On Saturday night, while most basketball fans were watching the Final Four, the NBA playoffs got under way.
Not officially, of course. That doesn’t happen until April 16. But for the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and other teams fighting for the bottom of the brackets, the postseason already has started.
Detroit’s 94-90 victory at Chicago on Saturday wasn’t quite a Game Seven. The Pistons aren’t quite home free just yet, and the Bulls aren’t quite dead. But it sure looked an awful lot like a Game Five.
Both franchise’s recent reputations were at stake. Detroit hasn’t been to the postseason since 2009. Chicago hasn’t missed the party since 2008. It was the kids of the Pistons, many of whom have never been to the playoffs, against the veterans of the Bulls, many of whom consider the postseason a birthright.
Detroit’s largest lead was seven points. Chicago’s biggest bulge was six. There were 13 ties and 15 lead changes. Players on both teams expended every amount of available energy. And the outcome came down to a couple of inches – Jimmy Butler’s heels on the restricted area as he tried to draw a charge from Reggie Jackson.
“If you go back and watch film of that game, you will see on every free throw eight of the 10 guys holding their shorts,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Jimmy Butler was exhausted from having to do so much and play so many minutes. He’s running on fumes. Professional athletes on both sides, very competitive.”
The win kept the Pistons in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Indiana Pacers, who pulled even (actually ahead with the tiebreaker) with Sunday’s win over the New York Knicks. The Bulls fell two games out of the final spot but kept pace with Sunday’s win at Milwaukee. All three teams have five games remaining, none against each other.
The Western Conference has a similar race with even more intrigue. The Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz are tied for seventh, with the Houston Rockets one game behind. Again, all three teams have five games remaining, and Dallas plays both Utah and Houston.
Here’s a look at the playoff prospects of all six teams, projecting who gets in and who goes home.
Pacers: They are seventh right now because they took three of four from the Pistons. But they also lost three of four to the Bulls and could be taking a step backward in the standings this week when they host Cleveland on Wednesday and visit Toronto on Friday. However, the Raptors appear to have given up pursuit of the Cavaliers and the East’s top seed as coach Dwane Casey has been resting DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in preparation for the playoffs. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue also has been resting players, so it is conceivable that the Pacers get one of those games.
After that come home games vs. Brooklyn, which has shut down Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, and New York, which they just beat Sunday. If Indiana loses one of those games, it could be in a win-or-go-home scenario in its season finale April 13 at Milwaukee. But the bet here is that the Pacers hang on. PROJECTION: EIGHTH
Pistons: They also took three of four from the Bulls, although Van Gundy graciously pointed out that the first win was in overtime and the second win was in four overtimes before Saturday’s narrow escape in regulation. They also have a somewhat favorable schedule if you examine it closely.
Detroit makes the back-to-back swing through Florida starting Tuesday in Miami. The Pistons are 2-0 vs. the Heat and 2-0 vs. the Orlando Magic, who are playing well right now. They return home to face Washington, which is 3-0 vs. Detroit this season but likely will be mathematically eliminated by Friday. The Pistons then have three days off before hosting Miami on April 12 and visiting Cleveland – which should be resting folks – in their season finale. PROJECTION: SEVENTH
Bulls: Saturday’s loss was a crusher – “The math is probably against us at this point,” Pau Gasol said – but bouncing back to win at Milwaukee 24 hours later showed some grit. Because of the tiebreakers, catching the Pacers seems more realistic than overtaking the Pistons. And being two games back, they pretty much have to win out.
The Bulls are 0-3 vs. the Heat since Jan. 25 and visit Miami on Thursday. If Chicago can somehow get that game, it comes home to face Cleveland, which may or may not be in rest mode. The other three games are eminently winnable – visits to MASH units Memphis and New Orleans and a home season finale vs. awful Philadelphia. But even if Chicago goes 4-1, it needs Indiana to go 2-3, which doesn’t seem likely. PROJECTION: OUT
Mavericks: Every time they look home free, they come back to the pack. And every time they look like they’re in trouble, they put together some wins – like the four-game run they are on right now, thanks largely to J.J. Barea. The Mavs currently lose tiebreakers with both the Rockets and Jazz but can flip them by beating both teams. However, it’s not that simple.
A home win over Houston on Wednesday opens a two-game lead, splits the series at 2-2 and tightens the next tiebreaker, which is conference record. Or a win at Utah on April 11 gives Dallas a 2-1 series advantage, which would amount to a two-game bulge. A win in either of those de facto playoff games helps immensely.
Dallas also hosts Memphis on Friday but visits the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, the day before traveling to Utah. While the Clippers appear locked into fourth in the West, they are trying to reincorporate Blake Griffin and may play their regular rotation for stretches. There also is a home season finale vs. nemesis San Antonio, although the Spurs don’t figure to need the game. PROJECTION: EIGHTH
Jazz: They host both the Spurs and Clippers this week and have to get one of those games – plus the meetings with the Mavs – if they want to end their three-year playoff drought. Over the last month, Utah has been extremely tough at home, with its only loss to Golden State in overtime.
The Jazz visit Denver the day before the showdown with Dallas. They also end their season at Los Angeles in what should be a very emotional farewell for Kobe Bryant. The schedule is favorable, but virtually none of their rotation players have been in this position before. PROJECTION: OUT
ROCKETS: Here’s a scenario. The Rockets lose at Dallas on Wednesday – and get in anyway. They would need a little cooperation from the Jazz, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.
If Houston loses to Dallas, it would be two games behind the Mavs with four to play and potentially lose the tiebreaker based on conference record. However, Houston’s remaining four games are vs. Phoenix, vs. the Lakers, at Minnesota and vs. Sacramento. That is by far the easiest schedule of any of the six teams listed here, and the Rockets also have the best player on any of those teams in James Harden, who took apart the Thunder in the 4th quarter on Sunday.
The Rockets could lose to Dallas, win out and finish 42-40. If the Jazz lose twice, they also would be 42-40. The teams split the season series, but Houston has the better conference record. PROJECTION: SEVENTH
TRIVIA: Which was the last team to lose at least 70 games in a season? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: On assignment in the D-League, Houston Rockets rookie Montrezl Harrell shoved a referee who was trying to break up an altercation with another player after time had expired. Harrell was suspended five games without pay.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, whose team leads the league in man games lost to injury and has used a staggering 38 different starting lineups this season:
“I’m going to send out an all-points bulletin to anybody in the French Quarter or anywhere else; we need a voodoo doctor or something here. We’ve got to find the bones under this place or do something.”
TANKS A LOT!: If the Philadelphia 76ers lose out, they will have a 1-30 finish after having a 1-30 start.
LINE OF THE WEEK: Jimmy Butler, Chicago vs. Detroit, April 2: 39 minutes, 10-25 FGs, 1-7 3-pointers, 7-8 FTs, 17 rebounds, 12 assists, two blocks, three steals, three turnovers, 28 points in a 94-90 loss. With Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson sidelined for Chicago’s biggest game of the season, Butler pretty much covered for them, establishing career highs in assists and rebounds. He scored 14 of Chicago’s last 16 points.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers at Utah, March 28: 28 minutes, 1-11 FGs, 0-4 3-pointers, 3-3 FTs, zero rebounds, two assists, one steal, five points in a 123-75 loss. Bryant also was a minus-43 as the Lakers matched the worst loss in franchise history.
TRILLION WATCH: After a couple of drab weeks, the heroes of zeros picked things up. There were 2 trillions from Boston’s James Young on Monday, Orlando’s Devyn Marble on Thursday and Portland’s Luis Montero on Saturday. Chicago’s Justin Holiday had a 3 trillion on Tuesday, as did Utah’s Chris Johnson on Friday. The best lack of effort of the week, however, belonged to Orlando guard C.J. Watson, who crashed the season leaderboard with a 5 trillion Friday at Milwaukee.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Houston at Dallas, April 6. Yes, we know San Antonio visits Golden State on Thursday, but what is really at stake there? The showdown between the Rockets and the Mavericks, on the other hand, is pretty much a playoff game. It’s hard to see the loser of this game getting into the West bracket.
GAME OF THE WEAK: New Orleans at Philadelphia, April 5. The Pelicans’ current rotation includes three players initially signed to 10-day contracts and a center tandem of Omer Asik and Kendrick Perkins, who couldn’t score in an empty gym. This is the start of a three-game homestand for the 76ers, who have lost 12 in a row, 25 of 26 and still need one win to avoid matching the worst full-season record in NBA history, which they already own.
TWO MINUTES: When 10-day signee Bryce Cotton took the floor Sunday for the Grizzlies, he became the 28th player Memphis has used this season, an NBA record. The previous mark of 27 was shared by the 1996-97 Dallas Mavericks and last season’s Sixers. The Grizzlies are the sixth team in NBA history to use 25 or more players in a season. They remain on track to become the first of those teams to make the playoffs. … Thunder superstar Kevin Durant has scored at least 20 points in 61 straight games. It is the longest such streak since Kobe Bryant had 63 in a row from Dec. 9, 2005 to Nov. 3, 2006 and the fourth-longest streak since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, according to Elias. Had Durant not sat out the second half vs. Washington on Nov. 10 with a hamstring strain – an injury that forced him to miss the next six games – his streak would be for the entire season. … Pistons center Andre Drummond is just 200-of-565 from the line this season for 35.4 percent. Unless Drummond catches a hot streak, that will be the worst free-throw shooting percentage in NBA history, surpassing Wilt Chamberlain, who was 354-of-932 for 38.0 percent in 1967-68. Chamberlain also won MVP that season. … The Raptors are the only team to increase their win total in each of the last five seasons under the same coach. … This should give you an idea about the youth on Phoenix’s roster. When asked what he could teach his players in a summer camp as opposed to during the season, interim coach Earl Watson said, “Tenacity, aggressiveness, even box-out drills, like high school. The fundamentals of defense and offense. It sounds preschool, but it’s passing and cutting and how to pass the ball.” … The Wizards are the only Eastern Conference team to win a playoff series each of the last two years, but that streak is about to end. After a crushing double-overtime loss at home to Minnesota, Washington completed a 2-3 road trip that included a loss at Sacramnto, after which guard Bradley Beal said, “There was no sense of urgency to me. It felt like we gave up. “We’re just not hungry enough. If guys don’t want to play they need to sit down. I’m not giving up yet.” You would have to think coach Randy Wittman’s job is in jeopardy as well as GM Ernie Grunfeld, who traded a first-round pick (protected 1-9) for Markieff Morris at the trading deadline.
Trivia Answer: The 2009-10 New Jersey Nets were 12-70. … Happy 37th Birthday, Slava Medvedenko. … If tonight’s game is anything like the two Final Four games, you can always switch to Better Call Saul. The NBA is dark.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.