There’s less than two weeks left in the NBA regular season. Most teams have just five or six games left to complete the painting that is their 2016-17 season. That’s not a lot of time. We’re in in April and what was a blank canvas in October just needs the final touches for 14 teams that will be calling it a day. However, which teams are putting the final touches on their season and which teams are getting ready for the next layer is still up in the air for a few select teams.
The end of the season is great for so many reasons. It’s incredible to see how teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves grew, or failed to grow, under a new regime, or how Mike Malone was able to shape the Denver Nuggets into something bigger and better than what they were in 2015-16. Truth be told, even the tragedy of the Brooklyn Nets and the brief 31 games of Joel Embiid with the Philadelphia 76ers, cut short by another injury, is great to see.
Anyway, I vaguely connect the dots between failure and something bigger that will be remembered as another piece of sporting history. Let’s look at the few remaining competitors that have a horse in the playoff race – one foot in the lottery, one foot in playoff money.
This one is much easier, so we’ll start here.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers currently hold the eighth spot in the West. Portland is a solid 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies, the seventh-place team. They’re also clear of Denver, in ninth, by two games.
They have an interesting remaining path. Their prospects were looking great, until Jusuf Nurkic fractured his leg. Nurkic has been a revelation since joining the Trail Blazers at the trade deadline, but now Terry Stotts’ team will be without the revelation, looking to hold on to a playoff spot for the next six games.
The schedule itself isn’t exactly awful, but it’s also not favorable. They have two games against the Timberwolves, both winnable, and two games against the Utah Jazz, less winnable. They also have a favorable matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans and a possibly unwinnable date with the San Antonio Spurs.
If Portland can finish the season 3-3, it would be safe to assume that they make the post-season because…
The Nuggets have a lot of ground to make up. Being two games behind the Trail Blazers, even the fantastic services of Nikola Jokic aren’t going to be enough on their own.
It’s going to be an uphill battle, but fun to watch. They pulled off a huge win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, a game that went down to the wire. Jokic is exciting, but they’ve also got young guys like Jamal Murray to throw into the mix.
Denver also has six games left. They get two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, two against the New Orleans Pelicans, and one versus the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks.
The Nuggets should be able to split the games with the Pels and Thunder, but Houston will be a big favorite if they put James Harden on the floor, even though they’ve lost Sam Dekker to injury with a fractured hand. Even if Denver beats Dallas, it looks like 4-2 is an optimistic outlook for Denver, and that would still leave them a game behind Portland if the Blazers can finish 3-3.
This race is bananas and because there are so many more teams involved, I’ll try to be brief with each remaining contender.
They’re in fifth, they have five games left. Their lead over the ninth seed is three games. Not an easy schedule left, they play four of five on the road. Fortunately, they’re probably better than at least three of the teams they’ll face. The biggest test will be the final game of the regular season against the Boston Celtics. That will be a road game and if playoff positioning is on the line, it’s going to be must-see TV. Bucks make the playoffs.
This team is very concerning. They’ve been free-falling since Paul Millsap picked up an injury to his left knee. It’s going to be tough for them to stay in the race, despite currently holding the sixth spot. They’re only one game ahead of the seventh spot, lost to the holder of that spot just a few days ago, and then lost to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. Rough times for the Hawks. Oh, did I mention that of their five remaining games, they have one against Boston and two against the Cleveland Cavaliers? Yeah, it’s not good. They also have showdowns with the Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers left on the slate, and both of those teams are chasing them in the standings.
Nothing about this team makes sense, you can read all my thoughts about them over at FanSided’s Pippen Ain’t Easy. They’re on a hot streak right now, led by Jimmy Butler. They have the softest remaining schedule of any team, so they better make the playoffs. The big question is this – can they take over the sixth spot?
The Bulls have the tiebreaker over the Heat and are one game ahead of them in the standings. The outlook isn’t great and that’s too bad, because Miami went on an incredible win streak earlier this season to force themselves into the playoff discussion. Now, they’ll have to face the suddenly hot Charlotte Hornets, also chasing the playoffs, and then they’ll have the Toronto Raptors, Cavaliers, and two games with the Washington Wizards. Pretty close to as difficult a playoff path as is possible over the course of the final five games.
Indiana might just have played the defining game of their season. They also have just five games left, but they lost a pivotal double overtime thriller to Cleveland on Sunday. They got an incredible effort from Paul George, who just lit up the Cavs, LeBron James in particular. The schedule gives them three home games, two on the road and the final three games are against the 76ers, Magic, and the suddenly very bad Hawks. Bulls hold the tiebreaker over both the Heat and Pacers, so if they can’t make up the game they trail Chicago, and then add another to it, they’re gonna have to win and still be at the mercy of how the teams ahead of them perform.
This is going to be fun. Big matchups abound for the Hornets down the stretch. They’ll face five teams, all Eastern Conference foes, all currently in the playoffs. They get a crack at the Heat, Hawks and Bucks head-to-head and then have games with the Wizards and Celtics on the schedule. It isn’t going to be easy, having to deal with teams like the Celtics and Wizards, but they’ve been playing really good basketball of late. They’re on a three-game win streak and 7-3 over their last 10 games. They’re really on the outside right now, but only one game behind the Heat and Pacers, two games behind the Bulls, three behind Atlanta.
So there you have it. The West is mostly decided at this point, though there are some twists and turns left for the Trail Blazers and Nuggets. As for the East, it’s going to be both extremely fun and very chaotic. Almost every team in the hunt has games left against the other teams chasing a spot. For what most would consider a fairly mediocre grouping of teams, the next 10 days are going to produce some of the most exciting basketball possible for the end of an NBA season. Enjoy.