As NBA playoff picture sharpens, Nets and Lakers remain teams to beat
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
We're less than six weeks away from the expanded NBA postseason, and with rosters coming into focus, the time is right to evaluate the league’s contenders in terms of favorites, upstarts, now-or-nevers and one epic disappointment.
Let's take a look at NBA landscape, as I see it today.
It's scary how good this team could be. The Nets' superstar core of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving has played only seven games together since Harden was traded to the team in mid-January, yet they're the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, just ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers. Imagine how good the Nets will be when they're playing together consistently.
For now, Brooklyn will continue to have a revolving cast of superstars. On Tuesday, one day before Durant is expected to return from a left hamstring strain that sidelined him for 23 games, the Nets announced that Harden has sustained a right hamstring strain and will be out at least 10 days.
Irving has been playing out of his mind, highlighted by a 40-point performance Monday against the Knicks.
Harden has somehow made everyone forget his antics from a few months ago with the Rockets, replacing those memories with silky shooting and incredible passing in his dazzling stampede into the MVP race. For his part, Durant’s play early in the season made it abundantly clear that he was more than over the dreaded Achilles injury he suffered in 2019, and in his return on Wednesday, he showed out, going 5-for-5 from the field and scoring 17 points, grabbing seven rebounds, and dishing out five assists in 19 minutes during a 139-111 blowout win over New Orleans.
Los Angeles Lakers
The defending champions have been on an expected slide since losing Anthony Davis to a right calf strain in mid-February and then losing LeBron James to a high right ankle sprain on March 20. Without their superstars, the Lakers have fallen to fifth in the Western Conference, with a record of 32-19.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel says Davis is still "a ways away" from returning, and James remains out indefinitely.
But the Lakers will be OK — in fact, this might be a coup for them.
Their role players are getting to sharpen their skills with more playing time. And even though it's not what they wanted, the team's superstars are getting some much-needed rest following a nearly 100-day title run in the NBA bubble and a historically short 71-day offseason.
When Davis and James return, the Lakers could be better – and fresher – than ever heading into the postseason, which is a daunting prospect for the rest of the league.
The Lakers will probably continue to slide back in the standings a bit, but it shouldn’t matter as long as they qualify. If they need to do a play-in round and then play the currently top-seeded Utah Jazz or second-seeded Phoenix Suns, a healthy Lakers team would still be the favorite in those series.
The 76ers proved they could win without Joel Embiid, who missed 10 games because of a bone bruise in his left knee. During that time, they went 7-3, which is not bad for a team missing a player who averages 29.8 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.
The 76ers welcomed Embiid back into the lineup on Saturday. After he shakes off all of his rust, the team could be in good position to make some noise in the playoffs. It would be a welcome and long overdue accomplishment for a team that has consistently flamed out in the postseason amid chemistry issues.
This time around, things seem to be clicking for Philly. The 76ers have momentum and a renewed belief in themselves under Doc Rivers, who is in his first season at the helm of the team.
The only potential cause for concern could be Ben Simmons' well-documented offensive struggles since the All-Star break. In the 12 games he has played, he has averaged 12.8 points on 45.8% shooting from the field and 54.4% shooting from the free-throw line.
Rivers, however, doesn't seem too worried.
"I think you guys are way more concerned about Ben scoring than I am," Rivers told reporters Sunday. "I think Ben does so many things for this team that help us win. Scoring, I am telling you, is the last thing I am concerned about."
The Suns were overlooked heading into this season. As LeBron James tweeted when Booker was initially snubbed as a reserve for the All-Star Game, Booker has been disrespected during it.
Phoenix, currently sitting in second in the Western Conference, is on pace to snap the team's 10-year playoff drought.
It will be interesting to see how the Suns respond in the postseason with their combination of the young and hungry Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges being led by Paul, a grizzled veteran who has made 12 playoff appearances but never won a championship.
Several things happened last season that whetted this team's championship appetite.
First, there was a lot of publicity about Rudy Gobert's and Donovan Mitchell's fractured relationship following their positive tests for COVID-19 after Gobert reportedly was cavalier about the virus in the team's locker room last March. In the NBA bubble, they mended fences and wanted to squash that perception.
Second, the Jazz suffered a disappointing end in the playoffs, blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets in the first round.
They entered this season with something to prove — and their success has been a complete team effort. Gobert, Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson have all been stars in their roles, and it has led to some beautiful basketball.
The Clippers need a real postseason run. In their 50-year history, they've never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Last season, they were favored to be title contenders and, instead, had yet another epic flameout, blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Nuggets in the second round, just as Utah had done in the first.
This season, the Clippers are hoping Paul George will be more consistent in the postseason. The team's success — and its future — could hinge on George's reliability during that time, considering that Kawhi Leonard has a player option after this season.
The Clippers, who brought in title-winning coach Tyronn Lue before the season, made a bold move at the trade deadline by dealing Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo. Rondo, of course, is known as one of the most intelligent players — and leaders — in the league, and the thinking is that he will help the Clippers stay focused when stakes are highest.
Now, they need to get over the hump. The Bucks have been trying to work in a lot of new pieces this season and need to tighten up their defense, which fell from being No. 1 in the league last season to No. 8 so far this year.
Perhaps Antetokounmpo’s pride in all that has happened for him personally — fatherhood, making history with his brothers — along with lower expectations around the league will create mental freedom for this team that leads to a breakthrough of sorts.
Entering this season, who would've thought the Celtics would be a fringe playoff team, sitting in seventh place in the East, with a record of 26-26?
They were projected to be a top-four team in the Eastern Conference, but between injuries and players having to miss significant time because of health and safety protocols, they've struggled to even stay in a playoff slot.
The Celtics tried to right the ship a bit by making a couple of moves before the trade deadline, including adding Evan Fournier.
But the team was dealt another blow before playing the 76ers on Tuesday: Fournier was once again out because of health and safety protocols, and was out again on Wednesday against the New York Knicks, marking the second and third times that has happened since he was acquired by the team.
"That's been our season," Jaylen Brown told reporters Tuesday. "It's unfortunate. It's been a year – it’s been our story, for the most part."
According to data by Fansure, the Celtics have missed 132 player days because of health and safety protocols, the most of any team in the league and 20 more than the second-most impacted team, the Dallas Mavericks.
Such is life in an unprecedented season amid a global pandemic.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.