It’s finally over. After 2,460 games of NBA action, the regular season ended on Sunday. Let the NBA playoffs begin.
We are seeing unprecedented parity and equality among Western Conference teams, while the Eastern Conference seems up for grabs among four or five teams. Even the Los Angeles Lakers look scary even though they have to first get out of the Play-In Tournament. Here are some storylines that stand out as eight teams start to battle for the four remaining NBA playoff spots.
Was the Los Angeles Clippers winning season finale a good idea?
First up, the Los Angeles Clippers won Sunday, beating the Phoenix Suns and guaranteeing a first-round match-up between the two teams as the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup.
The Clippers were finally legitimate in one key area last night — health. Well, they were still missing Paul George, as he works to return from a sprained right knee injury. If he remains sidelined in the first round, that could be a huge blow, as they would be without their best and biggest perimeter defender to slow down, Kevin Durant. The Clippers have not announced a timetable for his return.
Even without George, it would be a star-studded affair. Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard is box-office. And with the obsession with tanking at an all-time high, the Clippers playing their healthy players showed they weren’t concerned about facing the Suns in the first round.
The battle of the head coaches might be one of the best showdown, as Monty Williams and Ty Lue are two of the best leaders and tacticians in the Association. The Durant/Devin Booker combo could prove to be too much, as playoffs see teams shorten their rotations, minimizing the Clippers’ depth advantage and giving the Suns the better six to seven-man rotation.
No. 3 Sacramento Kings primed for upset vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors
If there’s a top Western Conference team prime for a major upset, it’s the Sacramento Kings — especially as the precocious neophytes play their first playoff game in Sacramento in 17 years
against the four-time championship Golden State Warriors.
There couldn’t have been a more difficult matchup for the Kings in the first round than seeing a team with just as much cumulative talent (when healthy) and infinitely more playoff experience. The Warriors are the defending champions and will surely be talking major trash in the ears of the novice Kings. Good thing they have Harrison Barnes on the roster. The former Warrior and NBA champion knows what it takes to win it all and will provide leadership and poise in this crucial matchup.
The two teams mirror each other both offensively and defensively. And the leading Coach of the Year candidate, Mike Brown, was an assistant for Steve Kerr in Golden State for the last six years,
providing many juicy storylines.
Los Angeles Lakers still fighting to get into NBA playoffs
The Los Angeles Lakers are the best team among those vying for a postseason berth through the Play-In Tournament — especially with the Minnesota Timberwolves imploding at the worst time possible. The Lakers very likely will remain in the No. 7 seed and face the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies, who are banged up without their starting center Steven Adams. His absence makes them incredibly vulnerable defensively while adding to the weight and role Jaren Jackson Jr. will have to play in his stead.
“Bubble” season or not, the Lakers have proven they can win it all with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Pitting them against the inexperienced and chaotic Grizzlies, who are still trying to reintegrate Ja Morant from suspension, is the perfect foil for an upset.
Having James, who has played in the postseason in 15 of his previous 19 seasons, gives you a puncher’s chance against anybody. Now that the Lakers have sorted out their roster inconsistencies, they look primed for a Cinderella run.
Cleveland Cavaliers return to postseason without King James
Speaking of King James, the Cleveland Cavaliers made the playoffs for the first time without him since 1998. Most of the Cavs players weren’t even alive then. And now they go up against a hungry and ready New York Knicks team in the first-round series between the fourth and fifth seeds.
The Cavs will need Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, their only two consistent scorers, to average 30 each to advance. The Knicks are as good on the road as they are at home this season and lead the Cavs 3-1 in the regular season series. Also, so much depends on the emergence of second-year player Evan Mobley, who is already a defensive ace at 21 years old and will have his hands full when Julius Randle returns from his ankle injury.
Oklahoma City Thunder’s surprising road to Play-In Tournament
How crazy is it that the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the Play-In Tournament after losing the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft, Chet Holmgren, to injury in a pre-season pick-up game? OKC has far exceeded expectations by trying for a playoff spot instead of sitting players with phantom injuries.
General manager Sam Presti has resisted tanking and put together a young squad in Thunder U 2.0, ready to compete now. Jalen Williams, drafted 12th, has been a key factor OKC and is the second- best rookie of this class. Josh Giddey has made huge strides this season, and Shai Gilgeous- Alexander is a bonafide MVP candidate. SGA is the best dribble penetration guard this season, slicing and dicing his way to the rim at will.
With Zion Williamson out, the New Orleans Pelicans could be vulnerable. The Thunder then would have to play the loser of the Lakers-Timberwolves play-in game to advance into the playoffs. And if they do, they won’t be a walkover in the first round, especially without a clear favorite at the top of the West.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo