By: Robert Bishop
Back again, and as recently as last week, there were plenty of opportunities for the final day of the NBA regular season to be loaded with drama. But unfortunately, the drama was all but removed in recent days. This was primarily due to most teams in the league either resting starters due to having already secured playoff positioning or playing a subpar collection of players to secure better placement in this year’s draft positioning. However, though Sunday was a relative dud, there’s plenty of thrilling basketball on the horizon with the second iteration of the NBA’s play-in tournament. Tuesday night, things kick off with the showdown between the Brooklyn Nets and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The game will be a rematch of a Friday night meeting that saw the Nets defeat the Cavaliers by double digits. Kevin Durant led the way for Brooklyn, scoring 36 points. Durant struggled to find his shooting stroke on Sunday, but he racked up 16 assists as part of a triple-double. Kyrie Irving scored 35 points on Sunday. Brooklyn’s depth remains a massive issue, but the Nets have enough top-end scoring to cause problems for the Cavaliers. The Nets aren’t likely to play much defense, but with a pair of dynamic scorers capable of putting up 30+ points with ease, Brooklyn may not need a dazzling defensive effort to secure victory. For Cleveland, with Jarrett Allen sidelined, interior defense has been a massive issue, and that’s unlikely to change. It helps to have Evan Mobley back in the fold, but too many players within Cleveland’s rotation are negatives on the defensive end. Brooklyn’s defense is also suspect, but Cleveland lacks offensive weapons equal to Durant or Irving. Point guard Darius Garland has emerged as a fringe All-Star this season, and he did put up 31 against the Nets on Friday night, but his supporting cast lacks consistent contributors. As a result, Cleveland’s hopes at pulling off the upset against the heavily-favored Nets will depend on the supporting cast around Garland. Former Nets wing Caris LeVert, acquired at the trade deadline, will likely be Cleveland’s offensive game plan’s focal point alongside Garland. Out West, the Minnesota Timberwolves will host the Los Angeles Clippers. For weeks, the Clippers looked to be a good team exceeding expectations given the roster’s injury woes. However, the Clippers have added superstar Paul George and wing Norman Powell back to its rotation in recent days. Suddenly, Los Angeles is an incredibly dangerous playoff team. Also working in L.A.’s favor is the presence of Ty Lue on the sidelines. Lue has emerged as a legitimate coaching force, and in a matchup against the playoff-inexperienced Timberwolves, Lue’s masterful ability at making in-game adjustments cannot be overlooked. Though L.A. is the visiting team, the Clippers enter the contest as favorites. Minnesota’s hopes hinge on the strength of big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who has evolved from being an All-Star into a full-fledged All-NBA level superstar this season. In Minnesota’s favor, the Clippers have little experience against this version of Towns, as the three regular-season matchups between the teams were within the first dozen games of the season. Over the past sixty-plus games, Towns has become an ever more potent shooter from beyond the arc and improving as a playmaker. Also working in Minnesota’s favor is the presence of guard Patrick Beverly, who spent the previous four seasons with the Clippers. Beverly is a defensive star, and he will likely be tasked with slowing George. However, L.A. has plenty of depth to counter, and it’ll be up to Towns to lead Minnesota’s offense to keep pace. On Wednesday, the first elimination games occur, with the Hawks and Hornets squaring off in the East and the Pelicans hosting the Spurs in the West. The loser of the matchups will begin the offseason, while the winner will travel to face the loser of tomorrow night’s contests with a playoff spot on the line. It’s going to be a thrilling five days of play-in basketball. Later.