The NBA All-Star break is a month away, the playoffs still looming three months in the future. But somehow, for some teams, time is ticking a bit too quickly. For the best and the worst of the NBA, there’s plenty of time left — time for separation and for a better seed for the elite, time to tank or to assert oneself for the dregs.
But for those teams clawing for Nos. 7 and 8 seeds — the large bunch in the Western Conference and the few in the far less competitive East — these are the weeks to make a statement, the time before the trade deadline to say that, yes, those playoff hopes were justified or, no, it was all just an illusion.
Right now, eight teams fall into that category: the 76ers, Celtics and Bucks in the Eastern Conference and the Rockets, Jazz, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers and (somehow) Lakers in the West. Over the past five seasons, it’s taken an average of 39.5 wins in the East to earn a No. 8 seed, 47.7 wins in the West. So assuming it’ll take 40 wins in the East and 48 in the West, here’s how these teams will have to finish in order to likely secure a playoff spot: The 76ers will have to go 24-20, the Celtics and the Bucks 21-25. The Rockets will have to finish the year on a 27-17 run, the Jazz 28-15, the Trail Blazers 28-17, the Timberwolves 32-16, the Lakers 32-13.
In the East, those records all seem plausible, although the 76ers haven’t given any indication they’re ready to post a record above .500 for the next few months. Without center Andrew Bynum, they’re a lesser team, and if the Celtics and Bucks can both just post .500 records to round out the season, they’ll edge out Philadelphia.
In the West, things are more complicated. With a fair amount of parity between the teams that will likely end up fifth through 11th in the conference, it may not take quite as many as 48 wins to lock down a playoff spot. Right now, the Trail Blazers are in eighth place, with a .541 winning percentage, which would equate to about 44 wins if they kept up that pace for the rest of the year. With the Lakers’ fall from grace, there are simply more wins to go around in the West, and it’s unlikely that any of these bubble teams — with the exception of maybe the Rockets — will be 10 or more games over .500 to finish the season. That leaves likely two spots for those five teams, and right now, barring any major changes, it looks most likely that the Jazz, Trail Blazers or Rockets should have the best shots to fill them.
That’s not to say that any of these teams’ playoff hopes are 100 percent dead — save perhaps the Lakers’. There’s still a trade deadline looming and the chance for players to return from injuries or up their level of play, but even though it’s only mid-January, it’s time for teams like the Timberwolves, Lakers and 76ers, all of which believed just weeks ago that they had a good shot at the postseason, to panic — or at least to get some changes in motion.
The next ex-Blazer comeback?
ESPN reported Thursday that former Portland center Greg Oden has decided to return to the NBA after a series of knee problems and surgeries forced him into retirement. The report also stated that the Heat might be interested in Oden, who hasn’t played since Dec. 5, 2009 and is not planning to play until next season.
As someone who’s watched the Brandon Roy comeback first-hand, this makes me shudder. Yes, apparently Oden is planning a conservative approach to this attempt, which should be reassuring, but something about the words “knee” and “early retirement” warrants a mammoth red flag. A name like Oden, given his past play, is going to command good money — Roy is making more than $5 million this season on knees that still haven’t proven they’re NBA-adequate — and for any team to commit that to a big man who has played in only 82 games since he was the first pick in the 2007 draft would be downright foolish.
The naïve writer cheering for the good story in me wants Memphis to hold onto Rudy Gay, keep playing like it’s playing and make a run in the playoffs. That’s always fun to see from a small-market team that so recently was terrible. But naiveté only goes so far, especially under the current CBA, when the luxury tax can cripple a team, especially one like Memphis. With all the facts and the dollar signs, then, shopping Gay makes sense.
Starting next season, luxury tax rules become more severe, especially for repeat offenders, which the Grizzlies would be. Gay is owed $16.5 million this season and $17.9 million next year, so that’s a hefty contract to shop, and despite the initial flurry of trade rumors, it seems like the Grizzlies are being pretty picky about what they want in return. But if they’re smart, it would seem they’ll be able to work something out — perhaps not even at the expense of their small-market Cinderella story.
The Celtics, left for dead (or at least gasping) a few weeks ago, have won five straight to push their record to two games over .500. On the week, they’ve won by an average margin of 8.7 points, and they beat two good teams in the Knicks and Rockets.
The Timberwolves, who learned Tuesday that Kevin Love broke the third metacarpal on his right hand; previously, they’d believed he’d just sprained a finger. He’ll be out eight to 10 weeks now, and after learning about the injury, the team sputtered to a 1-3 record on the week, with just nine healthy players in one game in New Orleans.
Best of the week
Team: The Pacers, who had won four straight before losing to the Nets on Sunday. They’ve also won seven of their last 10, and this week included a 10-point win over Miami in which they held the Heat to 77 points and a five-point win over the Knicks two nights later. They’re now first in the Central Division, too.
Player: Thunder small forward Kevin Durant, who averaged 32.5 points in three games this week and had an overall plus-minus of plus-73. He also shot 57.3 percent from the field, the best mark of any player who attempted 50 or more field goals on the week.
Comeback: On Friday, the Hornets came back from 18 points down to thoroughly drub the Timberwolves, 104-92. After scoring just 14 points in the first 12 minutes of the game, New Orleans scored 50 points in a 22-minute stretch later in the night.
Worst of the week
Team: The Suns, who went 1-3 on the week and shot less than 40 percent from the field in two consecutive games. In fact, Phoenix shot just 42.0 percent on the week.
Player: Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith, who shot 32.0 percent in four games while attempting an average of 18.8 shots per game. Smith’s shooting percentage was the worst of anyone who attempted 11 or more field goals on the week.
Week of injuries: The Lakers, who saw center Dwight Howard sit for three games with a torn labrum before returning Sunday. Power forward Pau Gasol remains out with a concussion, which has caused him to miss the past four games and counting.
Telling stats of the week
10,030 career assists: Lakers point guard Steve Nash recorded his 10,000th career assist on Tuesday in Houston, logging 10 on the night. Nash became one of five players all-time to hit the 10,000-assist mark along with John Stockton (15,806), Jason Kidd (11,969), Mark Jackson (10,334) and Magic Johnson (10,141). If Nash keeps up his current pace and plays in 50 of the Lakers’ final 55 games, he’ll pass Jackson and Johnson easily.
23 rebounds, 2 points: Brooklyn’s Reggie Jackson’s stat line from the Nets’ Tuesday win in Philadelphia. Only two other players have had 23 or more rebounds and two or fewer points in a single game: Dennis Rodman did it four times, Ben Wallace once.
8 assists, 7 assists: Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio logged eight assists on Tuesday and seven the next night. That marked the first time this season the point guard has logged five-plus assists in two consecutive games. He’s played in nine games thus far.
What we heard
“There’s certain things that you just don’t say to men, another man. I felt like we crossed a line, but like I said, we both have an understanding right now. We handled it the way we handled it. Nobody needs to know what was said behind closed doors, so that situation was handled.”
— New York’s Carmelo Anthony after he waited to confront Boston’s Kevin Garnett postgame on Monday, thus earning a one-game suspension. Anthony and Garnett had engaged in trash talk during the Knicks’ 102-96 loss at Madison Square Garden.
“I don’t know what the best way is to make them play together, but I know one thing is that they both got to just play hard and believe and not worry about, ‘Hey, how can we make this work.’ . . . We all got to just be unselfish and sacrifice and make plays for each other regardless of where we are on the floor.”
— Nash on how it’s his job to get Howard and Gasol going.
“With Kevin, he’s an emotional guy. But you don’t really see it in a way that some players display it. He keeps a lot of it inside, but he’s competitive as anybody we have on this team.”
— Thunder coach Scott Brooks to ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande on Durant and the competitiveness hidden beneath his placid demeanor.
Clippers at Grizzlies, 8 p.m. ET Monday: Last year’s playoff series between these teams was positively delightful, and with the two teams battling for supremacy in the West, this game shouldn’t disappoint. The teams haven’t played since their opening game on Halloween, a 101-92 Clippers win; Memphis went on to rebound for eight straight wins after that initial loss. Now, with the Grizzlies sitting at 24-11 and the Clippers at 28-9, both teams are even better than they were last year.