It’s been a very long and taxing campaign — no, not the presidential primary race, but the NBA season.
This journey to the NBA playoffs has been cleaner and clearer in the Western Conference, where the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have lorded themselves over the rest of the conference and the league from start to finish. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers have settled into the third and fourth spots, and it’s hard to see any of those four teams not making the second round, barring a key injury.
In the Eastern Conference, however, the path from Game 1 to Game 82 — now more than 80 percent done — has been nothing but a tease at several points along the way.
The earlier portion of the East season witnessed the utter inability of a single non-Cleveland East team to sustain a good patch of play for more than four to five games. The arrival of winter witnessed Toronto’s surge into second, but everyone else remained fairly jumbled in the 3 through 11 spots. In the second half of January and most of February, the Boston Celtics stopped losing home games to become the third team in the East, and it seemed that a clear hierarchy was developing in the conference, at least somewhat akin to the more ordered West.
However, Toronto has stumbled ever since it defeated Cleveland a few weeks ago. The Raptors still can’t figure out the Chicago Bulls, winners of nine straight against We The North. The injury to Jae Crowder has hampered Boston, putting the Celtics at risk of falling into the 4-5 matchup, which they’d dearly want to avoid in order to reach the East Finals. The Miami Heat have been playing a lot without Chris Bosh this winter, but they’ve endured all sorts of fluctuations in their level of play this season. The jury’s still out on them.
How many East teams are easily readable at this point?
The Hawks looked dead a few weeks ago, as I wrote here. They proceeded to hold their own on a long Western road swing, featuring a comeback from a double-digit deficit against the Clippers. They also handled the Jazz in Salt Lake City, not an easy thing. They’ve returned home and have smacked two likely playoff teams, Memphis and Indiana.
They’ll probably take one more nosedive before the regular season’s over — well, maybe not, but the point is that you never really know what you’re getting with a non-Cleveland (or at the bottom, non-Brooklyn, non-Philadelphia) East team this season. The Hornets are an overachiever’s dream — they’ll almost certainly be in the playoffs, and they probably rate as a team which can comfortably be assessed at this stage of the campaign. However, they’re the exception which proves the rule.
Indiana, Detroit, the perpetually mercurial Chicago Bulls, the Washington Wizards — who the heck knows what these teams will do?
We have only one more month in which to examine these last few ballclubs as they fight for the final playoff spots in the East.
The teasing season at the end of a long campaign is upon us. The first 65 games or so have teased us enough, but more teases probably lie ahead.
This past Monday night offered a fascinating suggestion — not an indication; a suggestion — of what might sit in front of us over these next four weeks, on the road to Game 82 and the conclusion of the playoff push.
Three games were decided by at least 34 points, all while the Bulls continued their mind-blowing streak over the Raptors in Canada. Perhaps the three blowouts were the product of the winning team’s brilliance, perhaps the result of the losing team’s ineptitude. The tank can simply run on empty when a random mid-March night on the road arrives.
The real question at issue is this: Were these results indicators or oddities? It’s too early to say — after all, one wouldn’t want to make a premature proclamation of a team’s rise or fall; that’s been a risky and often losing proposition in the East this season. More to the point, though, the Wizards insisted they had figured out a season-long bugaboo against the Detroit team they thrashed by 43 points (124-81). The Wizards claimed they had solved pick-and-roll defense.
Hey, maybe Randy Wittman has finally discovered the recipe to the special sauce Washington needs on defense. It’s possible. The Wizards have made late-season adjustments before to reach the second round of the playoffs and threaten to crash the NBA’s last four.
Nevertheless, it’s just one game. The Wizards have offered glimpses of greatness before. They’ve suggested they could make a huge run in the East before.
Not this time.
We’re too far down the road to declare that one team is in position to make a push or that another team in a position of true contention is cooked. No, teases and plot twists and intrigues await us over the next few weeks. Given the way the East season has unfolded to this point, it’s time to bury the long-range views and — to borrow from George Orwell a bit — see what’s right in front of one’s nose.
The teasing 82-game season meets its most teasing segment, the final one before the playoffs.
We’ll see which East teams are able to back up the declaration that — yes, this time we’re serious! — they really have figured things out.