More so than in previous years, the end of the NBA’s regular season appears to be much more thrilling. We have the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers tied for the top spot with the Boston Celtics back east. Two other teams are within three games of that No. 1 seed. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the conference playoff standings, the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat continue to play stellar basketball.
Out west, the Golden State Warriors have seemingly righted the ship following initial struggles after Kevin Durant’s injury last month. Though, the Warriors might not be the talk of the conference right now. Instead, we have to look at what the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder are doing to get themselves in position for a run come playoff time.
Sure the likes of the Warriors, Cavaliers and Spurs will be major players when the postseason comes calling. But there’s a whole heck of a lot more to look at here. Who are the most dangerous teams in the NBA heading towards the stretch run? What squads can make life difficult for these title contenders we mentioned above?
Here’s a look at six such teams, starting with the Washington Wizards and MVP candidate John Wall.
After a mini-slump that saw them lose two consecutive games last week, the Wizards are right back on a roll. They have won four of their past five games and are averaging north of 110 points per outing during that span. Despite a loss to the Clippers Wednesday night, the trajectory is very much pointing upwards here.
Now, heading into the final two weeks of the regular season, Washington finds itself just two games out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s a dramatic turnaround from a team that started the season by losing 13 of its first 20 games.
In reality, Washington’s emergence to elite status has had more to do with the team’s supporting cast than the performance of John Wall. If the Wizards can continue to get stellar production from Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. out on the wing, they will prove to be a tough out come playoff time.
That’s only magnified should Washington somehow find a way to earn a top-two seed back east. After all, here’s a team that’s won 24 of its past 28 home dates. Think about that for a second before writing them off.
In the midst of a west coast trip that will take them to Utah and Oakland within a three-day span, the Wizards can further cement their status as a legitimate title contender. They can also prove to be frauds going up against the best the Western Conference has to offer.
Quin Snyder’s squad is dangerous for a couple reasons. First off, Utah poses a tremendous mismatch for a potential second-round playoff series against either Golden State or San Antonio. The length of Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Boris Diaw and Trey Lyles will make for a bullish series against either of those two top-end teams.
It’s also important to note that Utah boasts a 46-29 record and will earn one of the top-five seeds in the Western Conference Playoffs. That will assuredly lead to a first-round matchup with either the Clippers or Thunder, teams that Jazz boast a combined 2-6 record against. That’s where it will get difficult for the Jazz.
With all that said, this isn’t the same team that vied for and ultimately fell short of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. No longer are the Jazz a team without that one true star. All-Star Gordon Hayward has improved in each of his first seven seasons. This year alone, he’s averaging north of 21 points per game while shooting at a stellar 46 percent clip from the field. Add in the presence of Rodney Hood and George Hill out on the perimeter, and there’s a lot to like about the Jazz’ wing game.
Depending on how Utah finishes up the season, it could be looking at home-court advantage in the first round with a potentially advantageous second-round matchup. That makes this up-and-coming team extremely dangerous when all is said and done.
Tuesday night’s thrilling late-game win over the Detroit Pistons pretty much positioned Miami for a playoff spot. It is now 1.5 games up on the Chicago Bulls for that final seed and tied with Indiana for the seventh spot. Considering Miami started the season with an 11-30 mark, this is simply remarkable. After all, Erik Spoelstra’s squad boasts a 26-8 mark since then.
The better news for fans in South Beach is that this Heat squad could very well face a Cleveland Cavaliers team that’s been in the midst of a tailspin in recent weeks. At 37-38, the Heat are only two games out of a top-five seed back east. They are also 2-1 against the Cavaliers on the season.
That’s where it will get interesting assuming Miami does earn a trip to the postseason. It is a combined 1-6 against Boston and Toronto on the year. As with everything here, matchups will play a prominent role.
As it stands, Miami remains one of the hottest teams in the game. Goran Dragic is playing at an elite-level manning the point. Hassan Whiteside continues to do his thing on the low-post. And if a surprising Dion Waiters is able to return from a sprained ankle before the end of the regular season, this remains one of the most-dangerous under-the-radar teams in the Association.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Two words. Russell Westbrook. He makes everyone around him dangerous. It could be a castoff from another team. Potentially even a deep bench player. It really doesn’t matter. What Russ is doing thus far this season is absolutely absurd.
Let’s just look at Wednesday night as a case study here. Westbrook willed his Thunder team to a comeback victory on the road against the hapless Orlando Magic.
How did he do it? Well, the MVP candidate scored 57 points while tallying 13 rebounds and 11 assists. It was his second 50-point triple-double of the season, matching James Harden for the most in single-season history. Did we mention that Westbrook also broke Kevin Durant’s franchise record for the most 40-point games in single-season history?
Averaging 31.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game, Russ is having himself an historical statistical season. He also has the Thunder as the sixth seed in the Western Conference and within striking distance of earning a top-four seed. He’s doing this without Kevin Durant in the mix. Think about that for a second before you conclude that the Thunder themselves are not a dangerous team.
The real question here is whether Oklahoma City can get consistent scoring production from anyone outside of Westbrook during the postseason. In reality, this has been a major problem against some of the top team the west has to offer. After all, Oklahoma City is 2-7 on the season against the top-three seeds in the conference.
This is where the likes of Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams must step up. They need to find a way to pack a scoring punch when it counts the most. If this happens, OKC will be a tough out come playoff time.
Following their huge win over the Boston Celtics Wednesday night, the Bucks find themselves tied for the fifth seed back east. It’s been an amazing late-season turnabout for a team that stood eight games under .500 in mid February. Since then, Jason Kidd and Co. have put up a tremendous 17-6 mark.
Now, the Bucks have gone from potential playoff contender to a team that could do some serious damage in the first round. It really starts with do-it-all forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has taken his game to a while new level this season.
The still young 22-year-old is averaging 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting at a 53 percent clip from the field. If he were in a larger market, we would definitely have him in the MVP conversation right now.
Though, it must be noted that Milwaukee’s turnaround began around the same time Kris Middleton returned from an injury that cost him the first three-plus months of the season. Since his return, Milwaukee boasts a solid 17-8 record.
His presence has been much needed after fellow star wing Jabari Parker was lost for the season due to yet another torn ACL. While that surely hurt Milwaukee, Middleton’s average of 14.9 points has provided a major boost.
If Milwaukee were to somehow surpass Atlanta for the fifth seed back east, it would be looking at a likely first-round matchup with Toronto. The Raptors just saw their six-game winning streak snapped Wednesday and have posted a pedestrian 23-21 mark since late December. Needless to say, this isn’t a potential series our friends up north would be looking forward to. With the defending champion Cavaliers also struggling, that could be a very interesting first-round series as well.
Portland Trail Blazers
— NBA (@NBA) March 29, 2017
We said this earlier in the season. Blazers general manager Neil Olshey simply needed to find a way to get Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum some help. When this squad was struggling throughout the first several months of the year, it became readily apparent that Portland’s supporting cast wasn’t up to snuff.
Enter into the equation center Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired from Denver with a first-round pick in exchange for Mason Plumlee during February’s trade deadline. All the 22-year-old big man has done since then is put up 15.4 points and 10-plus rebounds per game.
More than simple stats, Nurkic’s scoring ability inside has given Portland a tremendous balance to go with its star-studded backcourt. Portland boasts a 13-6 mark since this trade and now finds itself with a one-game lead over Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot.
We know what you’re thinking. That likely means a first-round matchup with the two-time defending Western Conference champs and an early exit in the playoffs. Sure the Warriors are heads and shoulders above other teams in the NBA at this specific moment. But remember, Portland played this squad extremely tough in the postseason last spring. That came without Nurkic in the mix.
In no way does this mean that Portland will upset the Warriors in the first round. Instead, it will provide the NBA Finals favorites a difficult playoff matchup. That in and of itself makes Terry Stotts squad dangerous.