NBA regular season unlike any other ending with thrillers, blowouts and shifting standings


CLEVELAND — It took 82 games and five extra minutes to decide the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.

On an unprecedented final day of the regular season for the NBA, with more up for grabs in both conferences at game No. 82 than at any point in the league’s 77-year history, the New York Knicks defeated the Chicago Bulls in overtime 120-119 to claim second in the East. The Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers also won on Sunday, while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks lost in embarrassing fashion.

As a result, the certain East first-round matchups are No. 5 Orlando at No. 4 Cleveland, and No. 6 Indiana at No. 3 Milwaukee.

The No. 7 Sixers will host No. 8 Miami in one Play-In Tournament game Wednesday, with the winner advancing to play No. 2 New York in a first-round series. The Boston Celtics, who finished with a 14-game lead in the East, the largest lead over a second-place team since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, await the winner of the Play-In finale (loser of Miami-Philly versus winner of No. 10 Atlanta-No. 9 Chicago).

All of the Western teams play at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, and more will be settled once those games end.

If The Masters is a tournament unlikely any other, well, the same could be said for this particular season-ending day in the NBA.

This was the first time in league history that, through 81 games, three teams had the same record with a chance to finish first in the conference — as the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves did out West. Also on that side of the bracket, only the LA Clippers (No. 4) and Dallas Mavericks (No. 5) were guaranteed to stay in the spot they held through 81 contests. The Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans both entered Sunday with a shot at sixth, and only one game separated No. 8 (Los Angeles Lakers) from No. 10 (Golden State Warriors).

All 30 teams played Sunday. By day’s end, there would be 18 teams with at least a .500 mark — another league record.

Sunday began with the Bucks, Knicks and Cavs all with a shot at the No. 2 seed. Milwaukee has faded down the stretch (14-12 since the All-Star break) and struggled under new coach Doc Rivers, and pulled its starters in the fourth quarter of an eventual 113-88 beatdown at the hands of the Magic — who would have fallen to the Play-In with a loss. A win and the Bucks would have captured second. Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t play due to the calf injury he suffered last week.

In Cleveland, where the Cavs were in second in the East at the All-Star break, only to go 12-17 after, Donovan Mitchell, Caris LeVert and Darius Garland were all held out against the Charlotte Hornets, who only dressed nine players and one rotation player. But early in the first quarter, the Cavs’ lone ballhandler in uniform, Craig Porter Jr., sprained his ankle and could not return. The Cavs led by 13 early in the fourth, when coach J.B. Bickerstaff pulled most of his remaining rotation players, and Cleveland closed with a lineup in which its only offense seemed to be Tristan Thompson — yes, Tristan Thompson — trying to put the ball on the floor to make something happen.

Not even against a lineup of end-of-benchers and G Leaguers, like the one the Hornets had on the floor at the end, would such a silly idea work. The Cavs lost 120-110 in Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s last game and were roundly booed by home fans in the closing moments.

With a win, the Cavs would have leaped over the Bucks for third and would have avoided the Celtics until a potential conference finals match. The Knicks, meanwhile, received 40 points from All-Star Jalen Brunson and 25 points from Donte DiVincenzo, who played all 53 minutes of the game. Clearly, second place meant more to some teams than others.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver sought to make this regular season mean more, and say what you will about each particular method he chose, but he received the desired end result. Silver created a new tournament, demanded players sit out fewer games and, with the players’ OK, changed the rules to encourage greater participation. He also asked the players to try harder during the All-Star Game.

“I don’t know if this is because of all the in-season changes or whatever it may be, or if it’s because I think the league is in a really good place as far as the depth of talent,” Bickerstaff said. “I think the level of competition from top to bottom through the league is so good now and so well balanced that the games are more engaging.”

The In-Season Tournament was a success by any measure. The championship featured LeBron James and the Lakers, and given Los Angeles’ proximity to Las Vegas, where the tournament’s semifinals and final were held, attendance was bound to be plentiful. The title game, won by L.A. over the Pacers, was the most-watched non-Christmas NBA regular-season game since 2018.

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New league rules to limit load management and increase the number of stars playing in national TV games stirred controversy, mostly because one rule tied honors such as MVP to number of games played, but by and large, more of the NBA’s best players were on the court more often.

For instance, of all the league’s perennial MVP candidates, only the reigning MVP, Embiid, failed to reach the minimum 65 games to qualify, and the rest are over by a comfortable margin. Far more of the league’s top 50 scorers played in at least 80 percent of the games this season than last. Also, of the top 10 vote getters for MVP last season, only two players appeared in more than 70 games.

The All-Star Game, well, it remained a joke, as both teams paid so little attention that a new All-Star record for total points in a game was shattered.

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But Silver’s other two initiatives worked, and here he is at the end of his 10th season in charge, presiding over a final day of a regular season in which more was up for grabs than on any previous last day in league history.

This story will be updated.

(Top photo of Jalen Brunson:  Elsa / Getty Images)





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