NBA playoff picture comes into focus

NBA All Star Game

Before this NBA season began it looked like the Western Conference was stacked and the Eastern Conference would be a complete muddle. As the playoff picture starts to come in focus, those predictions are turning out to be, if anything, too conservative.

The Western Conference is almost set

On Monday night, the Portland Trail Blazers (48-25) defeated the Phoenix Suns 109-86, clinching a spot in the NBA playoffs while making it increasingly unlikely that the Suns (38-37) will make a push for the Western Conference’s eighth seed. They would have to leapfrog the New Orleans Pelicans (39-34) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (42-32) to make the playoffs.

One would think that the news that the Thunder would be losing Kevin Durant for four to six months following season-ending foot surgery would have given some life to either the Suns or Pelicans. Unfortunately for them 1) those two teams just don’t quite have enough to take advantage of this unexpected situation – perhaps things would have been different if Goran Dragic hadn’t forced his way out of Phoenix – and 2) even if they did, it might have only made Russell Westbrook more determined to drag Oklahoma City to the playoffs.

The Los Angeles Clippers (49-26) quietly secured a postseason spot with a win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday. The Clippers, who currently occupy the No5 seed, have been doing everything fairly quietly all this year, but perhaps they don’t mind the lack of media attention after last year’s Donald Sterling fiasco. The San Antonio Spurs (48-26) and Dallas Mavericks (45-29) have yet to officially lock down playoff berths, but it’s mostly a formality at this point.

The rest of the drama in the west comes down to teams jockeying for playoff position. There’s only a half game separating the Memphis Grizzlies (51-24) and Houston Rockets (50-24) from the No2 seed. The Trail Blazers, Clippers and Spurs all are in the race for the fourth seed, which would mean home-court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.

There is, however, no drama left for Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors (61-13), who have already clinched the best record in the Western Conference and seem likely to end the season with the best record the NBA. It’s looking more and more likely that the Warriors-Thunder first-round matchup we all wanted is coming into fruition – it’s just sad that we won’t get to see Oklahoma City at full strength.

The Eastern Conference: not so much

After beating the Miami Heat on Friday, the Atlanta Hawks (56-19) clinched home-court advantage up until the NBA Finals, should they make it that far. That was a development we all clearly saw coming some time around early January. The rest of the Eastern Conference is a bit blurred.

The Toronto Raptors (44-30) clinched the Atlantic Division, for just the third time in franchise history, after a 94-83 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s good for fourth place in the East, although they could still scratch their way higher if they start playing much better than they have as late.

As it is, the Cleveland Cavaliers (48-27) have a two-and-a-half-game lead over the Chicago Bulls (45-29) for second place. The Bulls’ best hope to make up any ground would happen if the Cavaliers go the Spurs’ route and start resting LeBron James and other starters and with the (not incorrect) thought that having everyone fresh would give them more of an advantage than a higher seed.

On Monday, the Charlotte Hornets lost to the Boston Celtics. The win over the Hornets, playing without a mysteriously DNP’d Lance Stephenson, solidified a playoff spot for the tumbling Washington Wizards (41-33), who have lost five of their last six games. The only win? Against those fading Hornets (31-42), whose season might be effectively over. Clearly, Wizards head coach Randy Wittman deserves to send the Charlotte a fruit basket at the very least.

The win also briefly put the Celtics (33-41) in the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, thanks to the fact that the Celtics own the tiebreaker over the Brooklyn Nets. That lasted roughly 24 hours, until the Nets (33-40) defeated the Indiana Pacers 111-106 last night to take a half-game lead over Boston.

OK, yes, you may have thought the Nets had dropped off the postseason radar a few months ago. That’s alright, so did they, but they didn’t count on so many other teams being this bad. Not only will the final spots in the East be clinched by teams with losing records, they will likely be secured not by wins but with key losses by the other contenders. It’s a game of ‘let’s lose the least’.

Even the Milwaukee Bucks (36-38), currently in line for the No6 seed, are stumbling and bumbling their way to the finish line. They’ve lost eight of their last 10. Indeed, this does sound awfully unfair to the bubble teams in the West. You have a right to be angry, Phoenix Suns fans.

At least the Miami Heat (34-40) are taking care of their business. After losing Chris Bosh for the season, less than 24 hours after making the biggest splash of the trade deadline by acquiring Dragic from Phoenix, it looked as if the Heat were in danger of falling out of playoff contention.

Then Dwyane Wade took over. Miami pulled off back-to-back wins over the Cavaliers and Trail Blazers. Since then, besides an ill-timed loss to the Bucks, they have been beating the teams they are supposed to be beating. Given their competition, that should be enough to ensure that the Heat will, at worst, enter the postseason as a No7 seed.

Houston Rockets regain Howard, lose Beverley

This has been an uncommonly punishing season as far as injuries go. Every item of potentially good news is almost inevitably followed by an update describing a freak accident, an unexpected setback or an ominous-sounding visit for a second opinion.

Take the Houston Rockets. As expected, the Rockets welcomed back center Dwight Howard last Wednesday, but they received some brutal news soon after: point guard Patrick Beverley would need season-ending ligament surgery on his left wrist. It’s unfortunate timing for a talented team hoping to survive the grueling gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.

Beverly’s injury is one of the few you’ll hear this time of year that’s actually as serious as it sounds. At this point in the regular season, nearly every significant injury could be called a season-ending injury, particularly if the playoffs aren’t in the cards. If you happen to be on the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks, a hangnail or slight sniffle might be sufficient.

The Sacramento Kings, for instance, are contemplating shutting down DeMarcus Cousins. The center has been playing hurt for weeks, it’s possible he’s never been healthy since his franchise-altering bout with meningitis. It makes no sense to keep Cousins out there if there’s anything even remotely wrong with him, but this would be an odd time for the Kings organization to suddenly start making sense.

Meanwhile, despite some teases, there’s still no official word on the return of the two players who could help their teams the most during this stretch, Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Paul George of the Indiana Pacers. At this point, it feels like we’re going to be receiving nonstop “Rose/George could return shortly” news updates until their respective teams are eliminated.

The NBA’s respond to Indiana’s ‘religious freedom’ act

The fallout from Indiana passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which many believe essentially makes it legal for businesses and organizations to discriminate against LGBT individuals, continues to be felt in the basketball world.

While at the moment the main focus is on the NCAA, especially with this weekend’s Final Four taking place in Indianapolis, they aren’t the only sports organization concerned about the law’s potential consequences. Last week, the NBA, WNBA, Indiana Pacers and the Indiana Fever responded with this statement:

The game of basketball is grounded in long established principles of inclusion and mutual respect. We will continue to ensure that all fans, players and employees feel welcome at all NBA and WNBA events in Indiana and elsewhere.

While Herb Simon, owner of the Pacers and Fever, added the following:

The Indiana Pacers, Indiana Fever and Bankers Life Fieldhouse have the strongest possible commitment to inclusion and non-discrimination on any basis. Everyone is always welcome at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That has always been the policy from the very beginning of the Simon family’s involvement and it always will be.

While, he’s not officially part of the Pacers organization, there may be no other athlete more strongly associated with the franchise than Reggie Miller. The former Indiana shooting guard and current TNT analyst took to Twitter to condemn the law:

Fellow analyst Charles Barkley, no stranger to strong statements, also spoke up against it:

Discrimination in any form is unacceptable to me. As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities.

Unlike the NCAA, the NBA does not have a marquee event happening in Indiana soon – although it’s at least mathematically possible that the Pacers could end up in the postseason – so they don’t have to make any strong statements about the law just yet.

Still, considering that the NBA became the first major American sports league to feature an openly gay player in Jason Collins, and the sport’s deep roots in the state of Indiana, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t hear more from the world of professional basketball on this matter.

Other things we’ve learned

• How closed captioning gave the Sacramento Kings’ Nik Stauskas the best nickname in the NBA: #SauceCastillo.

• Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explained why he converted to Islam.

• Andrew Wiggins dunked on Rudy Gobert. Twice.

• Phil Jackson confidant Charley Rosen has this to say about the New York Knicks president’s offseason needs: “They need a center with a big butt to hold space. They didn’t have anybody like that.’’ Might I suggest a theme song for what will apparently be a colorful Knicks offseason?

• An absolutely soul-crushing overtime game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers over the Philadelphia 76ers may have hurt their chances at keeping their top-five protected draft pick. The Lakers can’t even successfully lose this season – and fans are displeased.

• For those of you who might be in a ‘what is the most unexpected thing a player will get fined for this season’ pool: did anyone have ‘Glen Davis getting a $15,000 b for kicking a seat cushion into the stands’? If so, you won!

• Just because the Golden State Warriors have nothing left to prove, doesn’t mean that Steph Curry isn’t going to stop doing things like this:

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Hunter Felt, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 1st April 2015 14.32 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010