Late-season NBA games should not be painted with the same brush.
You could certainly comb through NBA history and find late-season games (Game 70 or later out of 82) which broke ties to determine a top-two seed in the playoffs, altering the balance of power in one half of the NBA postseason. You could just as certainly find games between top-tier teams which either exposed the flaws of the loser or the added strengths of the winner, foreshadowing what was to come in April and May.
Late-season NBA games can mean a lot. In a world governed by case-by-case analysis, however, this season is not the one to cite if you’re looking for meaningful late-season revelations.
A perfect case in point: Monday night’s Thunder-ous victory by Oklahoma City in Toronto.
OKC flew into Canada and flew by the Raptors by 19 points in a game the Thunder once led by 26. Russell Westbrook — how should we describe him? — was, to put it simply, Russell Westbrook. He did what he so often does, dazzling the Toronto crowd with his latest triple-double: 26, 11 and 12 (points, boards, assists). Kevin Durant didn’t post a triple-double, the slacker. He “merely” went for 34, 8 and 8. The two combined to concede only four turnovers. They were simply their best selves, and when Oklahoma City gets the best Russ and K.D. have to offer, well, the third seed in the West can truly bring the Thunder.
With OKC on an eight-game winning streak — the last two wins coming over the Raptors and the San Antonio Spurs — it’s easy to think that this team has solved its issues. However, just the slightest peek underneath the surface shows that San Antonio was resting roughly half its roster on Saturday against the Thunder. On Monday, Toronto star Kyle Lowry had his elbow drained after the game, a response to health concerns which have been lingering for the past several weeks. Lowry hit just 4 of 14 shots, a big reason the Raptors couldn’t keep up with Oklahoma City.
This is not the Thunder’s fault, of course — they can’t help how their opponents play, or what their opponents’ injury statuses might be on gamenights. Nevertheless, it is what it is: OKC has defeated Toronto with an ailing Lowry; the resting Spurs; and — a few weeks ago — Boston without Jae Crowder. An eight-game winning streak is always impressive, but how much meaning one can glean from this particular streak is an open question.
It might not mean nothing, but can it mean everything? The point here is not to give an answer; the point is to say that the answer is unclear.
Such is the 2015-2016 NBA season — it’s the world we live in.
What about the Raptors? Rather than jump to the conclusion that this team is showing signs of being in trouble for the playoffs, the responsible reaction is to say that this result is inconclusive. Lowry needs to become healthy again, and frankly, we’re not going to learn too much about Toronto until it plays the first two (home) games of the first round. If the Raptors do anything other than grab a 2-0 series lead in what will likely be the 2-7 matchup in the East, questions will persist until Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can authoritatively answer them. That’s simply where we are right now.
The San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors play twice more this season, but who among us — anyone who covers the NBA — thinks that either matchup is going to tell us something important about a possible Western Conference Finals clash? The Spurs have already entered “rest the frontline players” mode under Gregg Popovich, and one highly suspects that if the Warriors are on track for 73 wins even with a loss in San Antonio, Steve Kerr will sit his main guys in that game.
There’s also the predictable late-season whirlwind of controversy surrounding LeBron James, as a media ecosystem built on pageviews and clicks tries to manufacture a grim picture in Cleveland. Yet, we can’t really make strong pronouncements about how bad the situation is for the Cavs until they get tested in the Eastern Conference playoffs. No huge win or ugly loss in these next few weeks will tell us anything about how prepared the Cavs will be under Tyronn Lue when the postseason begins.
It’s just that kind of season, everyone. Other seasons have offered late-season games with more of a revelatory nature.
This season? OKC-Toronto and other late-March or early-April matchups involving top-six teams in the league just don’t offer any clear answers.