April 9, 2014

ZAKOUR | Playoff Spots Are Not Foregone Conclusion

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By JOHN ZAKOUR

The Knicks, still nowhere near .500, were briefly in playoff position about a week ago. Thanks to the magic of the Eastern Conference and a plummeting Hawks squad, a garbage season was almost pulled from the receptacle. Phil Jackson was poised to receive some credit from afar, since he seems to have given the Knicks a new positive spirit animal. But it might just have been the bad teams they were playing.

Then again, the Knicks are in the Atlantic Division of the East. They play bad teams all year long, and still could not get anything going. So in very reliable fashion, the Knicks decided to get it done at the very last minute, bordering on too late. However, the Knicks good streak of play, which included a win over Golden State on the road, was all undone by a one point loss to the Wizards. This performance, followed by a loss to the Heat coupled with a surprising Hawks trashing of the Pacers on the road, means that the high priced Knicks, coming off a season where they were the second seed in the East, will likely miss the playoffs.

The Knicks and the Pacers, old historical rivals, are inexorably linked in my mind. The Indiana Pacers seemed like they were transforming into a contender after dispatching the Knicks in last year’s playoffs and pushing the Heat to seven games in the conference finals. All season long, the Pacers seemed hell-bent on attaining the top seed in the East and the NBA. It was their mission, one that was talked about openly by their head coach and stars and seemed all too likely, as they were one of two contenders in a garbage conference.

And the veteran Heat squad seemed content on spotting the Pacers a three game lead while they enjoyed life in South Beach as two time champions. But the fire has not been there for Indiana lately. The Pacers just have not been the same team, losing seven of nine games. Roy Hibbert is slumping big time, Paul George has been chucking and Frank Vogel is left scrambling on how to manage the remainder of the season. Should he rest his starters? Should he bench Roy Hibbert? Vogel and his squad need to find answers to these suddenly pressing questions, as they fall back into the pack at the wrong time.

Of course, the Heat have no qualms about taking advantage of a slumping Pacers team. The Heat eliminated the Pacers lead in the conference standings, looking like the only contender in the East throughout the process. The Nets do not match up especially well with the Heat, despite sweeping them in the regular season. They are old and Deron Williams does not look like the same player. The Wizards are still too young and the Bulls are still undermanned, no matter how hard they fight and claw. I cannot see any team in the bottom six of the East playoff field giving the Heat much of a series.

That is not to say the Heat is not vulnerable. For once, LeBron probably will not win an MVP, Dwyane Wade is hurt and old, and the team is not especially deep. The best litmus test will be a huge matchup in Miami with the Pacers Friday night. If the Pacers can pull a win out this close to the playoffs, all of the bad press will subside and the Pacers can earn their top seed back. Fortunes turn quickly in the NBA.

The much deeper and just plain and simply better Western Conference features an under the radar and intriguing jockeying for playoff positioning, highlighted by a four way race for the last three spots in the West. The fight between the possibly under performing but still sharp shooting Warriors, the veteran laden Mavericks, a young and surprising Phoenix squad and the defensive minded Grizzlies is heated. This race might not cross the finish line until the last day of the season, as each of the four will have at least one more game against each other, including a showdown on the final day of the season between Mavericks and Grizzlies. Win and you are in?

I have always felt the NBA and NHL playoff races do not receive enough attention, with the NHL not getting enough attention period. The playoffs themselves get so much attention, yet the race for it seems to get no burn. Maybe that is the point. Why risk burning out public interest if playoff intrigue does not peak until a week or two later, after the first round dismantling of the East’s eight and seven seeds (which does not seem as much as a foregone conclusion as it once was). Or maybe it is because the spots being competed for are usually the last two spots in a playoff field of half the league, otherwise known as middling teams. In the NFL and MLB, any playoff team really has a viable chance of winning. But just because the Bobcats sneak in does not mean anyone believes they will get more than one playoff win, not to mention the requisite sixteen they need to win it all.

So as an interested NBA fan, take it upon yourself to seek out and watch the home stretch run in the West. A good team will get left out, and it will be playoff caliber basketball.

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