With the lockout-shortened NBA season ending Thursday, the top of the standings look like a photocopy of last season’s final regular season standings.
The Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs have all but clinched the best records in their respective conference for the second consecutive year while the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat have hovered around the top of the standings for the entire 66-game race. The Lakers and Celtics also fit into the usual contender category, but there are a number of lower-standing playoff teams primed to make an impact in this year’s playoffs.
Middle of the road teams have been in playoff mode for about a month in their attempt to advance in to the actual postseason. These rising teams will hope to carry that momentum into the playoffs and make a 2011 Memphis Grizzlies-type run.
The then-eighth-seeded Grizzlies pulled off one of the greatest postseason upsets when they knocked off the top-seeded Spurs before losing to the star-studded Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals. Here are a couple of teams from each conference that have the pieces to be this post-season’s Memphis Grizzlies.
Memphis Grizzlies (39-25)
There’s no better team to take the role of this season’s Cinderella team than a more experienced and healthier version of last year’s postseason darling. Much like last season, the Grizzlies are on a roll heading into this season, winning 11 of 14 games this month including victories in Oklahoma City and Miami.
This year’s playoff Grizzlies team will feature their leading scorer Rudy Gay to go along with last season’s offensive centerpiece, Zach Randolph. Memphis has to be considered a serious contender because their conference-best defense and size inside will be a heavy task to face for any Western Conference foe in a series.
Indiana Pacers (41-23)
Led by a trio of forwards, the Pacers have risen into the third spot of the Eastern Conference with an 11-2 end-of-the-season stretch. They lack a true superstar, but have proved to be one of the most efficient teams in the league.
Los Angeles Clippers (40-24)
The champions of the extended offseason won plenty of headlines when they acquired Chris Paul from the Hornets and they have found a way to turn those headlines into wins. Coach Vinny Del Negro was quickly able to integrate a winning stigma into this franchise with the acquisitions of Chris Paul, Caron Butler and Kenyon Martin.
The Clippers do lack depth and are a jump-shooting team, but poses one of the best closers in the league. Most postseason games aren’t decided until the fourth quarter and Chris Paul has the ability to take over in those stretches.
New York Knicks (34-30)
The Knicks caught a break when Jeremy Lin took over as point guard and garnered some media attention in the process. Mike Woodson’s Knicks fought their way back into the playoffs during Lin’s run. With Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire missing a bulk of the season due to injuries, the Knicks have had little chance to build a set playoff rotation.
With Lin now out, Carmelo has reclaimed his spot as this team’s leader en route to winning 13 of 18 games. The Knicks have the star power to compete with the Eastern powers, but the supporting cast must reach Carmelo’s recent level of consistency to win a series.
Printed on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 as: Grizzlies among teams that could make unlikely playoff run