We’re down to the final two days of the regular season as playoff teams prepare for their run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. It’s time for those 16 teams to rest some key starters while also getting into a playoff mentality ahead of Saturday’s start to the postseason.
But while some teams are surging into the NBA’s version of March Madness, a few of the best in the league are struggling to find their mojo at the absolute worst time. These five teams are heading in the wrong direction as they prepare for the pressure-packed stage of the playoffs.
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Chicago technically hasn’t clinched a playoff spot yet, but the Bulls control their destiny with only a home game against the Nets left on their schedule. Before Bulls fans start lining up to buy playoff tickets, they should keep in mind that Chicago lost to Brooklyn on April 8. The Bulls were missing one of their key players in that loss -- Rajon Rondo, who has missed three consecutive games after suffering a hand injury that head coach Fred Hoiberg described as “significant.”
Couple Rondo’s injury with the stunning return of Dwyane Wade from an elbow injury that initially was thought to be season-ending, and you can see the Bulls might have some chemistry issues heading into the most important time of the season. Will Rondo be ready for the playoffs and if so how will he mesh with Wade and Butler as the trio struggled to find consistency earlier in the season?
The Grizzlies are almost never an easy matchup in a playoff series because Memphis is one of the few teams that prides itself on grind-it-out basketball. But the Grizzlies, who are locked into the seventh seed and will play a familiar foe – the Spurs – in their first-round matchup, have found victories hard to come by since the beginning of March.
After going 6-9 in March – five of those losses coming to playoff-bound teams – the Grizzlies are 1-4 in April, though one of those defeats came in overtime to the Spurs and the other one was a three-point loss to the Thunder. Memphis’ saving grace is that San Antonio is also struggling and the two teams split the season series.
The Rockets appear pretty preoccupied with James Harden’s candidacy for MVP, but they better be aware of some troubling signs as they prepare to take on Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. In its final four games against playoff teams (Warriors twice, Blazers and Clippers), Houston is 0-4 and lost by an average of 14 points per game while shooting just 24 percent from 3-point range.
If the Rockets are denied their coveted 3-pointers -- they’ve averaged 40 attempts per game this season -- will Mike D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less offense stall? Houston did beat Oklahoma City 3-1 in the season series, but two of those wins were by a combined five points. If the Rockets go cold from beyond the arc, could they be staring at a first-round exit?
If the Cavaliers weren’t the defending champs and had the best player in the game, we’d fully expect this team to get bounced in the first round. But LeBron James has dealt with these issues in previous seasons – last year with the Cavs when they fired David Blatt and a few times with the Heat – and has gone on to Finals appearance after Finals appearance. But is this season different?
James is averaging a league-leading 37.8 minutes per game – his most since the 2012-13 season – and the Cavs are recently coming off a jaw-dropping loss. Blowing a 26-point lead in the fourth quarter to the same Hawks team the Cavs lost to 24 hours earlier is definitely a warning sign. Doing all this while in a tight race with the Celtics for the No. 1 seed in the East is even more troubling.
But is there a team in the East that can beat the Cavs four out of seven games when Cleveland is clicking on all cylinders? Probably not. The Cavs have shown flashes of being dominant, and beating the Celtics at Boston by 25 points earlier this month is an obvious example. But is that the Cavs team we will see in the playoffs, when it faces the Pacers in the first round, or will it be this inconsistent version that has looked lost on defense for most off the season?
San Antonio Spurs
This is usually the time of the year Gregg Popovich sits most of his starters, getting them the rest he feels they need to go on yet another deep playoff run. But Popovich scrapped that idea after he saw his team get outworked by the Clippers earlier this month, vowing that no one will rest in the final two games of the season.
Message sent, right? Well, the Spurs went to Portland on Monday and lost – mind you by one point on a fluke last-second shot – but the energy just wasn’t there. Scanning the box score, it’s easy to see that most of the Spurs’ starters barley played more than 20 minutes in the game but San Antonio didn’t fare all that well with them on the floor, getting outscored in all but one quarter in the loss.
The Spurs have no time to turn on the proverbial switch with Memphis up in the first round. The Grizzlies have been a thorn in the Spurs side for years, as Memphis’ “Grindhouse” approach has posed problems for the Spurs’ pass-heavy, fluid offense.