The NBA just celebrated the best of the best during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. It was all fun and games. Stars showed their brightest lights. Youngsters proved themselves to be among the best in the game. But now, with less than two months of regular season action remaining, it’s back to business.
A total of 4.5 games separate the No. 3 seed San Antonio Spurs from a red-hot Utah Jazz team at the No. 10 spot out west. How both teams perform immediately out of the break will tell us where they stand moving forward. Back east, the Cleveland Cavaliers might be riding high after three deadline deals, but they’re only five games up on the Miami Heat for the eighth playoff spot. Can these new pieces continue to mesh well with LeBron James and Co.?
More than any of these teams, the defending champion Golden State Warriors find themselves stuck in a rut we have not seen during the Steve Kerr era. How this star-studded squad performs against lesser competition during the remainder of the regular season will tell us a lot about them.
These are among the eight NBA teams desperate for a scorching finish
The Blake Griffin era started out swimmingly for Detroit. The team won its first five games following the blockbuster deal. But since then, the Pistons have struggled big time. They entered the All-Star Break having loss three of four, including a defeat at the hands of the lowly Atlanta Hawks. Detroit now finds itself as the ninth seed back east, 1.5 games behind the Miami Heat.
With only 24 games remaining, the time is now for these Pistons to make a playoff push. It starts with difficult post-break schedule, including outings against Boston and Toronto over the next week. This will tell us a lot about where the Pistons stand heading into the latter part of the regular season schedule. They don’t have time to continue getting acquainted with Griffin. Such is the nature of the beast when a trade of this magnitude is pulled off mid-season.
Unlike other teams in this article, the Jazz enter crunch time riding an incredible wave. Quin Snyder’s squad heads into Friday’s game against Portland with an NBA-best 11-game winning streak. That includes victories over fellow Western Conference Playoff contenders New Orleans and Portland. Even then, Utah still finds itself in the 10th spot out west. It needs to continue this high level of play to make it to the postseason in an increasingly competitive conference.
That starts with Donovan Mitchell continuing his Rookie of the Year performance and Joe Ingles remaining red hot, the latter of whom is averaging 16.8 points on 55 percent shooting from distance over the past nine games. Over the course of their next four games, the Jazz will be taking on the above-mentioned Blazers as well as Houston and Minnesota before an easy part of their schedule takes hold. They must come out of that stretch showing themselves to be true contenders.
It was just over a month ago that Miami stood at 25-17 on the season and as a top-five seed back east. Since then, it’s been completely downhill. The team headed into the All-Star Break losers of seven of eight, including a bad home defeat at the hands of the Orlando Magic. This eight-game stretch also spanned games against seven playoff contenders.
Needless to say, there’s now some question as to whether these Heat are fool’s gold. This is a question Miami can answer in a big way directly out of the break. Seven of the Heat’s next 10 games come against playoff contenders. Can Dwyane Wade find a way to fit in here? Will Goran Dragic come out of the All-Star Break hot? If neither of those things happen, Miami could soon find itself out of its current spot as the eighth seed back east.
Oklahoma City Thunder
This promises to be a whole lot of fun. Fresh off Paul George and Russell Westbrook doing their thing in Los Angeles, these Thunder will take on the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Saturday. Given that Oklahoma City has defeated the defending champs both times they’ve played this season by a combined 37 points, this is yet another barometer to show where the Thunder stand out west.
After a stretch of eight consecutive wins, Oklahoma City entered the break losing six of nine. It’s now important that Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Co. put together a more consistent stretch of action over the final two dozen games of the season. Currently only two games behind San Antonio for the third seed, that would guarantee the Thunder home-court advantage in the first round and the possibility of being able to miss Houston and/or Golden State in the conference semifinals. More than that, a strong final stretch to the season and a deep run in the postseason would almost ensure George returns to OKC in free agency. These final six-plus weeks of the season are huge in that they will determine whether the Thunder remain competitive out west or have to refuel midstream this summer.
Joel Embiid was one of the stars of the unofficial first half of the season. He took that stardom directly to Los Angeles and the break with his Sixers having matched a season-high five-game winning streak. Now, entering the unofficial second half of the season, the hope in Philadelphia is that this team takes that next step from bottom-rung playoff contender to potential home court in the first round of the postseason. That starts with a relatively easy two-game stretch against Chicago and Orlando before the Sixers venture on a nine-game span in which they’ll play six Eastern Conference Playoff contenders.
It may comes as a shock to realize Philadelphia is just 3.5 games out of a top-three seed. Continued stellar performances from the supporting cast behind Embiid and Ben Simmons is going to be absolutely huge here. How will Marco Belinelli fit into the rotation after he was picked up in free agency a little while back? Is J.J. Redick’s first half leg injury completely behind him? Will the Sixers get anything of substance from rookie No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz this season? These are the huge questions for a team that’s suddenly ready to make some noise back east
San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard remains out indefinitely after returning for just nine games from a quad injury he suffered in last year’s playoffs. Realistically, the Spurs have no real hope of contending come playoff time without Leonard on the court. How San Antonio plays over the next several weeks without Leonard will determine whether we’re even looking at playoff basketball on the river walk. Despite currently being No. 3 out west, the Spurs are just three games up on New Orleans for the final playoff spot. That goes to show us just how tight the Western Conference race is right now.
The issue here for San Antonio is that all but five of its final 23 games come against playoff contenders, including 10 against teams chasing this squad out west. Any major hiccups here like we’ve seen during the Spurs’ current stretch (losers of five out of their past six), and it might not matter when/if Leonard is actually able to return. That starts Friday on the road against a surprising Nuggets team.
We absolutely love how the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs have played since the trio of deals they made on trade deadline day earlier this month. After losing 14 of their past 21 with their previous roster, the Cavs won four consecutive heading into the break. That starts with the acquisitions of Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill and Rodney Hood, who are combining for an average of 58.5 points on well over 50 percent shooting in the two games they’ve played together.
For the Cavaliers, this uptick in performance must continue throughout the final two dozen or so games. Despite this recent string of success, Cleveland still sits at the third seed back east, just a handful of games up on Miami for the final postseason spot. With seven of their next nine games against playoff contenders, there’s no time for these four new players to ease their way into Tyronn Lue’s system. The time is now for Cleveland to take that next step. After all, the trio of moves this squad made is all about contending this season with LeBron set to hit free agency in July.
Golden State Warriors
For a team that’s 251-53 and has earned two titles in three-plus seasons under Steve Kerr, the Warriors are in a major rut. Of course, the standards they have set over the past few years is almost hard to keep up. Even then, finding themselves in second place out west heading into the break couldn’t have sat well with Kerr and Co. This comes amid a stretch in which Golden State has lost four of eight. The good news here for the Warriors and their fans is that the final 24 games of the season offers a bit of a reprieve. Half of those games come against teams that are not currently in playoff positioning, including three against the very same Suns team Golden State defeated by 46 points just a little over a week ago.
Though, the issues in Golden State are a bit more widespread than most might imagine. With the exception of David West, its bench has been among the worst in the Association. Youngsters Jordan Bell and Patrick McCaw are currently sidelined. Meanwhile, some of the players Golden State hoped to add on the buyout market have signed with rival teams. These Warriors need to get back to the basics. That includes avoiding the turnover issues, playing better defense and actually watching a rather expensive bench perform better than we’ve seen this season.