Ahh, yes. April. That time of year where the memories of Spring Break start to fade, and the doldrums of the final quarter of school starts to set in. This is when high school seniors start to really feel the effects of senior-itis. It’s this same disease that is beginning to affect some of the better teams in the NBA. For those teams that have already sewn up spots to the NBA’s Big Dance, this affliction is making them act like 8 years olds on a road trip. “Are we there yet?”
When it comes to this time of years, teams are in one of 4 modes. They are either completely out of the playoff hunt, fighting (realistically) for a playoff spot, fighting to move up in the playoff standings, or fighting off boredom from having clinched a playoff spot so early in the 2nd half of the season. Of the 30 teams in the NBA:
- 11 are completely out of the playoffs: Charlotte, Washington, New Orleans, TTFKATSK (the team formerly known as the Sacramento Kings), Cleveland, Toronto, Golden State, New Jersey, Detroit, Minnesota, and Portland.
- 7 are realistically fighting for playoff spots: Utah, Phoenix, Milwaukee(all currently out), Philadelphia, New York, Denver, and Houston (all currently in).
- 8 are securely in the playoffs and jockeying for positioning: Dallas, Memphis, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston, and Indiana.
- 4 teams are entrenched in the playoffs and fighting for the top two spots in their respective conferences: Chicago and Miami (East) and Oklahoma City and San Antonio (West).
Of the 4 teams at the top,Chicago is trying to battle through injuries and maintain the best record in the league.San Antonio is blitzing anyone in their way and trying to take the top spot in the West. And apparently, OKC and Miami (to the enjoyment of all the fans not in Chicago or San Antonio) are ready to meet in the Finals, and are acting like it’s a forgone conclusion. But, honestly, for these four teams, is there anything to worry about besides injuries at this point in the season?
These four teams are treading water at this point in the season. Chicago is 4-3 since April started. Miami and OKC are both 5-4. And San Antonio, riding the hot hand, is 6-2. Are these records indicative of any shortcomings that decided to pop up in the final month of the season?
In Chicago’s losses this month, it is quite apparent that they need Derrick Rose to be completely healthy for their playoff run. But, perhaps, more importantly, the health of Rip Hamilton is of great importance to the offense. While Rose is the end all, be all of the offense, Hamilton provides a great release valve if the defense collapses too much on Rose. Getting those two healthy at this point of the season is the best thing that could have happened to the team. It’s almost like they got a trade deadline acquisition in Hamilton, who is just now starting to pay dividends on the team. The greatest positive to come out of the injury plagued seasons of Rose and Hamilton, is that the bench players have had to contribute and have done so in above average fashion.
In Miami’s losses this month, a lot of the problems that surfaced last season are starting to resurface this season. It’s the Big 3 and no one else on that team. The Big 3 moniker has taken a bit of a hit this season with injuries to Dwayne Wade, but the production from the role players that was so evident in the beginning of the season, has begun to decline to the detriment of the team. The size issue that was a problem last season is still a problem for the Heat. They got Ronny Turiaf after the trading deadline, and while it is a slight improvement over Joel Anthony, the move didn’t really register too much on the Richter scale. The big man rotation of Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Anthony, and Turiaf does give the Heat a bit more flexibility as compared to the big man rotation last season (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Bosh, Anthony, and an injury-recovering Haslem). The point guard position has been slumping for the last month and a half. Mario Chalmers has only been shooting 30% from 3-point territory since March 1st, after shooting about 48% from there in the first 2 1/2 months of the season. Norris Cole has hit the rookie wall and is not producing like he was in the beginning of the season, even being relegated to the bench in favor of James Jones, who is just now starting to find his shooting stroke. But, in the end, this team still has Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, and when those two are clicking, this team is still very difficult to defeat.
The Spurs have begun to streak after finally getting all their pieces back from injury. Its no coincidence that their 11 game win streak coincided with Manu Ginobili finally getting his rhythm back after being in and out of the lineup with a myriad of injuries for most of the season. The young players (Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Danny Green, and James Anderson) all know their roles and play them to a tee. This team is a well-oiled machine that is just now starting to hit its stride. The team still relies heavily on its trio of veterans, but Coach Popovich has made sure to limit their minutes in the regular season. The addition of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw will help during their post-season run. This, in my opinion, is probably the most dangerous team heading in the playoffs.
The Thunder’s last 10 games have exhibited the same errors that have been plaguing them the entire season. They are 6-4 in those games, but those errors become very evident in the losses. Stagnant offense always hinders this team in the beginning of games. The team even has a punt play to start nearly every game: giving the ball to Kendrick Perkins in the low post. It very rarely ends in points for the Thunder. In their 4 losses in this 10 game run, the Thunder score an average of 22.3 points in the first quarter. In the 6 wins, that number jumps up to 27. That’s nearly a 5 point difference, which, in an NBA quarter, is a huge difference. Another stat that hinders the team in their losses is the number of turnovers. In that same 10 game span, they are averaging 16.5 turnovers per game in their losses, and 14 per game in their wins. That difference of 2.5 turnovers can, hypothetically, be equated to an extra 7 points for the other team. Which, again, in the NBA, is a game-changing amount. Defensively, the team still has trouble with the pick and roll and guard penetration.
The good news for all these teams is that there is nothing new that can be labeled a negative. The deficiencies and errors that they have been exhibiting all season, are the same things that are afflicting them now. Even with all these issues, these teams are still the top 4 teams in the league and the leading contenders to win the championship. Are there darkhorses on the fringes that could slip in? Of course. The Los Angeles Lakers are starting to show some diversity in their offense with Andrew Bynum finally taking charge in the absence of Kobe Bryant. The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the deepest teams in the league, with 2 All-star caliber post players (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) and an All-star caliber wing (Rudy Gay). And the Boston Celtics will give it all they got for what appears to be their swan song together.
The thing about senior-itis is that, eventually, everyone graduates and moves on to the next level. In that next level is where your skills and abilities come out in full force. Some end up in college, some in a job, and some at home on the couch. In this crazy season, anything can happen. But if the playoffs play out anything like the regular season, then these 4 teams should be the cream that rises to the top.