Did you know that it's almost April? Well, it is! And that means the NBA regular season is just about finished as teams start not-so-coincidentally ruling out players for the schedule and others make that final push heading to the playoffs.
Here's what's currently trending in the NBA:
Too little too late for the Knicks?
During Phil Jackson's introductory press conference on Tuesday, there was a lot of talk about turning the team back into a title contender, about restoring glory to a proud franchise.
But starting yesterday, Jackson is in charge of the Knicks. Which means there's a present mission to focus on, one that Jackson noted. While the future is the focus and the Knicks are intent on building a strong culture, the team isn't done this season. The 2013-14 campaign has been mostly miserable, littered with injuries, bad play, and losses. But the Knicks have quietly won six straight, bringing a current postseason birth back into focus.
Question is, is it too late to salvage something from this season?
The current problem for the Knicks is actually more about what's going on above them. The Hawks have inconveniently won five in a row themselves, keeping a 4.5 game buffer between them and the Knicks. Can the Knicks catch them, though?
The Hawks have a pretty favorable schedule down the stretch, playing 10 of their final 16 at home. Nine of their final 16 are against non-tanking teams.
The Knicks have 15 games left in their season, with only six coming in the confines of Madison Square Garden. They have a seven-game road trip to finish March and play only five games against tankers. Their April schedule is awful, playing against all playoff teams in the Nets, Wizards, Heat, Raptors, Bulls, Nets and Raptors again. If the Knicks are going to continue this positive push, they're going to have to really play some good basketball, going something like 10-5 to finish, and doing it against really good teams.
But as Jackson noted on Tuesday, the team has been playing better. What's changed for them? Pretty obvious: They're playing crappy teams. The six wins have come against the Timberwolves, Jazz, Cavaliers, 76ers, Celtics and Bucks. All six have come by double-figures, with an average margin of victory being 16.1, which is really good. So at least they're not squeaking by against the bad teams, but playing pretty dominantly.
Which leads us to tonight. The Knicks host the Pacers. The cupcakes are done. If they're actually serious about turning this mess around and trying to eek into the postseason, they're going to have to start by winning some games they shouldn't. The Hawks not only have a better schedule, but better players. Either the zen of Phil Jackson will have to drift immediately into the Knicks locker room, or Carmelo Anthony is going to have to get to that next level Jackson said he's capable of and do it in the next week.
Back to the Western favorite?
The Spurs closed the gap on the Thunder for the top seed in the West, now taking a 1.5 game lead. (They've already lost the tiebreaker to Oklahoma City, though.) There were some legitimate questions about the Spurs this season as they battled injuries and looked sloppy and lethargic at times during January and February, but now that they're back to full strength and picking up a second wind, they're in charge of the West once again.
Are they the favorite in the West, though? Most would lean towards the Thunder, because their recent slip that's allowed the Spurs to take control is easily explained. Plus, there's no denying that the Thunder have the best player in the conference, and actually, probably two of the best four.
The Spurs have had consistent trouble with the Thunder since OKC won four straight in the Western Conference finals in 2012, with the athleticism, length and speed giving San Antonio big problems. The Spurs are in control again, and have won 50 games now for 15 consecutive seasons which is just absurd. And even with powerful rosters lurking behind them like the Thunder, Clippers and Rockets, the old dogs might be the pick once again.
Russell Westbrook in back-to-backs
The Thunder said they would "manage" Westbrook in back-to-backs this season, and have already gone through one, making the choice to rest him against the Mavericks, and play him against the Bulls. It sort of worked out, with the Mavs smoking OKC, with the Thunder bouncing back in Chicago.
They face another one on Thursday playing against the Cavs with a matchup in Toronto waiting 24 hours later. The decision for OKC as it chases th Spurs is to try and figure out how to win both games without Westbrook. The Thunder have five back-to-backs left, and unless they can figure out how to flip between playing Slim Reaper style centered completely around Kevin Durant and playing as a two-headed monster, managing Westbrook could be what hands the Spurs the top Western seed.
Now 21 straight losses. And they've missed some of their best opportunities to win. The lost at home to the Jazz, then home against the Kings. They have two against the Bulls, one against the Knicks, one against the Spurs and one agains the Rockets ahead in the next week. That's five almost guaranteed losses, which would tie them with the 2010-11 Cavaliers for the longest losing streak ever at 26.
The 27th game is home against the Pistons, which could be winnable. Their best remaining opportunities period to prevent finishing on a 36-game losing streak is April 4 at Boston, and April 14 home against Boston. Because other than those two and the Pistons game, the 76ers are playing teams either in the playoffs, or fighting for a spot in them.