Making the playoffs is the initial goal of most NBA teams. But while a squad's overall talent level is the biggest factor in how long it stays alive in the postseason, whom and where it plays can be critical.
By and large, avoiding the best teams should be the goals of those that still have control over where they finish. The Boston Celtics, for example, have no real shot to earn home-court advantage anymore, but with some good play down the stretch—and a little luck—they might be able to set themselves up for another long playoff run.
But the Celtics—and other teams—will have to win these tight races if they hope to maximize their hopes to continue to advance in the playoffs.
The San Antonio Spurs have lost just five game since February started, so it would be surprising to see them relinquish pole position in the West.
But stranger things have happened—and if any team is capable of making up two-and-a-half games (three in the loss column) with 13 to play, it is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The schedule also favors the Thunder.
The Spurs, for example, have some tough road matchups against the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and L.A. Clippers.
San Antonio has the second-best road record in the NBA, so that might not be a major obstacle.
But it also has one very difficult game left at home when the it faces Oklahoma City on national television on Thursday, April 4.
The Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics will almost certainly finish—in some order—fifth, sixth and seventh in the Eastern Conference.
Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets should end the year—in some order—as the second, third and fourth seeds.
At this point, the three lower-ranked teams should have two goals: stay out of the fifth seed so that they won't have to face the Miami Heat in the second round and try to jockey for whatever position leads to a first-round matchup with the Knicks.
These aims could be at odds. The Knicks might finish fourth and make achieving both impossible.
But some team has to beat the Heat at some point if it wants to make the NBA Finals, and getting the banged-up Knicks (see slide four for details) as soon as possible might be the easier route to Miami than trying to go through Indiana or Brooklyn.
Somehow, it seems that the Celtics always surprise in the playoffs.
Without Rajon Rondo, Boston's chances to beat Miami seem null, but would anyone be shocked to see Doc Rivers' team fall into a first-round matchup with New York, win in six games, then knock off Indiana and meet the Heat—again—in the conference finals?
Yeah, me neither.
The top five teams are cemented in the Western Conference, leaving four to fight it out for the bottom three seeds.
The stakes are vital: avoiding first-round matchups with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Both San Antonio and Oklahoma City look poised to send their opponents on an early summer vacation.
It has become a foregone conclusion that the Los Angeles Lakers will make the playoffs. Since they are sitting in eighth place and have gone 7-3 over their last 10 while the Utah Jazz, in ninth place, have gone 3-7, this assumption makes sense.
Given the way this season has gone for the Lakers, however, one last disaster isn't out of the question. They are only up one game on the Jazz in the loss column with 13 left to play.
Then again, Los Angeles could finish off the season well and leapfrog the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors to finish sixth. The Warriors currently hold the sixth seed, but they have the same number of losses as the Rockets (31) and just two fewer than the Lakers.
Further propelling the Lakers' hopes is that they have two more games against the Warriors, who also have to play both the Spurs and Thunder again.
There is a definite possibility that Golden State drops all four of those games.
The Pacers currently have a one-game lead on the New York Knicks and a two-game edge over the Brooklyn Nets for the No. 2 seed.
Retaining that spot is doable, but the Pacers do face nine playoff teams in their last 14 games. They also go head-to-head with both the Knicks and Nets during the final six days of the regular season.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have a much bigger issue: Nobody is healthy.
Amar'e Stoudemire is likely done for at least the rest of the regular season after undergoing knee surgery on March 11. Carmelo Anthony missed six games in March due to knee problems of his own.
Tyson Chandler has missed four straight games with a bulging disc. Kurt Thomas may be done for the year (or ever) with a stress fracture in his foot. And Rasheed Wallace is done for the season due to a different foot injury.
Good luck making a deep playoff run with no healthy bodies.
For their part, the Nets will have an easier time fielding a team, but they are currently two games into a brutal eight-game road trip. They will play nine of their final games on the road—including one in Indiana.
While the No. 2 seed is the goal for all three of these teams, the most unfortunate fate will be finishing fourth.
Both teams that end in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots will avoid the Miami Heat until the Eastern Conference Finals, but the fourth seed, if it survives its first postseason matchup, will have to head to South Beach in the second round.
The matchup between the fourth and fifth seeds out West is going to be brutal. It will include two of the following teams: Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets.
One of the best seven teams in the NBA will fall in the first round.
And then, whichever team survives the matchup between the fourth and fifth seeds gets to play the San Antonio Spurs in Texas as a reward.
What a prize.
On the other hand, the team that finishes third (which would be the Grizzlies if the season ended today), gets a first-round date against the No. 6 team. As of today, that would mean a date with the struggling Golden State Warriors.
What a difference a seed makes.
There may be movement at the bottom, but playing any of the Warriors, Houston Rockets or Los Angeles Lakers is a much better proposition than facing the conference's better teams.
The Grizzlies, Clippers and Nuggets are separated by just a half game right now.
All three are likely to win more than lose for the rest of the regular season. So even one bad game could mean the difference between making the second round and heading home quickly.
Legacies—and millions of dollars in ticket revenue—hang in the balance.