NBA regular season, at long last, is about to close

James-Harden-Houston-Rockets

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) reacts after being fouled by Denver Nuggets' Will Barton (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, in Houston. The Rockets won 121-105. (David J. Phillip/AP)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last day of an NBA regular season typically sees just about every team in action, with plenty of drama surrounding down-to-the-wire playoff races and statistical titles on the line.

Typical doesn’t seem to exist in 2020.

The NBA’s regular season ends — sort of — Friday with just four games, none with any bearing on matchups for the first round of the playoffs that begin next week. The biggest items to be settled Friday are which teams will wear home uniforms to start the Miami-Indiana and Oklahoma City-Houston series.

"Everybody’s excited about what’s at stake," Oklahoma City guard Chris Paul said. "We’ll try to have as much of a home-court feel as possible, as far as the music and things like that, but when you get down to it I think everybody’s trying to make sure they’re going into the playoffs as healthy as possible."

Playoffs start Monday.

All the matchups that can be set are locked in:
Milwaukee-Orlando, Toronto-Brooklyn, Boston-Philadelphia and
Heat-Pacers in the Eastern Conference, with the Los Angeles
Clippers-Dallas, Denver-Utah and Thunder-Rockets about to face off
in the Western Conference. The West No. 1-seeded Los Angeles Lakers
will meet the winner of the play-in series that starts Saturday.

The winner of Friday’s Heat-Pacers game — spoiler alert, don’t expect starters to play much if at all in that one — will be seeded No. 4 in the East, the loser will be seeded No. 5.

Oklahoma City would be the No. 4 seed and Houston would be the No. 5 seed in the West if the Thunder beat the Clippers on Friday; there are also ways for the Rockets to be the No. 4 seed, all of them involving a Thunder loss.

"Seeding doesn’t really mean anything in this bubble," Clippers forward Paul George said. "There’s no home-court advantage."

A season that started with the league getting into the political battle with China on a preseason trip there, saw former Commissioner David Stern die on Jan. 1, former star Kobe Bryant and eight others including one of his daughters die in a helicopter crash later than month and then a four-plus-month shutdown for the coronavirus pandemic is, finally, ready for the playoffs.

"It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind season," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "And I think it’s safe to say we’ll never see a season exactly like this again."

STAT CHAMPIONS

Houston’s James Harden will be the NBA’s scoring champion, the Lakers’ LeBron James is the assist champion, Cleveland’s Andre Drummond won the rebounding title, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons took the steals crown and Portland’s Hassan Whiteside won the blocks title for the second time.

James won the assist trophy for the first time and becomes the first person 6-foot-8 or taller to win it since Magic Johnson got his last assist crown in 1986-87.

The last time Whiteside was the NBA’s top shotblocker was 2015-16 — a season that preceded a trip to free agency where he landed a four-year, $98 million contract.

Timing is everything, perhaps. Whiteside, also a past NBA rebound champion, is a free agent again this summer.

BEST SEASON

Win or lose Friday, the Toronto Raptors — after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green as free agents following last season’s run to the NBA championship — are assured of their best regular season in franchise history.

If Toronto drops its finale to Denver, the Raptors will finish 52-20, or with a .722 winning percentage.

That would still top the .720 mark that the 2017-18 Raptors turned in when they went 59-23. Last year’s team was 58-24 (.707) on the way to Toronto’s first championship.

3’S STILL WILD

For the eighth consecutive year, the NBA’s record for 3-pointers made per game was topped.

Every NBA game this season saw, on average, 24.4 makes from 3-point land. The total for 3’s in a season won’t be broken this year, only because 14% of the season wasn’t played because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the per-game number was broken again, up from 22.7 3’s made per game last season.

And for the ninth straight year, the number of 3-pointers taken per game reached a record level as well. Consider: In 2011-12, each NBA game featured what was then a record 36.8 attempts from beyond the arc per game.

That has gone up every year since — and this season was nearly double what the record was nine years ago, rising to 68.1 per game entering Thursday.

GIANNIS’ YEAR

Reigning MVP — and probable back-to-back MVP — Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks will lead the league in points in the paint for the third consecutive season. Just like last season, he averaged 17.5 points per game from inside the lane.

The league started charting that officially a quarter-century ago and the only other player to lead the league in paint points per game in three consecutive years was Shaquille O’Neal — who, according to Sportradar, led in that category for 10 straight seasons.

FREE THROW MARK

There is one stat race that will go down to the very last game.

The NBA may see its best free-throw shooting season in league history. Combined, teams were making 77.3% of their free throws entering Thursday’s games. The record is 77.2%, set in 2016-17.

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