The Washington Wizards are quietly hitting their stride now that John Wall has returned from injury. (Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com)
The NBA standings reveal that no teams have technically been eliminated from playoff contention.
But for some teams, such mathematical confirmation is not necessary. It is simply safe to say they will be on the outside looking in when the 2012-13 postseason begins.
Teams that fall into this category must find other sources of motivation to play out the string of games on their schedule. Often the role of spoiler emerges as the best option, whereby the plans of teams jockeying for playoff position are either disrupted or completely derailed.
Here is a look at five teams no contender wants to face as the regular season winds down.
Dion Waiters has stepped up for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the absence of Kryie Irving. (Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com)
The Cavaliers (20-38) are 6-4 in their last 10 games and recently earned victories in both ends of a back-to-back for just the second time this season.
On Tuesday, Feb. 26, playing without guard Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers marched into the United Center and defeated the Chicago Bulls 101-98. Leading by five points with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers did not buckle in crunch time.
Guard Dion Waiters, who led five Cavaliers in double-figure scoring with 26 points, shot efficiently from the field and made quick, explosive drives to the basket down the stretch.
The next night, as Irving sat out again with an injury to his right knee, the Cavaliers returned home and delivered a blow to the fading playoff hopes of the Toronto Raptors in an easy-looking 103-92 victory.
Playing with energy and purpose, the Cavaliers are showing no signs that they will mail in the rest of the season.
As 11 of their 20 wins have come against teams above .500, the Cavaliers are displaying a high level of maturity for a young team and are using the remaining games to prove that, regardless of which players are out with injuries, they are going to play up to the level of the opponent.
The Wizards (18-38) may be the best example of a team better than what their record shows. Guard John Wall did not make his season debut until Jan. 12, but since his return from injury the team has posted a record of 13-10.
A team should obviously improve with its best player back on the court, but often teams are judged by how their season began. As such, the Wizards are able to surprise their opponent with a caliber of play higher than expected.
But Wall is not alone in his efforts. Nene and Emeka Okafor are a solid pairing in the frontcourt and a big reason why the Wizards are fourth-best in rebounding in the Eastern Conference at 43.2 per game, trailing only the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and the Bulls in that department.
In February, the Wizards went 7-5, defeating some quality opponents along the way, including the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets.
Teams that make the mistake of ove-looking the Wizards, thinking that a victory will be earned simply by showing up, are definitely in for a surprise.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were a playoff contender until the injury suffered by Kevin Love. (Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com)
The Timberwolves (20-34) have fallen off considerably since starting the season 16-16, for the most part due to injuries.
Forward Kevin Love has been limited to just 18 games, but in those contests he made a significant contribution, providing 18.3 points and 14 rebounds per game.
With Rick Adelman patrolling the sidelines, this team is very well coached and could provide a wake-up call to teams who think they have everything figured out.
On Wednesday, Feb. 27, the Suns (20-39) defeated the San Antonio Spurs 105-101 in overtime—just the third loss by the Spurs on their home court all season.
This was an exciting moment in what has been a difficult season for the Suns and their fans.
But perhaps more efforts like this are on the way in the team’s remaining games.
Forward Jermaine O’Neal is a veteran with leadership qualities, capable of convincing his teammates to finish out the season strong. And it doesn’t hurt when he can lead by example, as he did versus the Spurs, scoring a season-high 22 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
When this team plays with focus, they can be a very tough matchup.
Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins is a double-double threat every game. (Photo Credit: Scott Mecum, Flickr.com)
The Kings (20-39) have won some close games this season, going 6-1 in games decided by three points or less.
They have also shown the ability to push opponents to the limit, when on paper they appear completely overmatched.
On Tuesday, Feb. 26, the Miami Heat needed two overtime periods to finally shake the Kings 141-129 in an entertaining match at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
The Kings, who went 14- for-27 from 3-point range, were leading with one minute to go in the first overtime and forced double overtime with a defensive stop before the Heat pulled away to earn their 12th win in a row.
Center DeMarcus Cousins and guards Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton scored a combined 86 points in this game for a very capable offensive-minded team that can lure opponents into a free-flowing and high-scoring affair.
The Heat were able to escape this trap, but not all teams will be as lucky.