The long slog of the regular season gets extra sloggy this week, as more playoff races get decided and teams expand rotations. For some fans, this is a week to ignore, but that’s not an option here. And good news: There are still a few things to watch, and some of them are even important! Here’s what I’ll have my eye on as we approach what should be a dynamite postseason:
• Memphis vs New Orleans for the No. 7 seed
The Hornets have had a blip of top-notch offensive play in the last week, with Carl Landry ably filling in for David West, but the bigger picture suggests that drawing the Hornets instead of the Grizzlies will be a boon for the Lakers or Spurs. The Hornets have muddled along at .500 since their 11-1 start, while the Grizzlies have gone 30-14 since a 14-19 start and look to be, at worst, an exhausting first-round out.
The Spurs especially are likely hoping Memphis vaults past the Hornets and into the seventh spot. The Lakers, with all their size, are perhaps the only team equipped to thwart the Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph combination. The Spurs don’t have that kind of size, and they have struggled with Memphis in splitting four games this season. San Antonio would still have an edge, especially since its whip-smart, fast-moving offense has the potential to serve up the perfect punishment for the Grizzlies’ tendency to overplay passing lanes and gamble for steals. But still: Any rational team would prefer the Hornets to the Grizzlies today.
Memphis and New Orleans are tied at 44-33, and both have pretty favorable schedules the rest of the way. Memphis has more cupcakes — three games combined against the Clippers and Kings, both of whom have been feisty of late — but the Hornets’ late-season schedule has gotten easier now that two opponents (Phoenix and Utah) are finished and a third (Dallas) will almost certainly rest its core guys in the finale.
This all makes the Memphis-New Orleans head-to-head game on Sunday a must-watch. If New Orleans wins, it’ll pick up a game on the Grizzlies and clinch the tiebreaker by virtue of what would be a 3-1 head-to-head edge. If Memphis wins, the Grizzlies at least give themselves a chance to win the tiebreaker because they’d move to 8-8 against divisional opponents (the next tiebreaker after head-to-head). The Hornets are 8-5 against their mates in the Southwest, and they could fall into a tie with Memphis if they lose their three remaining divisional games — a home game against the Rockets on Wednesday, plus visits to Memphis and Dallas. That scenario is unlikely, but if it happens, the Grizzlies would win the next tiebreaker (record against Western Conference teams).
This, to me, is the most compelling race left.
• The West’s top seed
This one may end Tuesday night. If the Spurs win in Atlanta, it will be very difficult for them to lose the top seed, regardless of what happens a week from today against the Lakers. San Antonio’s other three remaining games come at home against Utah and Sacramento and in Phoenix for what is the final game for each team.
• The dregs
Tuesday’s DVR winner in the Lowe household among the early games will be Detroit-Washington, since I missed quite a week for both Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche during my mini-vacation. With some of the league’s elite relaxing a bit, this week is also a nice time to give a bit of extra attention to the Kings (winners of five of their last seven) and the Wolves (riding the Anthony Randolph roller-coaster).
Blatche provides a cautionary tale for those looking for meaning in late-season surges on hopeless teams. He finished last season like a monster, and though that run of play lasted much longer than just one week, it did not carry over to this season when it still mattered in Washington. (And yes, Wiz fans, health may have had something to do with Blatche’s dismal play.) Even so, it’s fun to watch for progress, and it’s good for guys like Crawford to get extended run, if only so their teams can learn a bit more about them. And if Crawford can really carve out a solid NBA role, the Kirk Hinrich/Mike Bibby trade will end up as an absolute home run for the Wizards.
• The 2-7, 3-6 side of the East bracket
I’m not sure how meaningful these battles are, particularly because Lou Williams’ balky hamstring shrinks the gap a bit between the Sixers and Knicks as first-round threats. But it’s worth watching simply to see who wins out between the Heat and Celtics for the right to have a potential seventh game at home in the conference semifinals. The two teams are tied in the loss column, but Boston has already won the tiebreaker given its 3-0 whitewash in the head-to-head matchup so far. The Celtics and Heat face each other once more, on Sunday in Miami, in a game that could determine who gets the second seed.
The schedule edge beyond that game goes to Miami. If the Heat beat Boston, it’s very likely they will win each of their last five games (in order: vs. Milwaukee, vs. Charlotte, vs. Boston, on the road against a Hawks team locked into the fifth seed, and at the hapless Raptors). You can’t quite say the same for Boston, if only because the Celtics go to Chicago on Thursday. If Boston manages to beat Philadelphia on Tuesday and follow that with a win against Chicago, the Celtics have at least a chance to control their own destiny in the race for No. 2. Their remaining schedule consists of two games against Washington and a finale against a Knicks team that could be set in terms of seeding by then.
Still, the Celtics may have to win its final six games to beat out Miami, and that’s a tough task given their health issues and their on-again, off-again passion for the regular season.
That No. 2 seed matters, even beyond the home-court issue. The Sixers might not be as dangerous as they seem, but they’re an unconventional bunch who defend well, and they’ve looked much better than New York since the trade deadline. New York’s offense is going to be a problem on most nights, but it hasn’t yet shown it can compete consistently against anyone.
The Knicks could still catch Philadelphia, particularly if they win the last head-to-head matchup on Wednesday. That could pull the Knicks even in the loss column (depending on what happens Tuesday, of course), and it would tie the season series at 2-2, pushing the tiebreaker picture into divisional record (still up for grabs).
Nevertheless, this Sixers/Knicks race feels like the sort of thing we obsess about in early April only to forget completely when both teams get smacked in the first round.