All of those terrible people who complain that the NBA doesn’t matter until the last two weeks of the regular season? Now’s your time to shine. Schedules are winding down, with most teams looking at less than 10 games left in the regular season. As such, we have a pretty good idea of how the playoffs will look, and who’s still in the hunt/who doesn’t have a prayer. (For more on the teams that are competing for the #1 pick rather than a playoff seed, check out Jack’s post on the NBA’s tanking teams.) We’ll go team-by-team, explaining 1. where they’ll likely finish, 2. who they could face in round one, and 3. the biggest issues at hand.
4. 1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Range of seeds: 1-2, though probably #1
Who they’ll face: The bottom of the West is wide-open right now — the Thunder could get matched against Dallas, Denver, Houston, Utah, or Phoenix, who are all competing for the 6-8 seeds. (It’s also possible that they’d draw Memphis, currently sitting at #5, but it’s more likely that the Grizz will move up than down.) Durant and Co. would love to draw an older team like Dallas, who they’ve owned this season and can generally run into the ground. Plus, there’s that revenge factor: the Mavs knocked off OKC last year. They don’t want Memphis, because nobody does, and Houston could be tricky — the young, athletic Rockets are too similar to the Thunder.
Issues: If the Thunder play to their potential, they could win it all. Priorities will be making sure KD and Russ Westbrook are firing on all cylinders; trying to keep Derek Fisher from getting exposed on defense; and not overextending themselves before the Western Conference Finals.
5. 2. San Antonio Spurs
Range of seeds: 1-2
Who they’ll face: Same deal as with OKC. If the Spurs had a choice of any of these teams, they’d probably opt for the Mavs, who are similarly old as hell, or Utah, since they’ve beat the Jazz three times out of four this season and match up well against them in the backcourt.
Issues: Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili need to stay healthy and effective for the the Spurs to do anything in the playoffs. Their frontcourt is disastrously thin, and if Duncan were to go down or slow down — remember that DNP-OLD? — Thiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair won’t scare anyone.
6. 3. Los Angeles Clippers
Range of seeds: 3-4; they’re currently 1.5 games back of the Lakers, but LAL has a brutal finish to the schedule, and the Clips’ best player isn’t battling injuries/insanity. (Hi Kobe!)
Who they’ll face: Probably Memphis, or even possibly the Lakers. You know they want the Lakers.
Issues: God, where do we start? A coach who will be outmatched no matter who he draws, and no dependable scorers beyond Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are the biggest problems. The talent is here, though.
7. 4. Los Angeles Lakers
Range of seeds: 3-5; I’m guessing either #4 or #5, depending on whether Kobe plays and how strong Memphis finishes. Their last games? Denver, Mavs, Spurs, @Warriors, @Spurs, Thunder, @Kings. Not fun.
Who they’ll face: Clips or Memphis. They want the Clips. NOBODY wants Memphis.
Issues: Two sides of the same coin: how far will Kobe take them? And how much responsibility is Kobe willing to share with his talented bigs?
8. 5. Memphis Grizzlies
Range of seeds: 3-5; probably a little much to expect them to jump both Los Angeles teams.
Who they’ll face: Clips or Lakers. Either is interesting: they can try and outhustle the Lakers like they did the Spurs last year, but Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are a strong rebuttal to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Clips, on the other hand, have the advantage at point guard and maybe PF, while Memphis wins everywhere else. Probably prefer the Clips, honestly.
Issues: What will they get from the recently returned Zach Randolph? And can their dreadful bench give them anything?
9. 6. Denver; 7. Mavericks; 8. Houston. Just out: Phoenix, Utah
At the bottom of the conference, the five final playoff-contending teams all play each other a bunch to close out the season. Since each of them has been hovering around .500 in their last ten games, it’s reasonable to expect that there won’t be a ton of movement. I see Denver finishing the strongest, with Houston struggling in the absence of Kyle Lowry after other teams figure out Goran Dragic.
Denver and Houston, on the other hand, are two fast, young, high-scoring teams. Denver especially has huge potential for a breakout playoffs: they’re absurdly deep, Danilo Gallinari’s finally healthy, and Kenneth Faried has emerged as one of the year’s best rookies.
11. 1. Chicago Bulls
Range of seeds: #1 (the East playoff picture is pretty much set.)
Who they’ll face: Philadelphia, New York, or Milwaukee. Chicago definitely wants Milwaukee, since the Bucks just won’t be able to score enough against the Bulls’ smothering defense. They don’t want New York, since nobody wants to deal with that mess right now.
Issues: Derek Rose’s health. Figuring out a way to beat Miami when they eventually meet in the East Finals.
12. 2. Miami Heat
Range of seeds: #2. They won’t catch Chicago. They don’t care, either.
Who they’ll face: Philadelphia or New York, probably. Doubt the Bucks claw their way to #7. They’d love Philadelphia, since the Sixers are in a major slump, but the Knicks are a mess on the road, so, like, whatever. It’s the Heat.
Issues: Beating the Bulls, which means stopping Derek Rose and letting LeBron, Wade, and Bosh fill up the stat sheet, with Chalmers, Battier, and Mike Miller hitting their threes. It’ll be important that those guys contribute.
13. 3. Indiana Pacers
Range of seeds: #3. Yawn.
Who they’ll face: Looking like Orlando — even with the Magic’s disarray, they’ve got a three-game lead on Philly. Indiana LOVES this matchup.
Issues: Pacers would be delighted to draw Orlando, who won’t be able to take advantage of Indy’s weakness at guard. Getting past either Chicago or Miami will require some serious innovation, though; the Pacers, though improved, just aren’t talented enough to beat either of those teams. Best chance against the Heat would be exploit their weak frontcourt with size of Roy Hibbert, David West, and Paul George; against the Bulls, they’ll need to play fast and try to take Chicago out of their game.
14. 4. Boston Celtics
Range of seeds: #4. By virtue of winning the Atlantic division, they’re locked in to this.
Who they’ll face: Either Atlanta or Orlando. Everyone wants Orlando.
Issues: Where will the offense come from? Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen continue to play ageless, but with the same roster that faltered last year, It remains to be seen whether they can continue their recent high level of play long enough to win an entire series. Fortunately, they get the Magic in the first round! Oh, Orlando.
15. 5. Atlanta Hawks; 6. Orlando Magic
Range of seeds: These two could swap, but I doubt it.
Who they’ll face: Atlanta gets Indiana, and Boston gets Orlando.
Issues: With Atlanta, it’s simple: can Josh Smith deal with carrying the weight of an entire frontcourt? With Orlando, HAHAHAHAHA THERE ARE SO MANY ISSUES. Just everything. They’re going to get wrecked by Boston.
16. 7. New York Knicks; 8. Philadelphia 76ers. Just out: Milwaukee Bucks
Sadly, Milwaukee just doesn’t have the juice to catch the Knicks after they dropped their chance last night, and the 76ers, though skidding, won’t skid that far. Philadelphia’s sort of a mystery: after a tremendous start to the season, they’ve been a mess in the second half. Can they get it back together in the playoffs? Possibly, especially with Spencer Hawes back and healthy.
As for the Knicks, who the hell even knows. We’ve seen at least five different Knicks teams this year, and this is only the latest iteration. Unfortunately for them, it’s either Miami or Chicago in round one; to win a series against either, it would take Amare returning to the line-up AND coexisting successfully with Melo, which hasn’t happened yet this season. No Jeremy Lin really hurts in the playoffs, where Melo can’t just win games against the same team over and over. (Opponents figure out how to defend that pretty quickly.)
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