March's Top 5 (03/30/16)

By Tom W. Brewer @Tom_W_Brewer
Top 5 headlines from March in the NBA.

March has been a peculiar month in the NBA, and considering what's going on with the Lakers right now it looks like the weirdness is going out like a lion. Let's take a look at the top headlines from the last month.

1. The Playoff Picture Takes Shape

We've been living with a few playoff certainties for some time now. The Warriors clinched a postseason spot in February, and the Nets and the 76ers raced to the bottom and fell out of contention by Christmas. (That might not be mathematically true, but, come on.) Several teams cemented their place in the second season during the month of March, and several more teams have landed themselves in the lottery.

Here's what we know:

Cleveland, Toronto, and Atlanta have clinched spots in the East. Brooklyn and Philly have been on the outside looking in for a while, and Orlando, New York, and Milwaukee were officially eliminated in recent weeks. That leaves seven teams fighting for six spots.

The West is a touch clearer. Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the L.A. Clippers are all in the playoffs. New Orleans, Minnesota, Phoenix, and the L.A. Lakers are all out, leaving seven teams to battle over four spots. Two of those seven, Sacramento and Denver, have no realistic chance of making it, so one of the following five teams will be left out: Portland, Houston, Utah, and Dallas. These last two weeks of the season are going to be intense.

2. Many Happy Returns

A pair of teams with championships aspirations, the Clippers and Celtics, have been missing key members of their teams for weeks. But there's reason to celebrate on either coast, as it was announced this week that both teams will soon be back at full strength.

Blake Griffin has been out since December, first with a quad injury, then with a broken hand he received during what we'll call a disagreement with a team employee. The violent nature of the disagreement earned him a suspension that he began last Sunday. The Los Angeles Times reports Griffin is expected to return to action on April 3 in a game against the Washington Wizards.

The Celtics have been missing Jae Crowder since March 11, when he went out with a high ankle sprain. Boston hasn't been a disaster in the games he has missed, amassing a 4-5 record. However, they have dropped two spots in the Eastern Conference standings, falling from third to fifth in his absence and losing home court in the first round in the process. Crowder is expected to return to the lineup this week.

3. Anthony Davis shuts it down

The season Davis and the Pelicans have had are proof of that old line about the best laid plans of mice and men. The coronation we all expected never materialized and New Orleans' season was doomed from the jump. The entire roster was never healthy at once: Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Quincy Pondexter, Omer Asik, and Norris Cole have all missed long stretches of the 2015-2016 campaign. There was no reason for the lottery-bound Pelicans to do anything short-sighted when the Brow damaged a tendon in his left knee. Davis recently had surgery on the injured knee and pulled himself out of contention for the U.S. Olympic team.

4. Russell Westbrook goes on a tear

Westbrook is crushing the universe right now. He's been a supernova this month, tallying seven triple-doubles. To put that in perspective, Rajon Rondo is third in the NBA in total triple-doubles, and he has five. For the season. Magic Johnson holds the all-time record for triple-doubles in a season with 18, and Russ has eight games to catch him. I'd say that record has about as much chance as a snowman standing in front of a train.

5. LeBron freaks out Cleveland

Normally, I don't think what a player does on social media is newsworthy. I don't care who is or isn't in the Instagram photo. I'm not concerned with whom a player DMs. But people keep bringing up what's going on with LeBron James' Twitter account and I've found that telling people it doesn't matter is as silly as spitting into the wind. To bring you up to speed: LeBron unfollowed the Cavaliers' official Twitter account and people are losing their minds. Does LeBron regret returning to Cleveland? Is this a message that he's leaving in free agency? Is LeBron still going to prom with me?

I'm being a little dismissive—it's not just the social media stuff that has Cavs fans nervous. There's also that video of him working out with D-Wade in Miami. There's also LeBron telling Bleacher Report he'd like to play with Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. There's also King James being lectured about his leadership by Cavaliers brass. Put all these things together, and the situation in Cleveland feels precarious. One thing's for sure: Free agency will be interesting.

Playoff Projections

The Prediction Machine staff met in the basement of a quaint, little donut shop in a town that looks an awful lot like yours and secretly ran this playoff projection. To reach these conclusions, we simulated the remaining games 50,000 times. Also, we ate some apple fritters. They were delicious.

Reminder: Division winners are bolded.

Eastern Conference
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)
2. Toronto Raptors (54-28)
3. Atlanta Hawks (49-33)
4. Miami Heat (48-34)
5. Boston Celtics (48-34)
6. Charlotte Hornets (48-34)
7. Indiana Pacers (44-38)
8. Detroit Pistons (43-39)

Biggest Change: No Bulls. For the first time all year, we project that Chicago will miss the postseason. Considering the Bulls went 4-8 in February and 7-9 in March, it should come as no surprise.

Western Conference
1. Golden State Warriors (73-9)
2. San Antonio Spurs (68-14)
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (56-26)
4. Los Angeles Clippers (52-30)
5. Memphis Grizzlies (44-38)
6. Portland Trailblazers (42-40)
7. Utah Jazz (42-40)
8. Houston Rockets (41-41)

Biggest Change: The Rockets launch into the playoff as Houston jumps the Dallas Mavericks to get to the playoffs. James Harden and Steph Curry in the first round? I'm in.

This is our last regular season recap. Soon it will be time to put the kids to bed, grab some snacks and the beverage of your choice, and settle into a groove on the couch. The playoffs are almost here.