Playoff picture still unclear entering season’s final day

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It’s that time of the year.

With only two days left in the regular season, the playoff teams are set in stone, and many teams are limiting the minutes of key players or resting them altogether.

That makes for many meaningless games, with players simply going through the motions.

Still, some questions remain heading into the playoffs, which begin Saturday.

Who plays the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls in the first round? Is Derrick Rose ready?

Will the Clippers get home-court advantage?

Do the Denver Nuggets want to play against the Thunder or the Lakers?

A couple of intriguing matchups took place Wednesday night to answer some of these questions to an extent heading into Thursday, the final day of the regular season.

The New York Knicks needed to win both their remaining games to have a chance to move up to the sixth seed but also needed the Orlando Magic to lose their two remaining games.

That made the matchup between Orlando and Charlotte a lot more critical than it should have been, but all questions about the sixth seed were put to rest with a Magic victory.

Also, there’s another interesting question that no one seems to want to answer: Does anyone want to face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs?

At the very least, no one seems to be too eager.

Knicks fans chanted “Beat the Heat!” during their home game against the Clippers, but Mike Woodson may have had other ideas as he rested Carmelo Anthony for the entire fourth quarter despite seeing an 18-point lead dwindle to 3 with 2:43 remaining.

Although Woodson denied even knowing the final score of the Bobcats-Magic game, it’s hard to imagine that he would have stayed with the decision to sit Anthony if Orlando had lost.

Either way, New York seems destined to face Miami barring a setback against a team set to break the worst winning percentage of all time.

From Howard Beck of The New York Times: “Beat. The. Heat.” The chorus was brief but fervent, coming Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, as the Knicks kept rolling, seemingly inevitably, toward Miami. Yet nothing has come easily in this rushed and truncated lockout season, and the Knicks headed into the final 24 hours with their weekend plans still hazy. With a 99-93 victory over the Clippers, the Knicks (35-30) held their ground as the seventh-place team in the Eastern Conference — in a virtual tie with the Philadelphia 76ers. It will take a 66th game to settle the standings and set the playoff bracket. The Knicks hold the tiebreaker over the 76ers and thus can determine their own first-round opponent Thursday night when they visit the Charlotte Bobcats. A victory will ensure the Knicks of the seventh seed and a first-round date with the Heat. A loss, combined with a 76ers victory in Detroit, would drop the Knicks to eighth, and a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. Knicks fans chanted their preference throughout the fourth quarter. “The fans know what they want, know what they want to see,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Hopefully, they get to see that.” The Knicks might not try very hard to make that happen, however. Anthony said he would probably not play Thursday night. Tyson Chandler said he would play limited minutes, if at all. Amar’e Stoudemire said he would leave it up to Coach Mike Woodson. At this point, the Knicks contend there is little difference between playing the Heat or the Bulls. But they are certain that being ready for Game 1 trumps all other concerns. They could open the playoffs as soon as Saturday. “I want to be smart about the situation,” Chandler said. “It’s more important for me to be fresh and being able to move around on the perimeter.” He added, “I don’t care who we face.” Woodson said he wanted to win the finale, but he would not commit to playing his starters. He began resting them late Wednesday, a clear indication that he is already planning for the weekend.”

With a victory, the Clippers would have clinched home-court advantage against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs. Instead, playing their season finale game without Chris Paul, their furious rally in the fourth quarter came up just short.

From Broderick Turner of Los Angeles Times: “The Clippers no longer have control over their fate; a 99-93 loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden saw to that. If Memphis defeats the visiting Orlando Magic on Thursday night, the Grizzlies will host the Clippers at FedEx Forum in Game 1 of the Western Conference playoffs this weekend. If Memphis loses to Orlando, the Clippers will host the Grizzlies at Staples Center. ”I know what’s at stake and what that game means,” said Blake Griffin, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. The Clippers fell behind by 18 points in the fourth before making a comeback that ultimately fell short. Paul sat on the Clippers’ bench in sweats, unable to help, agreeing that it was best to rest his injury. ”We talked about it and realized the playoffs are too close to even go out there and try to risk it,” Paul said. “So I go back to L.A. tonight and get treatment all day tomorrow and keep getting treatment until the first game.” The Clippers lost both games on this two-game trip to fall behind the fourth-place Grizzlies in the Western Conference, possibly putting L.A. in a tough position if it starts the best-of-seven series on the road. ”Who cares?” Paul said. “I mean, I can’t go by what everybody says [that Memphis is a tough matchup]. At the end of the day, we’ve got to play the game. We’re going to go out there and compete and play. We’re going to see what happens. If somebody can tell me who is going to win every series, we might as well not play.” Paul said he plans on watching Memphis and Orlando, to see who wins and to do some scouting for that playoff series. He saw some encouraging things Wednesday night, including Randy Foye scoring 28 points and Griffin scoring 13 in the fourth.”

In Milwaukee, Philadelphia coach Doug Collins did all he could to potentially lose to the Bucks as he rested a bunch of his key players. But Evan Turner had a monster game with 29 points, 13 rebounds and six assists to ensure the 76ers’ playoff opponent would be decided on Thursday.

From Bob Cooney of The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Game 65 of 66, with a playoff spot already secured and an opponent playing for nothing, had about as much intensity as a day at the beach. Still, the game had to be played and the Sixers JV was better than that of the Milwaukee Bucks, pulling out a 90-85 win. It was the fourth-straight win for the Sixers and improved them to 35-30. Though no one in the 76ers organization will say so, playing the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs is much more preferred than having to face the Miami Heat for the second-straight year. The win by the Sixers and by New York Wednesday means the two are still tied for the seventh spot in the East, though the Knicks own the tiebreaker. Should the Sixers and Knicks both win or lose Thursday, the Sixers will get the Bulls. If the Sixers win in Detroit and the Knicks lose in Charlotte, then the Sixers will play the Heat. ”I was watching [the Knicks score] a little bit,” Sixers coach Doug Collins said. “But the one thing I learned is don’t start jockeying and start thinking we want to play this team. Win and play who you’re supposed to play. Sometimes you can fool yourself and try to be too slick. I’ve seen teams do that and they start jockeying. We’re going to try and win games and then we’ll play whoever is in front of us. That’s what I was taught to do. That’s the way you respect the integrity of the game. Whoever is out there, play to win.” The Sixers were severely shorthanded against the Bucks, by their choice. Starters Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand and sub Thaddeus Young were left in Philadelphia to rest their bodies, and Lou Williams, though with the team, was in street clothes. Milwaukee also was limited, as leading scorer Monta Ellis, along with Carlos Delfino, Drew Gooden and Ersan Ilyasova, were all spectators.”

Onto the team both the Knicks and Sixers would privately prefer to face – the Bulls, who beat the Indiana Pacers in a mostly meaningless game with both teams entrenched in their respective positions in the East.

The only question for Chicago remains: Is Derrick Rose healthy and ready to go for the playoffs?

From K.C. Johnson of Chicago Tribune: “The Bulls won’t know whether their first-round playoff opponent is Philadelphia or New York until Thursday, the final night of this crazy, compressed season. Fittingly, particularly for a focused team that easily dispatched the Pacers 92-87 Wednesday night, they don’t care. ”We’re playing for us, trying to play good basketball for when it really, really starts,” Joakim Noah said. The Bulls will play the 76ers in all but one Thursday scenario — if the 76ers win in Detroit and the Knicks lose in Charlotte. The Bulls, who own the tiebreaker over the Spurs, also will secure the league’s best record and homecourt advantage through the NBA Finals if they beat the Cavaliers on Thursday at the United Center. Again, that’s superfluous stuff to a team chasing something larger. ”Our goal is to win a championship,” Kyle Korversaid. “We don’t care who we play first round, second round, third round. We want to go through everybody. That’s our mindset. We’re ready for whoever is eighth.” Noah posted a double-double of 14 points and 14 rebounds, Korver scored a team-high 20 points in close to 22 minutes and Carlos Boozer sank his first five shots to finish with 16 points, seven rebounds and a no-look pass to Noah for a dunk. But if anything dominated the postgame locker room chatter, it was Derrick Rose’s health. Rose finished with 10 points, seven assists and just one turnover in 26 minutes, 30 seconds. Though he missed eight of 11 shots, he looked far more explosive than his admittedly tentative return on Saturday against Dallas. He repeatedly got to the rim but missed shots he normally makes.”

In the West, the Nuggets made sure their playoff destiny would lie in their hands with a victory over the Thunder.

From Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post:  With his Thunder trailing the Nuggets by three points late in the game Wednesday night, veteran guard Derek Fisher launched a 3-pointer that had the follow-through seen after so many of his clutch shots. But the shot missed, and Denver’s Danilo Gallinari grabbed the vital rebound. With seven seconds left, it was over. After free throws, the Nuggets escaped with a 106-101 victory that enables them to control their destiny. If the Nuggets (37-28) win tonight’s regular-season finale at Minnesota, they will be the Western Conference’s No. 6 seed in the NBA playoffs — and will play the third-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, arguably a more enticing opponent than the second-seeded Thunder. If the Nuggets lose tonight, they still have a shot at the No. 6 seed. Dallas plays at Atlanta. If Dallas loses, Denver is the sixth seed. But if Denver loses and Dallas wins, the Mavericks are sixth, and the Nuggets are seventh. Denver guard Ty Lawson hit tough shots Wednesday night, finishing with a team-high 25 points, but as coach George Karl said, “To me, the guy who won us the game was Corey Brewer.” Brewer, a pesky backup forward, played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter and hounded Russell Westbrook, who shot 1-for-6 down the stretch. Brewer finished with a plus-12 rating, best among the Nuggets. With the shot clock about to buzz, Brewer banked in an 18-footer with 57.8 seconds left, giving Denver a five-point lead. “I called glass,” Brewer said with a smile. Gallinari, who is still playing through pain in his hands, hit only 3-of-13 shots in 33½ minutes. But he finished with 14 points, played well on defense and grabbed the biggest rebound of the game. Wednesday’s win gave Denver a 9-4 record in April, including five vital wins down the stretch that will help determine playoff positioning.”

Denver’s win also assured Utah of the eighth seed and a first-round matchup with the peaking San Antonio Spurs.

Having wrapped up the second seed of the West, the Thunder had nothing to play for, although they can’t feel too good about splitting their last 14 games and giving away the top seed.

The only thing that matters – at least statistically – is the chance for Kevin Durant to wrap up his third straight scoring title over Kobe Bryant. He scored 32 points Wednesday and currently leads the league with 28 points while Bryant is close behind with 27.9 points.

Elsewhere…

  • Needing just one win to lock the sixth seed in the East, the Magic took care of the league-worst Bobcats at home, 102-95, despite losing Glen Davis in the first quarter to a sprained ankle. J.J. Redick had a career-high 31 points, including six 3-pointers, while Ryan Anderson had 24 points and 13 rebounds, including seven offensive boards. Orlando snapped a three-game losing streak and is set to face Indiana to open the playoffs. Charlotte extended its losing streak to 22.
  • The Wizards have found a way to end a disastrous season on a bright note as they beat the host Cavaliers, 96-85, to extend their winning streak to a season-high five games. John Wall had 21 points, seven rebounds, 13 assists and seven steals. Presumptive Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving of Cleveland was doubtful due to a stomach flu but played just under 10 minutes to show appreciation for the fans in his final home game. Cleveland lost for the third consecutive time.
  • In a meaningless game in terms of standings, the Spurs beat the Suns, 110-106.  San Antonio sent Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili home earlier in the day. Patty Mills started and led all scorers with 27 points while Tiago Splitter added 26 in just under 20 minutes off the bench. With the fans chanting “We want Nash,” Suns guard Steve Nash re-entered for a few plays and left for good to a standing ovation in what may have been his final home game as a Suns player.

James Park is a regular contributor to Sheridanhoops.com. You can follow him on twitter @nbatupark.