Most Crucial Games Remaining on 2013 NBA Schedule
With just over a month remaining in the 2012-13 regular season, the playoff race is about to heat up.
Many of the higher-seeded teams appear to have playoff berths locked up, especially in the lackluster Eastern Conference. In the East, the last month will be more about jockeying for seeding than anything else.
The Western Conference playoff race, on the other hand, appears destined to come down to the final few days of the season. The Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets are fending off the Los Angeles Lakers for the final playoff spot at the moment, with the slumping Golden State Warriors hardly farther ahead.
To prepare you for the final few weeks of the NBA season, I combed through each team's remaining schedule and hand-picked the 10 juiciest remaining regular-season matchups.
What qualifies a game for this list?
For one, it must have significant playoff implications. It can't just be a game that's going to determine who's the No. 4 seed vs. No. 5. seed; it needs to be a make-or-break game for a team teetering on the playoffs or a litmus test for a championship contender.
Entertainment value also played a role in the selection of the games.
If you're going to watch only 10 regular-season NBA games in the final few weeks, make sure it's one of these.
Note: Games are sorted chronologically, not ranked in order of importance.
March 10: Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat
With the Miami Heat scorching hot coming into March, the Indiana Pacers look like the only team at the moment capable of preventing a third straight finals berth for LeBron James and Co.
The New York Knicks haven't been the same since the start of 2013, the Chicago Bulls' fate depends entirely upon Derrick Rose, and the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics aren't enough to stop Miami in a seven-game series.
The Pacers, with their mix of suffocating defense and just-ugly-enough-to-win offense, might be. The combination of budding superstar Paul George and the newly returned Danny Granger could be enough to at least stop James from putting up his typical video game numbers.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert has been struggling on offense this season, but he's still a 7'2" shot-blocking machine. With David West by his enormous side, the Pacers have the size to pose challenges to the smaller Heat.
Miami lost 87-77 at Indiana on Jan. 8, then dropped another game in Indiana on Feb. 1, 102-89. The Pacers have the chance to go for the season sweep against Miami on March 10, but the Heat haven't lost in their past 16 games.
March 27: Miami Heat at Chicago Bulls
This game only really matters if Derrick Rose has already made his long-awaited return from an ACL tear.
Rose's return this season, which remains up in the air, would transform the Chicago Bulls from an early-round knockout to a legitimate Eastern Conference threat to the Miami Heat.
This would be the Miami Heat's first look at the Bulls with Rose this season. If he turns out to be half the player he was before the injury, Dwyane Wade would have his hands full defensively.
If Rose hasn't returned, the luster of this game quickly fades. You can always conjure up some storyline about how Joakim Noah once called Miami "Hollywood as hell," but the Heat wouldn't have much reason to fear a Rose-less Bulls team.
On the assumption that Rose has returned by this point, this game earns the must-watch status. If the Bulls end up beating Miami, get ready for an onslaught of speculation about what that means for the playoffs.
March 29: Los Angeles Clippers at San Antonio Spurs
The Los Angeles Clippers look like they might end up regretting not making a splash at the trade deadline.
On March 29 against the San Antonio Spurs, they'll have a chance to prove that they're to be taken seriously in the upcoming Western Conference playoffs.
Tony Parker, the Spurs' star point guard, could potentially return around this time from the ankle sprain he suffered in early March. The matchup between he and Clippers point guard Chris Paul would be worth the price of admission alone.
Even if Parker hasn't returned, seeing Blake Griffin face off against Tim Duncan won't be such a terrible consolation prize. You've also got veteran leadership in Manu Ginobili and Chauncey Billups matched with the youth of Kawhi Leonard and DeAndre Jordan for an exciting all-around game.
When you've got two top-three teams in the West facing off against one another, it's guaranteed appointment television. If the Spurs start to slip without Parker, this game could end up having seeding implications for the playoffs, too.
March 31: Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs
On March 31, NBA fans get to be treated to one of the best potential NBA Finals previews imaginable.
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs each sit atop their respective conferences as of March 8, guaranteeing each team home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
In this matchup on the final day of March, the Heat and Spurs could well be battling for home-court advantage for the NBA Finals.
If Tony Parker returns from his sprained ankle by this game, we'll presumably get a look at both squads running at full speed. A Big Three battle between LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh against Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili would be a treat for all NBA fans.
The chance that the Heat and Spurs do cross paths in the NBA Finals makes this a must-see regular-season game. Here's guessing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will play all of his stars this time around.
April 4: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder
Any time the two top seeds in the Western Conference cross paths, you know it's going to be a game worth watching.
Here, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder could be battling for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, depending on how long Tony Parker remains sidelined from his sprained ankle.
The Spurs and Thunder clashed in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, with the Spurs sprinting out to a quick 2-0 series lead before Oklahoma City roared back with four straight wins.
This year, the Spurs-Thunder regular-season series stands tied at 1-1, with a March 11 game in San Antonio and an April 4 matchup in Oklahoma City remaining. Without Parker on March 11, the Spurs stand little chance of shutting down both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant defensively, which would make the April 4 rematch that much more important.
If the Spurs lose both, the Thunder could gain the inside track to having the best record in the Western Conference and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. In other words, the NCAA tournament won't be the only must-see basketball during the first few days of April.
April 7: Utah Jazz at Golden State Warriors
While the Eastern Conference playoff picture is largely set, the bottom half of the Western Conference continues to be a mess.
As of the morning of March 8, the Golden State Warriors hold a two-game lead over the Houston Rockets and a 2.5-game lead over the Utah Jazz for the sixth-best record in the West. After losses by Houston and Utah on March 6, the Los Angeles Lakers now only trail Utah by 1.5 games for the last playoff spot.
When the Jazz and Warriors cross paths on April 7, it's almost guaranteed that at least one team's playoff fate will be on the line.
All-Star David Lee and should-be-All-Star Stephen Curry will lead the Dubs at home against Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Utah's glut of talented bigs. If Andrew Bogut hasn't yet returned to the court for Golden State by this night, it could be a long evening for the Warriors' interior defense.
With the loser of this game likely to fall on the playoff bubble, it earns must-view status even though it lacks the flashy star power of a Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers game.
April 11: New York Knicks at Chicago Bulls
Like the Chicago Bulls' March 27 matchup against the Miami Heat, this April 11 clash against the New York Knicks only gets really interesting if Derrick Rose has already made his return.
With Rose, the Bulls present possibly the greatest threat to the Heat's supremacy of the Eastern Conference. With Rose out, the Knicks attempted to claim that title early this season.
After a scorching-hot start, however, the Knicks came back to earth by playing roughly .500 ball over the past few months, while the Bulls have fallen a step behind the Indiana Pacers in the Central Division. If Rose plays this night, it'll be a litmus test for two of the three strongest challengers to the Heat.
Even without Rose, this game will also feature a nice matchup between two of the leading Defensive Player of the Year candidates. The Knicks tout the reigning D-POY, Tyson Chandler, but the Bulls' Joakim Noah is giving him a run for his money in the chase for this year's award.
Whether or not Rose plays, expect a 90s-style defensive slugfest between these two teams.
April 12: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers
Five days after battling the Utah Jazz, the Golden State Warriors will take a trip to the Staples Center and face off against the Los Angeles Lakers in another game with potentially massive playoff implications.
For now, the Warriors appear safely in the playoffs, as they currently hold a four-game lead over the ninth-seeded Lakers. With 20 games left, there's still plenty of time for the Lakers to shake up the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race, though.
As of the morning of March 8, the Lakers have a 52.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN.com's Hollinger playoff odds. The Jazz, who hold a 1.5-game lead over the Lakers for the last playoff spot, only have a 57.2 percent shot of making it, according to ESPN.com.
The Warriors, not the seventh-seeded Houston Rockets, are the next-most likely team to fall out of the playoff hunt. According to the odds, the Warriors still have a 14.7 percent shot of falling out of the playoff race entirely.
By April 12, teams will only have a few more chances to change their playoff fates. That makes this game—and a March 25 clash between these two teams in Oakland—one of the most important remaining regular-season games.
April 14: Indiana Pacers at New York Knicks
By this point in the season, the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks could have their playoff seeds all knotted up. If that's the case, there's a good chance at least one of the two teams will use this game to buy some pre-playoff rest for their stars.
There's a chance, however, that this game could determine whether the Knicks or Pacers have the inside track to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
No matter who wins here, the road to the NBA championship goes through Miami in the East. The winner of this game could guarantee themselves home-court advantage until the Eastern Conference Finals, though.
For the Knicks, it'd be one final chance to prove that they're to be taken seriously as a challenger to Miami in the playoffs. With Chicago's Derrick Rose still sidelined, the Pacers have laid claim to being the second-best team in the East given the Knicks' slippage in recent months.
The Pacers, meanwhile, have a chance to end the season series 3-1 in their advantage with a win. Home-court advantage in the second round may not sound huge, but it could help propel Indiana to its first conference finals since the days when Metta World Peace was still known as Ron Artest and playing in a Pacers uniform.
April 17: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers
It's possible that on April 17, the final day of the 2012-13 regular season, the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers could face off with a playoff spot on the line.
If the basketball gods do decide to smile upon us this way, here's guessing that it turns into a battle of epic proportions between Kobe Bryant and James Harden.
Both Kobe and Harden currently rank in the top five of points per game scored this season. With one game separating each of them from a playoff series, it'd be a miracle if either player played fewer than 40 minutes in this one.
That's not to mention the supporting casts for each team. Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol against Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and the most explosive offense in the league makes this game a guaranteed must-see.
Even if the Rockets have a playoff bid locked up, it's likely that the Lakers' playoff chances will come down to this final game. Expect a Harden vs. Bryant showdown for the ages.
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