The next-to-last night of the regular season provided a playoff preview of sorts, with all three games involving teams likely to meet again in the first round. But without playoff intensity and a bunch of star players, how much did the games really foretell?In one case, not much of anything. In the others, a bit more. Here's what we learned.
Atlanta Hawks 81, Miami Heat 79
Both teams were already locked into the fourth (Hawks) and fifth (Heat) seeds in the East, meaning they're certain to square off in the playoffs. But with nothing at stake, Miami elected to rest four starters, including Dwyane Wade, who has carried the team all season. Atlanta used its five best players for 18 minutes or less.
As a result, the game bore more resemblance to a preseason contest than a playoff game. Atlanta's fans may have sensed as much; many in the announced crowd of 18,179 came disguised as empty seats. Surely there are better things to do on a Tuesday night than watch Yakhouba Diawara match up with Solomon Jones.
Nevertheless, both teams left with reasons for optimism. For the Heat, Michael Beasley continued his late-season surge, totaling 23 points and 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes. The rookie forward has averaged 24.8 points and 12.8 rebounds in his past four games, emerging as the sidekick Wade will need during the playoffs.
The Hawks had to be heartened by the performance of Marvin Williams, who played for the second time after missing 16 games with a back injury. He scored 13 points in 15 minutes, making all four of his shots. If he's healthy, Atlanta has many more options in its offensive arsenal than Miami.
Still, the Hawks don't have Wade. The hunch here is the NBA's leading scorer, with Beasley's help, will upset Atlanta, which has played mediocre basketball after a torrid start.
Prediction: Miami in six.
Boston Celtics 100, Philadelphia 76ers 98
This game meant something to the Sixers, who are fighting for the sixth seed in the East. Not fighting hard or well, judging by their five straight losses entering the game, but fighting nonetheless.
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The Celtics, meanwhile, had nothing at stake after sewing up the No. 2 spot in the East last week. They also were without Kevin Garnett, still rehabbing a strained knee, and Ray Allen, suspended for his elbow to Anderson Varejao's groin on Sunday.
What Boston did have was plenty of pride and, more importantly, Paul Pierce. The lone active member of the Big 3 carried the Celtics, hitting seven 3-pointers and scoring 31 points. Philly squandered an eight-point halftime lead and remained in the 7 spot in the East, creating a likely first-round rematch with Boston.
The Sixers did get an encouraging performance from Thaddeus Young, who scored 18 points in 29 minutes after missing seven games with a sprained ankle. But if they can't beat a shorthanded and unmotivated Boston team at home, what will happen when the Celtics are in playoff mode with Garnett and Allen back in the fold?
Prediction: Boston in four.
Los Angeles Lakers 125, Utah Jazz 112
The Jazz looked like a dangerous team a month ago, winning 12 straight games and climbing the West standings. Carlos Boozer's return was supposed to make Utah a serious contender.
Since that streak, however, the Jazz had gone 7-10 entering Tuesday's game and slipped to the No. 8 seed in the West. Their incentive in both teams' regular-season finale was to win and hope to avoid a first-round matchup with the Lakers. The Lakers' incentive? Send a message to the Jazz: You can't beat us in L.A.
So Phil Jackson, even while using 11 players for at least 12 minutes, didn't rest his starters Pau Gasol played 34 minutes, Andrew Bynum 30 and Kobe Bryant 26. Both sides battled hard and there was even a faint whiff of playoff atmosphere at Staples Center. In the third quarter, after Bynum banged into Jazz point guard Deron Williams several times, Williams delivered a crushing (and illegal) pick on Bynum the next time downcourt. Williams and Bryant both received technical fouls after woofing at each other.
The outcome, meanwhile, was decided by Utah's Achilles' heel, its porous defense. The Jazz have been awful on that side of the court since Boozer has gotten heavy minutes no coincidence there. Utah's frontcourt, while deep and talented, can't match the length of Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom, who combined for 58 points.
Granted, Mehmet Okur missed the game with a hamstring strain and should be back for the playoffs, giving Utah another big body and outside shooter. But it's hard to imagine he'll make that much difference.
Prediction: Lakers in five.