HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The last Sunday of the NBA regular season delivers a trio of marquee matchups that require our full attention (doesn’t everyone need a little something to take their mind off of Kobe Bryant‘s season-ending injury anyway?) during the eight-game slate.
It’s a big day for playoff locks and contenders, alike. And it’s a huge day for Bryant’s Lakers. Here’s what you need to keep an eye on:
CHICAGO BULLS at MIAMI HEAT (1 p.m. ET, ABC): This game means little to these two teams in terms of playoff standing. The Heat have already locked up home court advantage throughout the playoffs while the Bulls will end up with the fifth or sixth seed and out of the mix for home court advantage. What this game does have, however, is plenty of symbolic meaning for both sides. The Heat’s 27-game win streak came to an end in Chicago, the league’s resident streak busters (they also snapped the New York Knicks’ win streak at 13 games Thursday night). Resting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh against a physical Bulls team in an essentially meaningless game for the Heat would be wise. Why take the risk?
But those bright lights will be on today and this is one last chance to send a message to a team that could be a legitimate threat to the Heat in the postseason. Will the Heat’s Big 3 resist the urge to make more than an appearance in the starting lineup before resting the remainder of the game?
As for the Bulls, the window for a Derrick Rose return during the regular season seems to have passed. And you better believe what happened to Bryant is weighing heavily on Rose’s psyche as he continues to contemplate his immediate future. There is simply not enough at stake for the Heat or the Bulls to take unnecessary risks, not even on the last Sunday of the regular season. Both Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, two guys notorious for wanting to maximize every moment, have the playoffs to think about now anyway.
DALLAS MAVERICKS at NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (6 p.m. ET, NBA TV): The Mavericks have already been eliminated from playoff contention, but Dirk Nowitzki can still reach a personal milestone today that only a select few players in the league have ever achieved. Nowitzki needs just 10 points to reach 25,000 for his career. He’ll become just the 17th player in NBA history to reach that plateau. Jerry West is 16th on that list with 25,192 points. Nowitzki ranks third among active players in career points behind Bryant and Kevin Garnett.
INDIANA PACERS at NEW YORK KNICKS (3:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): This is the sort of showdown worthy of the last Sunday of the regular season. The Knicks have a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed with a win on their home floor, a victory that not only secures their first round matchup against the No. 7 seed Boston Celtics but also completes their late-season walk down of the Pacers, who held a one-game lead over the Knicks for No. 2 a month ago.
Carmelo Anthony could use a little rest before the playoffs begin and if he and J.R. Smith and the rest of the Knicks who are healthy enough to suit up can get it done this afternoon, he might just get what he needs.
Roy Hibbert and David West should have a decided advantage inside if the Knicks’ wounded frontcourt forces Mike Woodson to start 6-foot-8 Chris Copeland at center again. The Pacers own a 2-1 advantage in the season series against the Knicks, but it won’t mean a thing of the Knicks lock up that No. 2 seed.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS at LOS ANGELES LAKERS (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Bryant’s injury could have a devastating effect on the Lakers’ long-term prospects because there are so many moving parts heading into the summer, with or without a playoff appearance. Those worries will have to wait, though. The now Dwight Howard-led Lakers have business to handle against the Spurs and the remainder of their regular season schedule if they are going to fight off the Utah Jazz for that eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
You can bet Gregg Popovich won’t bother resting any of his biggest stars (the ones who are actually healthy) in this one, not with a chance to help close the door on the Lakers’ playoff chances. He can guarantee the Spurs won’t have to deal with the Lakers in the first round by making sure his team pushes their advantages in this showdown, and that includes a decided edge on the wing for the first time in a while without Bryant in uniform. The Spurs need this game just as much as the Lakers if they want that No. 1 seed in the West.
Just like it has been in nearly every game they have played the past two weeks, the Lakers’ season is on the line. They’ll be fighting for their playoff lives until the final buzzer of their final regular season game. They need this one in the worst way and everyone knows it. While Bryant spends his Sunday resting after Saturday surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles, the Lakers will try to save their season (for one more day) in his honor.