The NBA regular season is truly in its homestretch now, with the playoffs set to begin on April 15 and the postseason picture slowly starting to reveal itself. While the league’s top teams will safely be playing into April and May, many others are fighting for their lives to clinch one of the final spots.
And some of those who have already clinched are still jockeying for the right seeding. What’s the playoff picture looking like for each conference? Let’s take a look.
The top three seeds in the West are more or less set in stone, particularly after the Warriors’ win over the Spurs on Wednesday. Golden State will finish first barring an unforeseen collapse, followed by San Antonio and then Houston.
Where things get really interesting in the West is in the four-five-six area of the bracket. The Jazz have a 1 1/2 game lead over the Clippers for the four seed entering Thursday, with Utah two ahead in the loss column. The Clips, meanwhile, are tied in the loss column with Oklahoma City, but the Thunder have two fewer wins. While the four seed guarantees one of these teams homecourt advantage in the first round, it also puts them in the same bracket as the Warriors.
If I’m the Clippers, I’m stealth tanking to avoid to Golden State for as long as possible. A second-round berth would be a successful season for the Jazz or Thunder. Anything short of the conference finals for the Clippers (who are already backsliding at this point) would probably accelerate their impending breakup. Would Los Angeles actually be willing to lose a game or two to skirt the Dubs? It’s worth keeping an eye on.
The race for the eighth seed out West took a big turn after the Blazers defeated the Nuggets earlier this week in the Jusuf Nurkic revenge game. Portland took a one game lead over Denver for the final playoff spot, and also clinched the tiebreaker between the two teams. The Nuggets are nowhere near eliminated, but they have a hellacious schedule down the stretch. Denver plays six of its last eight on the road, while Portland plays six of its last eight at home.
The combination of the Blazers peaking at the right time and their home-heavy schedule makes them the heavy favorites to capture the eighth seed. Their reward? A first-round matchup with the Warriors. Good for Portland (and its highly paid cast) for fighting down the stretch and trying to make its season count. Whoever finishes ninth in the West (and heads to the lottery) is probably better off, though.
The Eastern Conference, as it is in most seasons, is up to no good. Let’s start at the top, where the Cavaliers entered Thursday as the No. 1 seed thanks to a one-game lead in the loss column over the Celtics. Boston will be kicking itself after a loss to the Bucks on Wednesday, but the C’s are still very capable of nabbing the top seed. The Celtics have fewer games remaining than the Cavs, which can be a blessing or a curse, but it perhaps helps Boston here because it will face lighter competition down the stretch. Cleveland’s awful defense means most of its opponents will have a chance in any game. Don’t be shocked if the Celtics, easily a better team than the Cavaliers since the All-Star break, steal the No. 1 spot.
The uncertainty at the top has implications on the race for No. 3 in the East. Toronto has thrived despite an injury to Kyle Lowry, winning six straight games until a loss to Charlotte on Wednesday. The Raptors are one game behind the Wizards, who have a road-heavy schedule down the stretch. The issue for both of these teams is that earning the three-seed could now mean facing the Cavaliers in the second round if Cleveland does indeed finish second. As shaky as the Cavs have looked since the All-Star break, you obviously want to avoid seeing LeBron for as long as possible in the playoffs. The picture is probably too murky at the top for either Toronto or Washington to pull off any stealth losses to avoid a specific opponent. For a team that could have taken a serious slide after losing their best player to injury, it’s really just remarkable that the Raptors kept pace with the Wizards.
The rest of the East is a mess. Two games separate teams five through eight, and the Bulls are only 1 1/2 games out of the final spot. Atlanta is currently fifth, but the Hawks have been awful without Paul Millsap, but he will not return to the lineup until next week at the earliest after undergoing a minor knee procedure. That’s good news for the Bulls, who play the Hawks on Saturday.
The Bucks are in sixth, and Milwaukee appears to be safe for now. The team has played well since integrating Khris Middleton back into the lineup, and the Bucks have appeared to right the ship after a midseason swoon.
The Heat have been one of the best teams in the NBA in 2017, but they are dealing with their own injury issues as Dion Waiters nurses a severely sprained ankle. That’s right, a team’s playoff hopes could really rest on Dion Waiters. The Heat are playing well, but four of their last six games are against teams currently in the top four in the East.
The Pacers at least appear to be gearing up for a playoff run by adding former postseason folk hero Lance Stephenson back to the roster. But Indy also continues to have dispiriting losses that make Paul George question everything. Sitting behind the Pacers in ninth are the Bulls, who remain alive despite losing Dwyane Wade and playing a roster that never made sense from day one.
How will it shake out? The Bucks are safe, and I think the Heat find a way to claw in as well. That leaves the Hawks, Pacers and Bulls fighting for two spots. Chicago is seriously lacking depth but also has a cupcake schedule down the stretch. If I’m a Hawks fan, I would be getting a little nervous. If Millsap misses more time, things could get dicey, especially with four games looming against the Celtics, Cavaliers and Pacers.
Ultimately, whatever happens in the East, you can expect it to be really inconvenient for people wishing for a simple playoff picture.