NBA Playoff Picture 2017: Standings, Top Storylines Entering Season’s Final Week

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OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 04:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts after scoring against the Minnesota Timberwolves during an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on April 4, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Featured ColumnistApril 10, 2017

As the 2016-17 season approaches Wednesday night’s finish line, fans will prepare for another postseason scarce on surprises. 

To the dismay of nobody, the Golden State Warriors wield the NBA’s best record as the Cleveland Cavaliers look to sit atop the Eastern Conference. This also won’t shock anyone, but the San Antonio Spurs are still great at basketball.

Yet some fans might have expected a smoother path to a Cavs-Warriors Finals rematch. Instead, Cleveland must win its final two games to avoid the worst record of any team featuring since 2007-08. They also may surrender the top spot to the Boston Celtics a week after making a major statement at their expense.

As unreasonable as it may feel to read about a 66-win team, Golden State faced more adversity than expected when adding to the juggernaut. Unfortunately for everyone else, the club’s new star has returned just in time to join a finely tuned machine clicking on all cylinders.

The past five months have mostly served as a bridge to the real show, but the season has entertained nonetheless. With the playoffs approaching, let’s take a look at some storylines to consider during the final week.

Eastern Conference Standings
1 Cleveland Cavaliers – y 51-29
2 Boston Celtics – x 51-29
3 Toronto Raptors – y 50-31
4 Washington Wizards – x 48-32
5 Atlanta Hawks – x 42-38
6 Milwaukee Bucks – x 41-39
7 Indiana Pacers 40-40
8 Chicago Bulls 39-41
Miami Heat 39-41
ESPN.com; y=clinched division, x=clinched playoff berth
Western Conference Standings
1 Golden State Warriors – z 66-14
2 San Antonio Spurs – y 61-19
3 Houston Rockets – x 54-26
4 Los Angeles Clippers -x 49-31
5 Utah Jazz -x 49-31
6 Oklahoma City Thunder -x 46-34
7 Memphis Grizzlies – x 43-38
8 Portland Trail Blazers – x 40-40
ESPN.com; z=clinched conference, y-clinched division, x=clinched playoff berth

 

Can Cavaliers Clinch East’s No. 1 Seed?

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 5: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics during the game on April 5, 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Onlookers expecting the Cavaliers to flip the switch to postseason mode received some vindication Wednesday, when they staked their claim to the Eastern Conference’s top seed by trouncing the Celtics.

James compiled 36 points, but their defense dominating during a 114-91 victory especially relieved restless fans. Two straight losses to the Atlanta Hawks, however, dwindled any good will earned.

Two days after a 14-point home loss, they squandered a 26-point lead in the fourth quarter to lose, 126-125, in overtime. During Sunday’s stunning collapse, Cleveland’s tumultuous defense again reared its ugly head.

According to , the Cavs are tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for 21st in defensive rating. After the —before Sunday’s loss to Atlanta—only the Los Angeles Lakers have fared worse in defensive efficiency:

Worst NBA Defensive Ratings (Post All-Star Break)
30 Los Angeles Lakers 112.5
29 Cleveland Cavaliers 111.2
28 Denver Nuggets 111.1
27 Washington Wizards 111.0
26 Minnesota Timberwolves 110.6
NBA.com, as of Sunday

ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh shared a chart from Positive Residual tracking their declining performance:

Such lackluster play during the closing week could cost Cleveland the No. 1 seed. Although the Cavs hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Celtics, they face two tougher final games: 

Cavaliers/Celtics’ Final Season Schedule
Mon., April 10 at Miami Heat vs. Brooklyn Nets
Wed., April 12 vs. Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
ESPN.com

The defensive troubles certainly challenge their championship credentials, but not breezing to a top seed is perfectly ordinary. They finished second behind the Atlanta Hawks in 2014-15 and one game above the Toronto Raptors last year.

Their 23-point win at TD Garden also suggests sliding to No. 2 wouldn’t make a major difference. Then again, it’d be a nice perk for a Cleveland club 20-19 away from Quicken Loans Arena. And if its defense doesn’t shape up, the defending conference champs will fall regardless of the venue.

 

East’s Late-Seed Chaos

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 29:  Josh Richardson #0 and Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat celebrate in the fourth quarter against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 29, 2017 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree

Elsa/Getty Images

Although the Cavaliers, Celtics, Raptors and Washington Wizards are still jostling for playoff positioning, all four Eastern Conference squads will commence the first round at home. After that, five teams—three fighting for the final two spots—are separated by a mere three games.

Among those five, only the Miami Heat wield a positive point differential (plus-0.9 per game.) They also close the season against Cleveland and Washington, muddying their path to a remarkable comeback. 

They beat the Cavs—once without Kevin Love and twice with the Big Three all sitting—in March, but James and Co. should be motivated to lock down the No. 1 seed while avoiding a Round 1 encounter with Erik Spoelstra’s red-hot squad.

Conversely, the Chicago Bulls received the perfect schedule to sneak into the postseason. They have instead squandered favorable matchups versus the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets.

PHILADELPHIA,PA -  APRIL 6 :  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls points downcourt against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on April 6, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

On Saturday, a returning didn’t help the Bulls protect a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter against Brooklyn. Per , Bulls star Jimmy Butler did not panic after losing to an NBA-worst 20-60 team.

“We’re still in this thing,” Butler said. “So whether or not it’s a team we should’ve beaten, they’re a good team. They’ve been playing as well as anybody. They’ve got guys who play incredibly hard.”

Chicago—who swept the season series against Cleveland—can avoid a collapse by beating the Orlando Magic and Nets at home. The team’s maddening tendency to play up and down to the competition could bode for an intriguing first-round slate, but don’t expect an upset from one of the league’s worst shooting squads.

 

Warriors Peaking at Perfect Time?

Maybe expectations were too high. The Warriors won’t match last year’s record-setting 73 wins, but they have notched 66 with 116.2 points per game.

Adding another MVP hasn’t hindered their unselfish ways. Their 70.7  tops the Association, and NBA.com/Stats recently noted their ascent into exclusive territory:

Shortly after Durant went down with a leg injury to end February, they lost three straight games. While of course not their first time enduring three consecutive defeats, it hadn’t happened in the last two regular seasons.

Since the hiccup, the Warriors have stockpiled 14 straight wins by an average margin of 14.7 points per game. ESPN highlighted their hot streak before a returning Durant posted 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in Saturday night’s 123-101 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans:

Per , the former Oklahoma City Thunder star was excited to rejoin the rolling team.

“It felt normal again,” Durant said following the win. “I’m a basketball player. I love playing basketball; that’s my favorite thing to do. So to feel like I’m part of the team, to feel like I’m a part of this energy that we have, it feels great.”

Golden State has submitted at least 106 points in all 14 victories. has rediscovered his MVP shooting form during the stretch, averaging 27.5 points per game with a 47.8 percentage (64-of-134) from long range.

The streak includes a 110-98 victory over the Spurs, who have once again quietly exceeded 60 wins. Their  will pose a challenge if both powerhouses last to the Western Conference Finals, but the top-seeded Warriors would enter strong favorites due to their sizzling finish.

 

Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of .



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