Another NBA regular season is in the books. It was an exciting year where battles for playoff seeding took place up through the last night of the season. Surely, more intrigue will come when the postseason starts on Saturday.
Only 16 of the 30 teams remain but we will consider all 30 squads as we look at three risers and fallers from the league’s last week of the regular season.
NBA Week 25 Risers
Orlando Magic (42-40, No. 7 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
This Magic team was thirsty for the playoffs. Orlando hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012, when Dwight Howard was still patrolling the paint. The squad clearly played with a lot of passion in winning 11 of its last 13 games, including its last four contests, to slide into the East’s No. 7 spot.
Defense has been the Magic’s calling card this season in both the starting and bench units. However, in the last few weeks, Orlando has shown a lot of promising flashes on offense. Nikola Vucevic continues to be an all-around beast on that end, Terrence Ross has found his niche as a stud scorer off the bench, and Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac are continuing to learn how to use their physical gifts to contribute positively.
Orlando has a very tough first-round matchup against the Toronto Raptors. Don’t be surprised if the Magic pick up a game or even two on the heavily-favored Raptors.
Brooklyn Nets (42-40, No. 6 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
The Nets were extremely streaky this year. In November and December, they had an eight-game losing streak that was immediately followed by seven consecutive wins. They had six straight wins that were followed by six losses in eight games. They sandwiched a four-game winning streak with two separate three-game losing streaks.
Thankfully for Brooklyn fans, the squad saved a nice little three-game winning streak for the end of the season that helped secure a playoff berth in the tight pack of five teams between sixth and 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Just like all season, the Nets rode their guards heavily for offense at the end of the season, and they came through. Between D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Shabazz Napier, Brooklyn has enough quickness and skill in the backcourt potentially to give the bigger, slower Philadelphia 76ers some trouble in the first round.
Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33, No. 6 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 4-0)
The Thunder went 7-14 between February 14 and April 1. Then, they rattled off five wins in a row to close their season. If that’s not a rising team, I don’t know what would qualify.
OKC now looks like a potential Western Conference Finals candidate with the way the bracket shook out. They’ll have to get past the Jusuf Nurkic-less Portland Trail Blazers and then the winner of the Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs to get there.
If the Thunder’s threes keep falling like they did in the season’s final five games (16.3 per game at a 41.1 percent clip), they are going to be almost impossible to stop. OKC is already the most athletic team in the NBA and they can lock down on defense and score in transition. Nobody wants to see a Thunder squad when their jump shots are falling.
NBA Week 25 Fallers
Los Angeles Clippers (48-34, No. 8 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-3)
What’s going on with the Clippers? They were in the running for a top-five seed a week ago, but three straight losses at the beginning of the past week killed their chances at achieving that. Even their overtime win over the Utah Jazz was uninspiring with so many Jazz players out for rest.
Part of the Clippers’ problems have come due to injuries to Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari, but the team’s strength should be its depth anyway. Los Angeles’ defense has tailed way off recently, as the squad allowed 135, 122, 131 and 137 points in last week’s games, respectively.
Now, Los Angeles is the eighth seed and will face the mighty top-seeded Golden State Warriors. The Clippers’ defense is playing poorly at a bad time as they attempt to stop an offensive onslaught from Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins.
Denver Nuggets (54-28, No. 2 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 2-2)
Over the last 11 games, all but one Western Conference playoff team has a winning record. Interestingly enough, the exception is the second-seeded Nuggets, who have gone only 5-6 in that span.
A big problem for Denver right now is inconsistent outside shooting. The Nuggets have shot just 30.6 percent from downtown in their last 11 contests, making only 9.1 threes per game. Prior to that stretch, they were at 35.8 percent on 11.3 makes per game. Perhaps the reason for this is partially luck, but also the fact that the Nuggets have a tough schedule with a lot of travel since the All-Star break.
If Denver’s collective outside shot can come back, the squad should have a strong chance at defeating the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs’ first round. San Antonio isn’t super explosive offensively because it doesn’t take many three-pointers, so the Nuggets definitely have a chance to find their groove again if they hit a few more threes.
Sacramento Kings (39-43, No. 9 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
The Kings really petered out after about mid-February. Sacramento ended the season winning just nine of its last 26 games and couldn’t nearly keep up the level of play that was required to keep pace in the Western Conference playoff hunt.
Really, it was a miracle the Kings were in the playoff hunt for as long as they were. Sacramento’s top six minute-getters this season all had three or fewer NBA seasons under their belt heading into this campaign and none of them had sniffed an All-Star game before. The Kings survived this year by catching teams off guard with their fast pace and accurate three-point shooting (37.8 percent, fourth in the league).
The Kings didn’t look very motivated at all on defense at the end of the season, and that could be part of the reason general manager Vlade Divac just fired head coach Dave Joerger on Thursday. Despite that, the Kings have a solid young core (De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley and Bogdan Bogdanovic) to build around for the future.