AP Basketball Writer
Derrick Rose was already lost for the season, the Brooklyn Nets were playing like $180 million busts, and nobody else looked like a real challenger.
So when Miami and Indiana met for the first time on Dec. 10 and the game was hyped as an Eastern Conference finals preview, there seemed little reason to argue.
Tom Thibodeau did, anyway.
A lot can change in an NBA season, the Chicago coach said the next night, and how teams start may not be how they finish. With the Heat and Pacers no longer looking untouchable, and the Bulls, Nets and Raptors playing better basketball for quite some time, maybe this is what he meant.
"You never know how seasons are going to unfold. You don't know how teams will develop. You don't know how they'll improve," Thibodeau said Sunday. "So then at the end, it comes down to how well you're playing and your overall health. So often times, teams find their way."
Chicago has rebounded from losing Rose to another knee surgery, and later trading Luol Deng, to go 35-15 since Jan. 1, a .700 winning percentage that is best in the East. Brooklyn is 34-15 and Toronto has gone 33-18.
That's more than half a season with better records than Miami (30-19) and Indiana (30-21), who haven't been sharp down the stretch.
"I do think over the course of a long period of time, it does tell you how a team is playing," Thibodeau said. "So if you're looking at 30 or 40 games, which way are they trending? Now that doesn't mean it can't change. Often times in this league it does change."
It did in 1999, when the Knicks team he was an assistant on got healthy just before the playoffs and reached the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed. That helped convince him never to call a race too early.
"It's the teams that are playing the best in the end," he said.
Here are five things to watch in the final week of the regular season:
WHO'S NO. 1?: It will be Indiana in the East with one more victory or loss by Miami, since the Pacers own the tiebreaker if they finish with the same record in the race for home-court advantage.
SETTING SUNS?: An expected lottery team that has instead played well above expectations, the Suns can finally be eliminated from playoff contention Monday if Memphis beats them in Phoenix to clinch the final Western Conference playoff berth.
PICK SIX: Washington is a game ahead of Charlotte in the race for the No. 6 seed in the East and the right to avoid Miami or Indiana in the first round. But the Wizards face the Heat on Monday, and losing that one risks it ending up a playoff preview.
THE WEST IS GOOD, BUT... : The Jazz have dropped four in a row and have the worst record in the West. The Lakers are a game better despite dropping seven in a row. One of them wins Monday when they meet in Utah.
SCHEDULE SET: The NBA will aim to release the first-round playoff schedule sometime near or shortly after the end of play on Wednesday night. The postseason starts Saturday.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK: Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn. 6 for 6, 17 points against Atlanta on Friday. The rookie from Duke, whose first-round selection was completely overshadowed when the Nets agreed to acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from Boston on draft night, has made 38 of 46 shots (83 percent) in April.
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