ABOVE PHOTO: Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) dunks against the Detroit Pistons in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Oklahoma City won 112-111. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
By Tim Reynolds
MIAMI — Finally, the NBA playoffs are set.
It took the entire season to fill out those brackets.
Overtime thrillers in Memphis and Charlotte, a go-ahead dunk in Oklahoma City to win a game and cap another scoring title for Kevin Durant, plus some good old-fashioned disinterest by Brooklyn … all that, and more, on the final night of the season was needed before the eight conference-quarterfinal matchups in this season’s NBA playoffs could be decided.
In the Western Conference, San Antonio – the league’s best team this season, and a club that had the NBA title slip from its fingers a year ago – opens with Dallas. Oklahoma City gets Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers face Golden State and Houston squares off with Portland. In the East, it’s Indiana against Atlanta, Miami against Charlotte, Toronto facing Brooklyn and Chicago meeting Washington.
And for the third straight year, it’s the same question entering the playoffs: Can anyone beat the Heat?
By late June, we’ll have an answer.
“Now it’s time,” Houston’s Chandler Parsons said, “for the real fun.”
If what’s occurred in the season’s first 170 nights wasn’t the real fun, then these playoffs could be epic.
More points were scored in the NBA than ever before this year, more 3-pointers were both shot and made in league history, the Spurs won 62 games – including 19 straight – and Durant scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games, a stretch of offensive brilliance that spanned exactly half of the season. Durant wound up winning his fourth scoring crown, making him the overwhelming favorite to deny LeBron James a third straight MVP award.
James has taken the high road, lauding Durant’s season and saying he would be a worthy MVP.
Really, though, it’s obvious that the trophy James is most concerned with is the one that’ll be handed out at season’s end. The Heat won the last two championships of David Stern’s era as commissioner, and would enjoy nothing more than being the first team to accept the Larry O’Brien Trophy from new Commissioner Adam Silver.
“What’s coming over the next couple months, we know that’s how we’ll be judged,” Heat forward Shane Battier said.
The 16 teams heading to the playoffs were known before Wednesday, but it wasn’t until the final night before nine of the seeds were secured and six of the eight first-round matchups were finalized.
Memphis held off Dallas 106-105 in overtime, giving the Grizzlies the No. 7 seed and a shot at the Thunder. Monta Ellis’ missed 20-foot jumper at the buzzer for the Mavericks meant they would be heading to San Antonio to open up the playoffs this weekend – and Dallas has lost nine straight times to the Spurs.
“Eventually,” Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki said, “we will win one.”
Losing nine straight to one opponent, that’s not good.
Losing 15 straight, even worse. That’s what Charlotte has to overcome against the Heat – who are 15-0 against the Bobcats since James and Chris Bosh arrived to team with Dwyane Wade in Miami.
Charlotte went 7-59 two seasons ago. It went 43-39 this season, clearly having undergone a brilliant turnaround.
Alas, 43 wins wouldn’t have come close to being enough out West.
Phoenix’s title hopes were doomed by perhaps geography more than anything else. The Suns won 48 games and are done. Toronto won 48 games and earned both a No. 3 seed in the East and a division title.
“Very disappointing,” Suns guard Archie Goodwin said.
The East was a mess entering the season’s final night with five seeds still up for grabs. Chicago lost to Charlotte in overtime, meaning Toronto finished third and the Bulls got No. 4. But the last three seeds needed a bit longer to be settled, and even though the Bobcats won, they couldn’t pass a Washington team that wound up overtaking the Nets for fifth place before the night was over.
Nets coach Jason Kidd rested all five of his starters, plus some backups, even though his club could have finished No. 5.
“I like right where we are,” Kidd said.
Kidd probably had a good idea going into Wednesday night that Washington would beat Boston, so it’s clear that he didn’t mind dropping down a spot in the East bracket. Brooklyn would likely face Miami – a team it swept – in the second round now. Had Brooklyn been the fifth seed and won an opening series, it would have likely faced Indiana, which topped the Nets in all four of their meetings.
Fitting, then, that talk of tanking – a ploy teams who are looking to rebuild through the draft are often accused of – permeated the season’s final night as well.
“You’ve got to be careful what you wish for,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “I’ve been in both situations. You think you want to play a certain team now and then once you start preparing for them you say `Whoa, that team’s pretty good.’ and then all at once you’ve got a dogfight. So I think the best way to approach it is let the basketball gods decide.”
There’s no more tanking now.
For the 16 teams left standing, it’s title or nothing. And the journey starts Saturday.