Minnesota and Denver duked it out for the last playoff spot in the last game of their seasons Wednesday night.
And with a big 112-106 OT win, the Timberwolves squeaked into the playoffs, where they will face the first-place Houston Rockets.
That was all the drama — other than seedings — remaining in a topsy-turvy NBA season that saw a bit of tipping in the balance of power in both conferences, but with also a lot of status quo.
Toronto came out on top in the east, well ahead of Boston and Cleveland, while Houston finished far ahead of Golden State for first place honors this year.
As far as playoffs go, Miami and Philadelphia are the only new entrants in the east and in the west, New Orleans and Minnesota are welcomed back into the fray.
After an 82-game grind, players don’t have a whole lot of time to rest and reset, with post-season festivities set to tip off on Saturday.
Here are one player from each team who will most influence their team’s chance of winning, and an honorable mention, when the NBA starts playing for keeps this weekend (in order of east to west teams).
16. Toronto Raptors – SG DeMar DeRozan
The Raptors, playoff-wise, have been all show and no-go in recent years. For this team to rise above and show everyone that their first place finish was no joke, the Raps have to make it to at least the Eastern Conference final. And, their best player, DeMar DeRozan, needs to — pardon the cliche — be their best player. Not many on this roster can influence a game like the nine-year veteran, as he can shoot (23.1 PPG this year), pass (5.2 assists) and defend when the spirit wills him (3.2 rebounds, 1.1 steals). Where he needs to clean up his act in the playoffs, is shot selection. In last year’s 10-game run, DeRozan had 22.4 points per game, but shot a dismal .067 from three-point territory. In 20 games of the 2016 post-season, he wasn’t much better from beyond the arc (.154), which means he either has to look for pass options, or work himself into better position. Honorable Mention: PG Fred VanVleet – Toronto’s bench has been huge for them this year and VanVleet, undrafted out of Wichita State, has been a boon to starting PG Kyle Lowry. If he can provide the kind of ball control and shooting he did in reserve during the season, the Raps will be fine.
15. Boston Celtics – PF Al Horford
Kyrie Irving is done. Which means that the star slack has to be picked up by someone on the Celtics who has been through the playoff wars. He would be Al Horford, veteran of 92 post-season games , including a career-high 18 with Boston last spring. He was full value too, averaging 15.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and shooting 51.9 percent from three-point territory. More than anyone on the second-place Celtics roster, Horford will be the one youngsters like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown look to for guidance, game and wisdom on the court and off. Horford will have a tough assignment, too, in the first round against Milwaukee. He’ll be matched up with Bucks PF Giannis Antetokounmpo in the paint — which is one scary assignment. Honorable Mention: PG Terry Rozier – As stated above, Kyrie Irving will miss the entire post-season, however long it is. All eyes will be on his back-up Terry Rozier, who made 12 of his 16 starts this year down the stretch. In that 12-game stretch he averaged 15.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game and shooting 38.7 percent from beyond the arc.
14. Philadelphia 76ers – PG Ben Simmons
The time is now for hot-shot rookie Ben Simmons to put up, or shut up. Engaged recently in a war of words with fellow rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz, Simmons boasted that he would “100 percent” pick himself for the award. When asked later if any other freshmen were worthy, he said, “none.” Now that the post-season beckons for the Sixers, where the team hasn’t been for six years, Simmons needs to keep his ego in check and do great things on the court for the surprising Sixers. The huge (6’10”) guard was monster in his first year — after sitting out what should have been his inaugural season in 2016-17 — averaging 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.2 assists. He had 12 triple-doubles this season, his last a statement performance in a big win over Cleveland on Apr. 6. Simmons dropped 27 on the Cavs, along with 15 rebounds, 13 assists, a block and four steals. Honorable Mention: SG JJ Redick – Joel Embiid could occupy this spot, but as the playoffs progress, Redick’s veteran presence on a young team, and his three-point shooting (42.0 percent this year) will be most welcome.
13. Cleveland Cavaliers – SF LeBron James
Like there was any other player most people would focus on at crunch time. The Cavaliers are King James’ team and this year, probably more than any other, they will live or die based on his leadership and performance. It’s been a tumultuous year in Cleveland and the Cavs, after finishing a so-so fourth, have a tough draw in the Indiana Pacers to kick things off. It’s interesting to note, too, that LBJ played all 82 games this season, his 15th in the NBA, for the first time in his career. Now 33, we will see if that 82-game grind will have an effect on his play in the post-season. The 14-time All-Star had his best season since copping his fourth MVP award in 2013. He averaged 27.5 points, had career highs in rebounds (8.6) and assists (9.1) and added 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks. Honorable Mention: PG Jordan Clarkson – With Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose gone and George Hill on the limp, young former Lakers point guard Jordan Clarkson will get his first taste of post-season hoops. He was pretty good in 28 games for the Cavs, especially from three-point range, where he shot 40.7 percent.
12. Indiana Pacers – C Myles Turner
While Victor Oladipo made believers out everyone in his first season with the Pacers after the big trade with OKC (that sent Paul George the other way), Indiana will only advance in the playoffs if they play stout defence. Yes, Oladipo does provide that too (5.2 rebounds, 2.4 steals) but a catalyst in the paint like big man Myles Turner will factor in big time. He struggled down the stretch, missed 17 games this season and was a non-factor in the Pacers loss in the playoffs to Cleveland last year, but we believe he has another level to get to. Indiana needs him to be the player he was in back-to-back games against Boston and Philadelphia in mid-March. On Mar. 11 against the Celtics, he had 19 points, including 3-for-4 shooting from three-point land, pulled down 10 rebounds and had three blocks. On Mar. 13 against Philly, Turner was 9-for-12 from the field, scoring 25 points and adding six rebounds and a steal. Honorable Mention: SG Victor Oladipo – Every facet of Oladipo’s game was enhanced this season, including his three point shooting (career high 37.1 percent). As we said above his defence was stellar, too.
11. Miami Heat – C Hassan Whiteside
The Heat, along with Dwyane Wade, are back in the playoffs after sitting out the 2017 Big Dance. They grabbed the sixth seed ahead of Milwaukee and will have to tangle with the surprising Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. The Heat fashioned a winning record this season based on team defence, finishing fourth in opponents points against at a stingy 102.9 per game. Playing a big part in that was Whiteside, who drew into the last seven games of the season after missing the previous nine games due to injury (he sat out 28 total in 2017-18). When he was in the line-up, the seven-footer averaged 11.4 rebounds per game, 0.7 steals and 1.7 blocks. In his last five games, Whiteside had two double-doubles, part of 28 on the year. He and Philly center Joel Embiid will have some fierce battles in the front court. Honorable Mention: SG Dwyane Wade – The Heat’s spiritual leader is back and in 21 games was as good as a 36-year-old veteran can be. Off the bench he will be looked upon to provide veteran leadership on the floor and boost his team’s offence, which wasn’t great, overall but didn’t have to be since the Heat were fourth in points against.
10. Milwaukee Bucks – PF Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Greek Freak leads a Milwaukee Bucks squad capable of a first round upset into a pressure-cooker of a series with second-place Boston — who will be without Kyrie Irving. Antetokounmpo finished tied for fourth in scoring with Damian Lillard and if it weren’t for more experienced players like James Harden and LeBron James, he would be a favorite to cop MVP honors. He has five seasons under his belt now, but has seen action in just 12 playoff games, the most recent the six-game loss to Toronto in 2017. He was a one-man wrecking crew against the Raptors, averaging 24.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in the series. This year, he is surrounded with better talent, including veteran PG Eric Bledsoe (brought in from Phoenix) and an ever-improving SF Khris Middleton. The sky is the limit, where Giannis is concerned. Honorable Mention: PG Eric Bledsoe – He hasn’t been to the post-season since 2013 with L.A. Clippers, so it’s expected the long-time point guard will be amped up to perform for his new team. He gave the Bucks what they wanted out of him, including his fourth career triple-double in a 102-86 victory over Orlando on Monday. Looks like he is ready.
9. Washington Wizards – PG John Wall
The first-place Toronto Raptors ought not to look past the Washington Wizards if they hope to prove their big-time season was no fluke. Of all the lower-seeded teams in the playoff tournament, we believe the Wiz are well-positioned to provide big scares, if not outright upsets. Especially since All-Star point guard John Wall is back in the fold. Wall missed half the season with a knee injury, only drawing back into the line-up on Mar. 31, where he had 15 points and 14 assists in a win over Charlotte. As a precaution, he sat out three of the the team’s final six games, but when he did play, Wall had a double-double in a loss to Cleveland (28 points, 14 assists) and another in a victory against Boston on Apr. 10 (29 points, 12 assists, 3 blocks and 3 steals). Washington’s back court, including Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. is ultra-talented and a spooky trio to defend against. Honorable Mention: PF Markieff Morris – He is a bull on defence who can do a lot of little –and big — things well. The Wiz will need his nastiness at both ends.
8. Houston Rockets – PG James Harden
Unless voters have a complete brain cramp, this was James Harden’s first MVP season. The ninth year man led all scorers with 30.4 points, while chipping in 8.8 assists and 36.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The Rockets finished first overall, due in no small part to Harden’s heroics. Included among his exploits were 31 double-doubles and four triple doubles. One of his recent double-doubles was turned in against first round opponent Minnesota, where he scored 34 and had 12 assists, four rebounds, a block and two steals. For many players, it’s a season high, for Harden, just another day at the office. The challenge for him will be duplicating his game-in and game-out excellence in the playoffs, where his club has bowed in the second round in 2017 and the first round in 2016. Honorable Mention: PG Chris Paul – CP4 came to the Rockets with much fanfare but didn’t get into a game until mid-November. In all, he missed 24 games, but when he was in the line-up, provided the kind of game fans in L.A. were used to when he was with the Clippers.
7. Golden State Warriors – PG Quinn Cook
All-world point guard Stephen Curry has been ruled out for the Dubs first round series against San Antonio, which means floor general duties rest on the slender shoulders of relative newbie Quinn Cook. He’ll be backed up by Shaun Livingston, but Cook was given 18 starts (of his 33 total games) at the end of the season. He acquitted himself well and finished the season averaging 9.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists, while shooting a sterling 44.2 percent from three-point territory. He’ll be tested severely in the back court by the Spurs Dejounte Murray and veteran Tony Parker, so we’ll see how he holds up. Livingston was decent in a reserve role and depending how Cook fares, may be called upon to start, like he was seven times during the 2015-16 post-season. Honorable Mention: SF Kevin Durant – KD had a good, but not great season by his standards and will be looked upon to keep the Warriors from getting pounded down low in Curry’s absence. His three-point shooting at 41.9 percent (the best since his second season in the league) will need to be continued heading into the clash with San Antonio.
6. Portland Trail Blazers – C Jusuf Nurkic
The Blazers were middle of the pack in scoring this season at 105.6 points per game, the lion’s share of it scored by Damian Lillard (26.9 PPG) and CJ McCollum (21.4 PPG). The Blazers were able to grab the third seed in the tight Western Conference by playing stifling defence, mostly. They gave up just 103.0 points per game, fifth best in the NBA, and looked to the big man C Jusuf Nurkic to be the anchor. The Blazers drew the Boogie-less New Orleans Pelicans, who still have the league’s second leading scorer in Anthony Davis, who will give Nurkic all he can handle down low in the first round. The 7′ Bosnian enjoyed his most complete season in the NBA, starting 79 of 79 games and contributing 14.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 1.4 blocks to the cause. Honorable Mention: SG CJ McCollum – Portland shot a collective 36.6 percent from three-point territory (11th best in the NBA) and will need McCollum’s hot hand (189-of-476 attempts, 39.7 percent) from beyond the arc to amp up the post-season offence.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder – SF Paul George
The Thunder’s big 2017 off-season acquisition was a little cryptic about this off-season plans, as he has been rumored to want to join his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. He did say that his post-season decisions, though, won’t be tied to how the Thunder performs in the playoffs. For that reason, then, he will be a player to watch among a Big 3 that includes Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. George didn’t have a bad year, but neither was he as great many thought he would be going to a team like OKC. He was outscored by the guy he was traded for, Victor Oladipo and he slipped nearly a full rebound from 6.6 per game in 2016-17 to 5.7 this year. He did, however, shoot better from beyond the arc and had more blocks and steals. Honorable Mention: PG Russell Westbrook – The reigning MVP saw his scoring numbers dip six points this season from 31.6 to 25.4, but he still managed to average a triple double for the second year in a row (10.1 rebounds, 10.3 assists). The Thunder will need him to stay hot going into a first round match-up with Utah.
4. Utah Jazz – C Rudy Gobert
The Jazz did an amazing job forgetting that Gordon Hayward was gone, spreading their scoring around and launching themselves into the playoffs with six wins in their last seven games. We literally could have picked five guys to watch on this team, they are so in sync. In the end, it came down to super-rookie Donovan Mitchell and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Gobert. The big Frenchman won out, mostly because the Jazz tied San Antonio for best defensive team with 99.8 points against per game. Offensively, the fifth-year man was solid, scoring 13.5 points per game and adding 1.4 assists. Defensively, he was near without peer. He gobbled up 10.7 rebounds per game in 56 games and was third in blocks with 2.30 per game (129 total). He also stole the ball 44 times for a 0.8 per game average. The Jazz will need the defensive train to keep rolling in the playoffs, especially if they hope to beat OKC in the first round. Honorable Mention: SG Donovan Mitchell – The surprisingly great Mitchell has been trash-talking back and forth with Sixers freshman Ben Simmons about just who is best this season. Mitchell can lay claim to outstanding first year guy by lighting it up.
3. New Orleans Pelicans – PF Anthony Davis
The twin towers will only be one this post-season, as superstar forward Anthony Davis goes it alone in the front court without DeMarcus Cousins. Instead of going into the tank when Boogie got hurt, Davis fluorished, finishing second in scoring with a career high 28.1 points per game and establishing a career mark in dimes with 2.3. The six-year veteran also pulled down 11.1 rebounds (5th in the NBA), had 2.6 blocks (1st) and 1.5 steals (15th). With his team in a dogfight just to make the post-season, Davis was massive in a season-ending five-game winning streak. He had a double-double in four of those five contests, including 34 points and 12 rebounds in a win over Golden State and 22 points and 15 rebounds in a solid season-ending triumph over San Antonio. The Pelicans have a tough task in taking down Portland in the first round and Davis is primed to help. Honorable Mention: PF Nikola Mirotic – The acquisition of the talented Montenegran from Chicago can’t be lauded enough. He was fairly hot down the stretch and seemed to get his three-point percentage going back in the right direction.
2. San Antonio Spurs – PF LaMarcus Aldridge
With Kawhi Leonard missing in action, San Antonio’s Mr. Everything LaMarcus Aldridge drove the playoff bound bus. The Spurs, who combine aging players in Manu Ginobli, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker with up-and-comers like Dejounte Murray and Kawhi Leonard, played sound defence all season, tying Utah for fewest average points against at 99.8. There was a bit of a downturn in that regard in the last five games, three of them losses where San Antonio gave up 113, 122 and 122 points. Aldridge, then, will factor big time into what this team does at both ends of the court. He was the runaway leader offensively, averaging 23.1 points per game, which was more than double the next guy in line, Rudy Gay, at 11.5. On the defensive side of the ball, Aldridge grabbed 8.5 rebounds (Gasol had 8.0) and blocked 1.2 shots per game. Honorable Mention: PG Patty Mills – The Spurs will struggle to score (they were 27th), so it’s imperative that Mills, their most prolific three-point shooter, continue to launch the bombs and be successful with them at least at the rate he was in the regular season (37.2 percent).
1. Minnesota Timberwolves – C Karl-Anthony Towns
Jimmy Butler recently called out his team — that needed to beat Denver in game 82 just to get into the playoffs — by saying they needed to play harder. It seemed to work, for one game at last, as the T-Wolves ended a lengthy absence from the post-season by beating the Nuggets in overtime Wednesday night. KAT played like a man possessed, logging a double-double with 26 points and 14 rebounds. He is front and center in a deep line-up that can score (the T-Wolves were eighth in scoring at 109.5 PPG) and Towns chipped in 21.3 points per game, playing all 82. Defensively, he was a stalwart on team that surrendered a lot of points (107.3, 17th overall). The third-year man grabbed 12.3 rebounds per game (4th best overall) and contributed 1.4 blocks and 0.8 steals, too. Honorable Mention: SG Jimmy Butler – the shooter from Houston drew back in at the right time, playing the last three games after missing 17 before that. He set the pace against Denver in the big win, scoring 31 and adding five rebounds and five assists. He has to be a leader against Houston.