April Madness

The NBA regular season came to an end today in a dizzying flurry of simultaneously scheduled matinees that finally determined which teams would make the playoffs and in what order, and which teams had earned the right to have a chance to extend their season by at least one game.  The six best of each conference earned the right to rest this week and, yes, there was some value to that.  No truer was this than with the Clippers, who defeated a locked-in Phoenix Suns team on the road and will now square off in a best-of-seven with the same team, the same one that knocked them out of a chance at their first-ever NBA Finals two years ago.  They will have at least a chance to bring back Paul George fully rested, but they will be facing a Suns team that will finally feature a healthy and motivated Kevin Durant, now teamed with Chris Paul and Devin Booker.  We’ll undoubetedly be locked in on them next week,  For now, it’s up to the 13th through 20th best teams in the league to keep us entertained with the play-in tournament, and in its third go-round it promises to be the most intriguing yet.

As Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press wrote, the final day yet to some surprising and, in at least one case, self-destructive results:

The final day of the NBA season was predictably wild — with tons of unpredictable elements as well.

James and the No. 7 — for now — Los Angeles Lakers will get two chances to get into the playoffs, starting with Tuesday’s play-in game against No. 8 Minnesota. If the Lakers lose that game, they’ll get another chance Friday against the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 9 New Orleans and No. 10 Oklahoma City.

“For us, it’s just good that we don’t have to travel,” James said after the Lakers ended their regular season with a home win over Utah. “We’ve traveled a lot lately. It’s good that we get to stay here, but we shouldn’t get comfortable. We have to stay on edge.”

The Lakers-Timberwolves winner gets No. 2 Memphis in Round 1; the winner of Friday’s West play-in game will start the playoffs next Sunday at No. 1 Denver.

No team in the West has had a better record since the All-Star break than the Lakers, who went 16-7 down the stretch — even with James sidelined for about half of that run by injury.

Minnesota locked up the No. 8 seed (and two chances at the playoffs) by holding off New Orleans 113-108.

It was the last game to finish in the league this season, though for Gobert, it ended early. He threw a punch at Kyle Anderson — his teammate — after heated words during a first-half time-out, didn’t return to the game, and Minnesota also lost Jaden McDaniels to a right hand injury after he appeared to punch a wall.

“We made the decision to send Rudy Gobert home after the incident in the second quarter,” Timberwolves President Tim Connelly said in a postgame statement. “His behavior on the bench was unacceptable and we will continue handling the situation internally.”

There appeared to be progress on that front quickly, with Wolves veteran Mike Conley suggesting that the team is ready to move forward.

“We’re going to need all of us,” Conley said.

Gobert chimed in Sunday night as well, tweeting: “Emotions got the best of me today. I should not have reacted the way i did regardless of what was said. I wanna apologize to the fans, the organisation and particularly to Kyle, who is someone that i truly love and respect as a teammate.”

If the Timberwolves lost that game, they would have been the No. 9 seed out West. There were 16 possible ways the 5-6-7-8-9 seeds on the West bracket could have gone on Sunday — and the Pelicans had a shot to finish as high as No. 5. Instead, they settled for No. 9.

The New Orleans-Minnesota battle proved to be the last game standing this afternoon, and with all that went on it was a fitting coda to a tumultuous season that has also set the Wolves up for a visit to Los Angeles to see their old teammate D’Angelo Russell, who has prospered since his return to the Lakers in February.  With a healthy troika that includs James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles’ other team at least has a chance at relevance as well a chance to take on a Memphis team that is being rocked by injury and scandal.

As for the Pelicans, they enter their 9-10 game as a favorite against the unlikeliest team to qualify for the post-season, the Oklahoma City Thunder.  The Thunder were all but assumed to be a last place team battling for Victor Wembanyama, but ultimately stayed close enough with the core they currently have to make a run and thanks in part to a Dallas Mavericks team that is under league invesigation they will get an early start on the own renaissance.  Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, aka SGA, has been an outright force and will potentially ascent to greater prominence should they somehow become the first #10 conference seed to win a play-in game.

And if the Thunder do indeed advance to  the actual playoff quarterfinals, they will be battling a even more daunting track record.  The four #9 teams that have advanced over the last two seasons have won a total of six actual playoff games, none winning a series.  If OKC can be the NBA equivalent of FDU, it will make SGA, in some folks’ eyes, an MVP.  But that depends upon your POV, of course.

For now, the West seems more exciting than the East.  Miami will host Atlanta in a 7-8 game and Chicago will visit Toronto for a chance to make my colleague’s spring a tad happier.  With Boston and Milwaukee awaiting those games’ winners, it’s somewhat of a Bataan death march.

But for this week, it’s a showcase and an opportunity for some underdogs to be established, and for a pause before the two-month-and change marathon to the championship commences.

April Madness.  Indeed.


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