As this shortened regular season wraps up and the playoff picture starts to become clearer, some teams are starting to prepare themselves for the playoffs while other teams are still fighting for a spot.
Very few of the seeds are set in stone, and a lot can still change over the next few games. There is still a lot to play for, and some of these games could be previews of possible late-round playoff matchups and thus will have a playoff atmosphere.
These are six games that will impact the playoff picture, and also serve as a gut-check for teams looking to play their best basketball at the end of the season.
Tonight’s game at Madison Square Garden has several implications for the playoff seeding, but it will also serve as a measuring stick for each team as they try to get hot down the stretch.
New York and Philadelphia are both only two games ahead of Milwaukee, who currently occupies the esteemed position of first team out of the playoffs.
The Knicks have fought through a tough schedule recently, but they still need a win to keep them securely in the playoffs, and this home game against Boston will have an intense environment that will test their young role players.
The Celtics are in a three-way tie for the fourth seed in the East, but they are guaranteed a seed in the top four because they have the Atlantic division nearly wrapped up.
Doc Rivers and the gang are 13-4 since the break, though, and will want to close out their season series with the Knicks, whom they have taken two out of three games from so far.
This game could be a preview of a tough first-round matchup.
Dwight Howard’s stellar play this season has been marred by inconsistent effort and the fiasco with head coach Stan Van Gundy. He is still averaging 20.6 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, but Howard may be sidelined with a back injury for an unknown period of time, and Orlando will have to find their way without him.
Boston’s age will be put to the test with their second tough game in as many nights, but they will be at home and have won both games against the Magic this season. A good win at home here would give the Celtics some nice momentum heading into the playoffs.
Houston currently sits just outside the playoff picture, but they are tied with Phoenix at 32-29. Since they split the season series 2-2, the Suns’ conference record of 22-21 gives them the tiebreaker over the Rockets (21-23 in conference) but that could change over the next few games, and a win against the Mavericks would really help the Rockets.
Dallas is only half a game back from Denver, who currently occupies the sixth seed in the West. If Dallas could finish strong and leapfrog the Nuggets, they would likely face the Lakers or the Clippers, both of whom are better matchups than the Spurs or Thunder.
The two powerhouses of the East will meet on Thursday in Miami for their fourth battle of the season. Chicago lost the first game but then took both games at home, setting the stage for an intense meeting of the first and second seeds.
If the standings hold and the Knicks are the seventh seed, both Chicago and Miami would prefer to play a 76ers team that has plummeted in the standings and lacks any momentum going into the playoffs. With a win against the Bulls, Miami could be in position to take the first seed and home-court advantage for the first three rounds.
Phoenix will be fighting for every win as they try to hold onto the eight seed and earn a spot in the playoffs, and they will want to defend their home court against the Clippers on Thursday.
Steve Nash and the Suns have gone 20-10 in their last 30 games, winning seven out of their last nine. It could be Nash’s last run with the team, and they are playing inspired basketball despite a lack of talent.
They will be up against an equally hot Clippers team that has won 12 out of their last 14 games, bringing themselves within a game of the first-place Lakers in the Pacific. If the Clippers can win the division and get past the Lakers, a matchup against an aging Dallas or an unproven Denver team could be favorable to a series with a Grizzlies team that just got Zach Randolph back and seems poised to make another run in the playoffs.
The two most successful franchises of the last decade will play twice this week—Tuesday in Los Angeles, and Friday in San Antonio.
The Spurs are currently tied with the Thunder for the first seed in the west, and the Lakers occupy the third seed, sitting one game ahead of the Clippers. The Spurs are securely in the top two, but home-court advantage is always nice, and both of these games should provide an intense, playoff-like environment for the Spurs to test their young players in.
The Lakers would like to stay in third, safely away from a tough first-round matchup against the Grizzlies.
But two big games against the Spurs will also be important for a team still trying to gel with their new point guard, Ramon Sessions. Andrew Bynum will face tough matchups against Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter, so this game will also test Bynum's durability as an offensive threat for the Lakers.