There is a popular clichéd phrase in European Football (or soccer): as the season reaches its conclusion, there is no room for error any longer. Each game must be won to survive. And players and coaches repeat over and over again that “each remaining game is like a Final.”
There are only 10 days left in the NBA’s regular season, and the cliché couldn’t be truer for basketball’s most competitive league this time of the year. Teams are jostling for the last few playoff spots, and those who seem to have clinched their positions are jostling to secure a favourable first round matchup.
There are intriguing battles for the final spots in both coasts: In the east, the 76ers, the Knicks, and the Bucks all have a chance at the last two playoff spots. The teams ranked 4-6 (Celtics, Hawks, Magic) may have secured their playoff berth, but there is still a possibility of a major reshuffle in the conference standings between now and the last day of the season.
Things are a lot tenser out West. While the Thunder, Spurs, Lakers, Clippers and Grizzlies look comfortable with the top five slots, the next three are still up for the taking. The Mavericks, Nuggets, Rockets, Suns, and Jazz will be playing each remaining game like a Final, because even a single slip can have serious repercussions in their season’s ambitions.
A lot of potentially crucial games took place over the last week, and here is a short summary of all the actions from all the ‘Finals’.
Tuesday: Rockets @ Trailblazers
The Rockets have been one of the surprise stories of the season, finding new heroes every few weeks to keep them in the playoff hunt. On the day he was named as the Western Conference Player of the Week, point guard Goran Dragic showed that he deserved that award by scoring 22 points to go with 7 assists as the Rockets got a crucial road win, 94-89, over the Blazers. Portland, who were once themselves in the hunt, have instead dipped southwards and seem to have played themselves out of postseason contention.
Wednesday: Celtics @ Heat
This one has repercussions in the higher-level standings in the East, and perhaps, it’s a message for what could be an intriguing second-round series. A year ago, the second round of the playoffs was when Miami disposed of the aging Celtics. But Boston have bounced back strong this season and are peaking at just the right time. What more, they seem to hold a mental advantage over the Heat this year. Miami have been unstoppable at home, but in this game, they had no answer for the offensive prowess of the visiting Celtics. For the second time in nine days, the Celtics defeated the Heat, despite an epic effort from LeBron James (36 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists). The Celtics shot the ball incredibly well as Paul Pierce (27 points, 7 rebounds), Kevin Garnett (24 points, 9 rebounds) and Rajon Rondo (18 points 15 assists) led them to a 115-107 win.
Thursday: Lakers @ Spurs
A top-tier Western Conference clash, but there was no Kobe Bryant to bolster the star power for LA. No problem, said Andrew Bynum. The young Center made history in a team that is over-pouring with historical greats, joining only a select few names – Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and George Mikan – to have grabbed 30 rebounds while in Laker colours. Bynum had 16 points too, and Metta World Peace added 26 for the Lakers as they fought off the Spurs 98-84.
Friday: Mavericks @ Warriors
Few had thought that after their inspiring title run last year, the Mavericks would find themselves in the bottom part of the Western Conference standings less than a year later. But going into the last few weeks of the season, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and the rest of the Mavs have been taking care of business to secure a strong playoff spot for themselves. The Mavs took a 19-point lead against the undermanned Warriors, but almost blew it in the fourth quarter as the Warriors made an impressive comeback behind David Lee (30 points) and Klay Thomson (24 points). In the end, Dirk (27 points) and his team did enough to survive and gain a crucial 112-103 win.
Saturday: Nuggets @ Lakers
The Nuggets find themselves hovering around the seventh spot in the West, but their safety isn’t yet assured. They faced a setback in LA as the Lakers were impressive once again without Kobe. It was Bynum who did most of the damage once again, scoring 30 points for the Lakers, while Matt Barnes added 24. Lakers won 103-97.
Sunday: Heat @ Knicks
A marquee Sunday matchup that could potentially be an exciting first-round series, and all the stars came out to play. The Knicks have been playing exceptionally well under head coach Mike Woodson, and their superstar Carmelo Anthony has been the catalyst to their success. Melo was unstoppable again in this game, shooting for an impressive game-high 42 points. But it wasn’t enough to stop Miami’s own impressive trio of stars, as LeBron James (29 points, 10 rebounds), Dwyane Wade (28 points, 9 rebounds) and Chris Bosh (16 points, 14 rebounds) saved their best for the fourth quarter to lead the Heat to a tough road win, 93-85.
… And the rest of the weekend
On Friday night, in an Eastern Conference clash, the Hawks played tough defense to hold back the Orlando Magic, and the Magic soon heard the bad news that they might lose Dwight Howard for the rest of the season. Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns received a rude halt to their playoff dreams as the San Antonio Spurs beat them easily, 105-91 behind a vintage night by Tim Duncan. Late on Sunday night, the Nuggets beat the Rockets 101-86 in a tense battle for the remaining spots in the West.
On your TV sets this week- Tue: 76ers @ Magic, Thunder @ Clippers (SIX), Wed: Celtics @ Knicks (Ten Sports), Thu: Clippers @ Nuggets (SIX), Fri: Bulls @ Heat (Ten Sports), Sat - Thunder @ Kings (SIX), Sun: Mavericks @ Bulls (Ten Sports), Knicks @ Hawks (SIX), Mon: Magic @ Nuggets (SIX).