Bledsoe) may be tiring as the season wears on. Still, they have as good a chance as any team with Chris Paul’s leadership. Will the lack of three-point shooting be the Clips undoing this spring?
The Middle Tier
4. Memphis (6.5)
5. Denver (8)
This series will be a battle of wills. Denver’s up-tempo fast and furious style versus Memphis’ knock-down, drag-out physicality. Lawson-Conley would be one to watch. Faried-Randolph would be another. Hoping this happens, and if it does, I would pretty much guarantee a 7th game.
6. Golden State (13)
7. Houston (15)
8. Utah (15.5)
More on the Warriors here. Losers of 5 of 6, three of the heart-breaking variety, Jazz fans have to be wounded. There was a great documentary about Canadian Wolves and Buffalo on PBS’ “Nature” recently. The Jazz are looking like the Buffalo. The Lakers are looking like a pack of Wolves. Ironically, for Timberwolves fans, they were the ones who should be the Buffalo in this conversation, holding tightly to the 7th or 8th spot instead of Houston and Utah. Injuries derailed those hopes early on. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Utah, who have only a handful of soft opponents over the final 21 games.
9. LA Lakers (17)
Two losses behind both Houston and Utah, the Lakers are looming in the distance, a Mamba, if you will, waiting to strike from the tall grass. Examining the Lakers’ March and April opponents, it seems highly likely they beat out Utah for that final seed. Even their road-heavy March sees them avoiding the top tier teams, with the exception of Indiana. An early April weekend of double of Memphis and the Clippers and two remaining games with Golden State lead up to the season’s final match-up, game #82, with Houston. These five games may prove the difference between a playoff ticket and a long summer for both the Jazz and the Lakers.
The flight toward the Second Season has boarded. Warriors, Rockets and Jazz fans are holding onto their seat-belts, their knuckles white and their foreheads sweaty. Their tray tables are in the upright and locked positions. The runway is cleared….Twenty games left. Here we go…