Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 13, 2017

Uncertainty Creeps In As The NBA Playoffs Begin

The NBA’s regular season has ended, but not without a few surprises. With the sixteen team playoff field set the postseason, which begins on Saturday, will not include any contestants with losing records. It’s the second year in a row for that happy result, after three straight seasons which saw one or more teams that couldn’t climb over the .500 mark still qualify for the playoffs. Up until the end it looked very much like this year’s playoff field would again include teams with losing records. But the Portland Trailblazers won seven of their last ten games to slip into the eighth and last Western Conference playoff spot at an even 41-41. The Chicago Bulls mirrored Portland’s finish, record and seeding in the Eastern Conference, while the Indiana Pacers closed with a five game winning streak to claim the seventh seed at 42-40.

If avoiding the unsightly presence of a losing club or two getting some undeserved postseason playing time was a surprise, the result at the other end of the Eastern Conference bracket was a shock. The defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers went 11-14 over their final twenty-five games including four straight losses to wrap up the regular schedule. That desultory finish allowed the Boston Celtics to overtake them and claim their first Conference title since 2009. As fans from all around New England will be quick to remind anyone who will listen, that was the year the Celtics’ Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen led Boston to its first NBA title in more than two decades.

Those eager fans have yet to convince many pundits that the lofty position of the Green atop the Eastern Conference seedings will again translate into a championship. Despite Cleveland’s repeated defensive lapses down the stretch most folks who are paid to predict these things still see the Cavaliers matching up against the Golden State Warriors when the Finals get underway on June 1st. For example, the brackets of four out of five experts at CBSSports.com end with Warriors versus Cavs, with only one outlier picking Toronto to win the East (all five have Golden State winning the title). Boston coach Brad Stevens insists that “Cleveland is the team to beat” in the East. “There’s no question about that,” he told reporters after his squad closed the regular schedule with a 112-94 win over Milwaukee.

Stevens may be doing more than trying to temper expectations for his own squad. After all, he need only look back little more than a week to when the Cavaliers ran over the Celtics 114-91 at the TD Garden. While that game proved to be the last regular season win for Cleveland, it was a reminder that when LeBron James and his teammates get their act together they remain a dominant force. But the notion that teams can “flip a switch” and go from merely good to truly great essentially at will is often an exercise in wishful thinking. At the very least, it’s clear that the upper levels of the NBA have grown more competitive since we last looked in on the league in January.

Back then there were four teams winning over seventy percent of their games. In addition to the Warriors and Cavaliers, San Antonio and Houston had clearly separated themselves from the rest of the league. But when the final regular season standings were posted only Golden State and San Antonio still had such lofty winning percentages; and as impressive as both the Warriors and Spurs are, both teams ended the season with six fewer wins than last year.

Led by MVP candidate James Harden the Rockets are still very good, but after finishing twelve games behind the Warriors Houston is no longer disguised as a potential super team. With Cleveland’s second half regression, the Eastern Conference is a thorough muddle. Boston’s record of 53-29 would only be good enough for fourth place in the Western Conference, barely ensuring home court advantage in the opening round. As it is the Celtics will have home court until they either reach the Finals or are sent packing. But most NBA analysts are used to seeing championship teams built around at least one, and preferably two or even three big stars. That’s where Boston falls short. The Celtics have made it this far on the back of point guard Isaiah Thomas. While the team’s sparkplug has set multiple team scoring records this season, it’s a leap to place him in the same pantheon of heroes as James or Harden or Steph Curry.

Fans of any of the top four Eastern Conference seeds can make a case for their team playing its way into the finals. While Cleveland is still the favorite based on pedigree and Boston can point to its regular season, Toronto finished with the same regular season record as the Cavaliers and Washington was perhaps the most surprising team in the league. After many years of mediocrity and a few recent ones of being just good enough to make the playoffs, the Wizards won 49 games, the most by that franchise in nearly four decades.

When the calendar turns to June perhaps fans will be watching Curry versus King James for the third Finals in a row, as so many have expected since the first tipoff of the season back in October. But as much as that result has been deemed inevitable, it’s worth noting that it would also be historic. A three-peat of an identical Finals matchup three years running has never occurred before. At the very least this year’s final regular season standings suggest that there are good reasons to actually play the first three postseason rounds rather than skip right to June. For fans, that means good reasons to watch.

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