USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers breaks down the why the Warriors will not rest down the stretch of the regular season.
This is a strange time of year for the NBA. America is transfixed by basketball, but the professional variety of the sport gets less attention than perhaps any other time apart from the empty months of August and September.
It kind of works out. March Madness begins with the NBA playoff entrants for the most part decided. By the time college hoops packs up, the Golden State Warriors and a bunch of hopefuls will be almost ready to begin the postseason chase for the title.
However, while hardwood-tinted eyeballs will largely be trained on the NCAA tournament for the next little minute, don’t be duped into thinking these parting weeks of the NBA regular season are simply marking time until the real business begins.
Between now and the close of the campaign there are a series of plot lines, mini-battles and tussles for seeding that will go a long way toward determining whether a multitude of teams head into the summer with cheers or tears.
As we know, when it comes to conference muscle-flexing, it is the left-hand side of the country that struts like a Venice Beach bodybuilder, while the East puts on its jacket and runs for cover like a weakling on a wet Atlantic City Wednesday.
West is best, but it is also stressed, with the standings logjammed and a collection of teams still not definitively separated after more than five months of effort.
“It definitely takes on a different mindset,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, talking about the final weeks. “Each game takes on more importance. Last year, I think the final 20 games, we kind of knew we were going to be the two seed, so it is a little different this year.”
This time around, there is everything to play for as the Warriors seek their third title in a row. The surprising consistency of the Denver Nuggets, combined with some uncharacteristic slips from the Warriors, has kept the pressure on Kerr’s team throughout. As of Thursday, Golden State was 49-22, Denver 48-22.
While prior years have allowed Kerr to rest key members down the stretch, such an approach now would increase the possibility of falling to a two seed, and boost the potential for a matchup with the Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs. If that rematch of last year’s epic Western Conference finals matchup is to happen, the Warriors would surely prefer it to arrive later.
Below Houston in the standings, the stakes arguably get even higher. The Los Angeles Clippers are currently slated for a first-round meeting with the Warriors, but it wouldn’t take more than capitalizing on a friendly finishing schedule to jump several spots. Conversely, the fourth-placed Portland Trail Blazers could see not only home court advantage but also any kind of positive seeding spot dissipate with a slight dip in form, a possibility that may hinge on the strength of CJ McCollum’s injury recovery.
“You drop a game, then you drop a few slots in the standings,” Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard told the Oregonian. “Win a few and you move up.”
In the East, the battle that matters is the three-headed struggle among the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, who will decide the third, fourth and fifth seeds. If things are still on a knife’s edge so deep into the season, it is reasonable to think that home court in a 4 vs. 5 series could be pivotal.
The Pacers have held firm despite losing Victor Oladipo to a season-ending injury and Boston, for all its inner strife, still has a real shot at the far more favorable three seed – complete with a likely matchup against a team with a record close to .500.
On the flip side, the Detroit Pistons, Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat would all prefer to clinch a six seed, thereby averting the surging Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, who are locked in on the East’s top two spots.
Given how narrow the margins are, in both conferences, such outcomes can easily be determined on one night, by one play, or one player. The repercussions, though, are significant enough to linger. At the end of this postseason, coaching contracts, personnel moves and free agency cash – plus, in some cases, the future direction of a franchise – can hinge on what goes down over the coming months.
In the NBA right now there are no brackets in sight, but the stakes are as high as ever.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno