Analysis: As teams get healthier, playoffs come into focus

Mar 14, 2022, 11:21 AM | Updated: 11:23 pm
Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry (7) looks to pass the ball as Cleveland Cavaliers guard Tim Frazier (10...

Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry (7) looks to pass the ball as Cleveland Cavaliers guard Tim Frazier (10) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, March 11, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

(AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

There are just under four weeks remaining in the NBA’s regular season, which means only one thing.

The regular season is over.

It’s a reality that might make those who fancy themselves as purists cringe, but it’s the truth. The point in the NBA calendar where most teams start looking ahead — either to next month or next season — has arrived. A half-dozen or so teams know they’re going nowhere. A few others are still trying to secure spots in the play-in tournament. Everybody else is gearing up for the postseason.

Or as Miami guard Kyle Lowry succinctly called it, “the real season.”

He’s not wrong. The 82-game marathon of a regular season is a compulsory exercise, a prerequisite to quality for what matters most. And the focus is clearly shifting in a lot of places, almost as if training camps for the playoffs are opening.

Some of that is dictated by health. Milwaukee finally has Brook Lopez back, after he missed 67 games — he was there for ring night back in October and hadn’t played since — following back surgery. George Hill has been cleared again as well, after a 16-game absence with a neck issue. The defending champions are still very much in the thick of the race to secure the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and Lopez’s defense only figures to enhance those chances.

Golden State has Draymond Green available again, after he missed two months with a disc issue. The Warriors went from elite (27-6 with him in the lineup, not counting his 7-second appearance as a tribute during Klay Thompson’s return game) to relatively ordinary (19-16) without him. The fact that Green is returning at a point where Thompson is starting to look like himself again is perfect timing for the Warriors, who unbelievably went 33 months without having Green, Thompson and Stephen Curry together for a full game.

Miami could have its full roster together for the first time all season on Tuesday, now that Victor Oladipo is playing again and Markieff Morris has been cleared following his neck problems that led to a four-month hiatus.

Getting guys back is only part of the formula for some teams. Figuring out how the parts fit best together, that’s the challenge of this time of year.

“We’ve got to figure out quickly what combinations make sense,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I think what is becoming apparent to me this year is that we could have a different starting lineup from game to game in the playoffs, from series to series. This is not the Warriors from five years ago when you knew exactly what was coming.”

Other teams aren’t quite as lucky on the injury front yet.

Cleveland lost All-Star center Jarrett Allen and is now precariously on the line separating those with guaranteed playoff spots from those who will have to get through the play-in round. The Los Angeles Lakers think they’re getting Anthony Davis back, but they also know that — despite LeBron James’ brilliance that might lead to a 37-year-old winning the scoring title — the best outcome they can hope for when the regular season ends is probably the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference and a play-in appearance.

Phoenix hasn’t missed much of a beat without Chris Paul and should have home-court advantage for the entirety of the NBA playoffs clinched before long.

And then there a couple of massive what-ifs still lingering.

If New York mayor Eric Adams amends his city’s vaccine restrictions, the Brooklyn Nets could get Kyrie Irving on the floor all the time instead of half the time. There’s also the not-insignificant issue for the Nets surrounding Ben Simmons, and when or if he’ll be ready to go for the first time all season — meaning the team that came into the season as prohibitive favorites have no idea when, or if, it will be whole.

“The holy grail is a championship,” Nets guard Patty Mills said. “Time isn’t on our side.”

And the Los Angeles Clippers have hung around in the playoff race, basically with no worse than a play-in spot secure. Imagine what could happen when or if they get Paul George or possibly even Kawhi Leonard back for the postseason. Same goes in Denver, if the Nuggets get Jamal Murray back on the floor following his ACL tear from a year ago.

For the teams who think they are contenders — and there are more teams identifying as such than usual this season, it seems — the next four weeks are about figuring it out.

“Just getting prepared for the real season,” Lowry said. “I’m just making sure that I’m ready to go when it’s time to go, and that my teammates are ready to go when it’s time to go.”

Yes, the real season is basically here.

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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Analysis: As teams get healthier, playoffs come into focus