Sleeper NBA Teams Due to Make Strong Playoff Run
There is plenty of time between now and the start of the postseason, and the next few weeks will be very telling for a number of franchises.
Every playoff-caliber squad continues fighting to improve its playoff positioning, while teams on the other side of the ledger are still hoping to earn an invite to the NBA's second season.
But with plenty of tickets to the dance still up for grabs, now is the perfect time for a few sleeper teams to make a run. Some will do their best to sneak into the playoffs, while others will use the next 10-12 games to fight for home-court advantage.
Those who don't have favorable schedules will have their work cut out for them, but teams with weak opponents need to be careful as well: Many franchises who have had disappointing seasons are still playing for pride and shouldn't be taken lightly.
5) Utah Jazz
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Their remaining schedule is one of the league's toughest, but the Utah Jazz's home-friendly slate should give them a bit of an edge over the final few weeks of the season.
"We're in the fight," said Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin while speaking to Randy Hollis of the Deseret News. "It's 18 games left in the season; we've got a chance to move up in the playoff picture, and if we take care of our business, we'll be just fine."
Utah's playoff spot is tenuous at best, so they'll have plenty of business to take care of when a number of the league's weaker teams (Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves) come to Salt Lake City before the year is out.
Eight of the Jazz's final 12 games are at EnergySolutions Arena, so Utah won't have many excuses if they miss the postseason for the second time in the past three years.
4) Portland Trail Blazers
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The odds that the Portland Trail Blazers actually make the playoffs are extraordinarily slim, but stranger things have happened.
"I don't really believe in odds," said Portland guard Wesley Matthews when interviewed by Jason Quick of The Oregonian. "Because I have defied them most of my life."
13 of the Trail Blazers' final 15 games are against playoff-caliber teams, so everyone is fully aware that they can't afford to take any days off between now and the end of the season.
Having the league's hardest schedule could be a blessing in disguise in a way—if they can survive this gauntlet and somehow sneak into the postseason, they'll be as battle-tested as anyone in the Western Conference.
3) Dallas Mavericks
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Dallas is on the outside of the playoff race looking in, but by closing out the month of March with a six-game homestand, the Mavericks should be in a good place heading into the final three weeks of the season.
And if Dallas is still in the hunt on April 10, then look for the franchise to make its 13th consecutive playoff appearance: Four of the Mavericks' final five games are at the American Airlines Center, and the other is against the New Orleans Hornets.
TNT analyst Charles Barkley says that the "ship has sailed" on Dallas' playoff hopes, but those within the organization haven't given up hope just yet.
"We've just got to keep on winning," said team owner Mark Cuban in an interview with Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We've got some tough games ahead, and if we can win some of those we'll gain even more confidence."
2) Brooklyn Nets
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The Brooklyn Nets' spot in the playoffs is all but assured, and the team could even wind up with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference before all is said and done.
Attrition may play a bit of a role in the Nets' rise: Injuries to both Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony will make it difficult for the New York Knicks to contend for the Atlantic Division crown.
Brooklyn, meanwhile, has one of the easiest schedules in the NBA over the final month.
That, combined with the chance to establish themselves as the premier basketball team in New York, will make the Nets a very formidable opponent down the stretch. Brooklyn is tired of being referred to as "the other team" in the Big Apple, so expect them to go full-bore heading into the postseason.
"I think it definitely would mean a lot to clinch the division title to the fans, to the organization, I think it would be huge," said Brooklyn point guard Deron Williams in an interview with Mike Mazzeo of ESPN NewYork. "There's no doubt about that."
1) Boston Celtics
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Boston Celtics' head coach Doc Rivers doesn't concern himself all that much with possible playoff scenarios. But now that his team is nearly a lock for the postseason, expect the Celtics to make a spirited run at the Atlantic Division crown.
Both the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets are within striking distance, and if Boston can continue its recent hot streak, there's no reason why they couldn't lock up one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference.
It would be a tremendous accomplishment for a team that lost its star point guard prior to the All-Star break, and with home-court advantage, the Celtics may be a tough out come playoff time.
However, according to Paul Pierce, Boston is just taking things one game at a time. "I don't even know how many games we're back for the Atlantic Division," said Pierce in an interview with Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston. "We don't even get a T-shirt for that."