Skip to main content

Assessing the playoff picture

Best case: On some level, the top-seeded Cavaliers would probably like to avoid a first-round matchup with Detroit, a division rival playing with a sense of desperation, knowing that the dismantling of the team that began in November with the Chauncey Billups trade will likely continue this offseason. A first-round matchup with Chicago, a talented but considerably less experienced playoff team with a rookie coach, is preferable.

However, the No. 1 priority for Cleveland has to be giving LeBron James (80 games played), Mo Williams (80) and 33-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas (64) a breather, either at Indiana on Monday or the season finale Wednesday against Philadelphia, another potential first-round opponent.

Worst case: The Cavs still need one more victory to clinch home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Losing that edge to the Lakers would be a tough blow, especially considering L.A. has beaten the Cavs twice this season and handed them their only loss at Quicken Loans Arena.

Best case: Well, if Gabe Pruitt can give the Celtics some quality minutes ... come on, is there a greater concern than the health of Kevin Garnett? Coach Doc Rivers said Garnett will test his balky knee in Wednesday's season finale against Washington. Twenty minutes of a no-limping, no-grimacing Garnett will be cause to break out the bubbly. Having a healthy KG in the lineup to anchor the defense means everything to Boston.

Worst case: If Garnett struggles Wednesday and looks like he will be a shell of his former self in the postseason, it will be a body blow to Boston's hopes for defending its title.

Best case:Hedo Turkoglu sprained his left ankle in Saturday's loss to New Jersey and Rashard Lewis has been dealing with tendinitis in his right knee. Locked into the third seed, the Magic need to concern themselves with getting their starting forwards as healthy as possible for the playoffs. Playing better wouldn't hurt, either, as the Magic have lost four of seven.

Worst case: The Pistons are lurking as a possible first-round opponent. Detroit, which swept the three-game season series, has eliminated the Magic in each of the last two postseasons.

Best case: Atlanta has clinched the No. 4 seed and will face Miami in the first round. But the final two regular-season games (including Tuesday's home date against the Heat) are important as the Hawks seek to work starting small forward Marvin Williams back into the rotation. Williams returned Friday after missing 16 games with a back injury.

Worst case: If Williams doesn't prove to be playoff-ready, the Hawks will lack depth on the wing as they get set to meet Dwyane Wade in the playoffs.

Best case:Jermaine O'Neal will be the first to admit he's not entirely comfortable in the Heat offense, which frequently yanks him out of his usual spot on the low post (Miami has just two straight post plays in the playbook) and puts him in two-man situations on the perimeter. If O'Neal can settle into his role, he would be a huge weapon for Miami in the playoffs.

Worst case: No team is more dependent on one player than the Heat are on Wade, so keeping him healthy is crucial. But Wade is a full-speed player who treats the hardwood like a trampoline -- it's not easy for him to cool his engines. The last thing Miami wants to see is Wade go down in a meaningless regular-season game.

Best case: With a season-high five consecutive losses, Philadelphia has gone cold at the wrong time. "We're not playing good basketball, that's what worries me," coach Tony DiLeo told reporters after Sunday's loss at Toronto. The Sixers need to pick it up in their final two games, against Boston and at Cleveland. They'd also welcome the return of small forward Thaddeus Young (sprained ankle), who is hoping to be ready for the postseason, if not sooner.

Worst case: If their slide continues, the Sixers could end up tumbling to the No. 8 spot and drawing a healthy Cleveland team in the first round.

Best case: Monday's game at Detroit is huge. If the Bulls win, they take the season series 3-1 and avoid Cleveland in the first round. A matchup with banged-up Boston or Orlando would be a more appealing option.

Worst case: See above. The Bulls are only 12-28 on the road. Can they make a statement against the Pistons?

Best case: The Pistons would be comfortable with the Magic in the first round, which means they have to find a way to climb into the No. 6 spot. Detroit has a huge mental edge over Orlando and is one of the few teams in the league that can play Dwight Howard straight up.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

Worst case: An embarrassing first-round exit could await if the Pistons remain in the No. 8 spot. Cleveland would be charged up to play a division rival that has reached the last six conference finals.

Click below for the Western Conference ...

Best case: Andrew Bynum looks like he hasn't missed a beat, scoring double figures in three consecutive games since returning from a knee injury. Bynum stands as the only question mark in a loaded lineup. The Lakers can use the final two regular-season games to work on his timing (he maxed out at seven rebounds last week) and chemistry with the first unit.

Worst case: Other than a potential injury, the Lakers don't have too many concerns.

Best case: Denver is one of the few teams in the West that doesn't turn into the Washington Generals when playing a top contender on the road. Nevertheless, the Nuggets would much prefer playing the majority of their playoff games at home, where they are 32-8 this season. That means winning their last two games, against visiting Sacramento on Monday and at Portland on Wednesday.

Worst case: Getting Kenyon Martin ready for the playoffs may take a lot of duct tape and Krazy Glue. Martin has missed four straight games with sore ribs, another in a long line of injuries for the veteran power forward. Denver has no chance of competing with the Lakers without Martin's presence in the lineup.

Best case: Ordinarily, no coach cares less about seeding than Gregg Popovich, who ignores the standings and makes his players' health his primary concern. But with Manu Ginobili sidelined for the playoffs and Tim Duncan's knees hurting, the Spurs need as much home-court advantage as they can get. That makes beating Golden State and New Orleans in their final two games -- and hoping for help from Denver, Houston and Portland -- a priority.

Worst case: Falling to the No. 5 spot would mean opening the playoffs on the road and likely facing the Lakers in the second round if the Spurs get that far.

Best case: Since Tracy McGrady went down, Houston has used a committee approach to its crunch-time scoring, with Ron Artest, Aaron Brooks and Yao Ming all taking turns. Artest, who has the size and strength to create his own shot in traffic, is the most likely candidate to have the ball in his hands late in playoff games. A little practice before the second season starts wouldn't hurt.

Worst case: The Rockets probably would prefer avoiding a first-round matchup with Utah, which has eliminated them in each of the last two postseasons.

Best case: Few teams are playing with more confidence than Portland, which beat the host Spurs and visiting Lakers in back-to-back games last week and extended its winning streak to four with Saturday's victory against the Clippers. The Blazers, who are 32-7 at the Rose Garden, close the season with home games against Oklahoma City and Denver. A six-game winning streak going into the playoffs would certainly help a young team that is lacking postseason experience.

Worst case: Earning home-court advantage in at least the first round is important. As good as Portland has been at home, it has struggled to beat quality teams on the road.

Best case: The Hornets have been reasonably successful on the road (21-18), so missing out on home-court advantage isn't as crippling for them as for other teams. Their first-round opponent is less important than the status of Tyson Chandler, who has missed the last 14 games with an ankle injury. New Orleans is hoping its starting center will return for Wednesday's season finale at San Antonio.

Worst case: It's all about Chandler. If he can't go in the playoffs, the Hornets will be without the linchpin of their defense and Chris Paul's favorite pick-and-roll partner.

Best case: Dallas is 3-0 this season against Portland, a potential first-round opponent. The Mavs, however, have been less successful against Denver (0-4), San Antonio (2-2) and Houston (1-2, with the last meeting Wednesday).

Worst case: Nobody wants a piece of the Lakers in the first round. Dallas has put itself in position to dodge that matchup; now it must hold off Utah.

Best case: The best-case scenario for the Jazz is already out the window, thanks to an April swoon that cost them any shot at home-court advantage. A pushover on the road against the West's elite, Utah can at least build a little momentum by defeating the Lakers in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Worst case: Utah could head into the playoffs playing poorly and be forced to deal with the Lakers in the first round.