The NBA season ends on April 11 and the playoff battles continue in each conference. The eight postseason positions in the East, barring miracle, are all but wrapped up. The West still has some suspense as teams head into their final games of the year. Here’s a look at how the playoff picture should pan out.
Barring something akin to the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s Miracle on Ice in 1980, the top eight teams in the conference are all locks. Ninth-place Detroit and No. 10 Charlotte are not technically eliminated from the postseason, but both would need some divine intervention to continue playing after April 11. Detroit trails current eighth-place Miami by a full five games and Charlotte is 5.5 behind.
Toronto, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Indiana have clinched playoff spots and Washington, Milwaukee, and the Heat could do so soon. With eight games remaining, the Raptors are three games ahead of second-place Boston. The Celtics and their injury-plagued lineup have won four in a row with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving but the likelihood that Boston overtakes Toronto for the No. 1 seed is slim.
LeBron James and Cleveland will be the likely No. 3 seed with Philadelphia and Indiana fighting for home-court advantage in the No. 4-5 matchup. The 76ers could catch the Cavs for the No. 3 seed. They had won seven straight before a Mar. 28 matchup with the Knicks and play Cleveland on April 6. The third seed will take on No. 6 which is currently Washington. The Wizards are still awaiting the return of point guard John Wall who has been out since the end of January. Wall has practiced but the team has not announced his return.
Miami and Milwaukee have been jockeying for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds. The Bucks own No. 7 currently, which is much more favorable than having to face Toronto in Round 1. The Celtics have had their share of injuries. Besides Irving, Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis, and Marcus Smart have missed time. Smart probably won’t return unless Boston is playing in May. Irving might not be 100 percent either during the first round making the Celtics one of the weaker No. 2 seeds in recent history.
Boston’s plight makes the No. 3 seed all that more important for Cleveland. Instead of having to face Toronto in Round 2 as the No. 4 seed, the Cavs would get the winner of the No. 4-No. 5 matchup. Cleveland would face the much less playoff experienced 76ers or Wizards. Though the Cavs have had their share of difficulties this season, a Cleveland-Toronto Eastern Conference finals seems like a lock.
Two things are certain in the West. The ultra-hot Houston Rockets will be the No. 1 seed and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors will come in at No. 2. The teams at Nos. 3 through 8 seem to be locked up but Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers are not out of it quite yet.
Denver, currently ninth in playoff standings, can be written off for all intents and purposes as the Nuggets final eight games are all against playoff teams or teams vying for a playoff berth. It’s not impossible, but it is highly unlikely that the Nuggets will be able to make up two games on the eight-place Minnesota Timberwolves. Denver does play the T-Wolves twice but they also have games with Toronto and current West No. 3 Portland.
The Trail Blazers appear to be a lock at No. 3 and then just two games separate places four through eight. Oklahoma City is the current No. 4, New Orleans is at No. 5, San Antonio is sixth, and Utah is seventh. Whoever finishes No. 7 and 8 will likely be gone in the first round unless the Warriors run into serious injury problems. Golden State played recently without all four of their All-Stars.
The Warriors lost 110-91 to its potential first-round playoff opponent Utah on Sunday, March 25. Golden State went without Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Utah just happens to be 11-2 in March thus far and they are second in the NBA in points allowed per game (100.2). Things could get interesting in that No. 2-No. 7 matchup.
If Golden State gets healthy, it is highly likely that a Warriors-Rockets Western Conference Finals will take place. Don’t count out Portland. The Trail Blazers have just two losses in their last 16 games. One was to Houston by just four points. In their 14 wins, there were two over Golden State. The Trail Blazers have proven they can beat Golden State even at full strength. The problem for Portland would be facing Houston in the conference finals. The Rockets have owned the Blazers this season winning all three games.