Howard Beck's Ultimate Guide

First-Round Playoff Schedule

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For most of the NBA's 30 teams, their playoff futures are all but set in stone. 

There might be some slight maneuvering up or down the conference standings, but most teams at least have a solid grasp on whether they should be gearing up for the second season or finalizing vacation plans.

Eleven different teams have officially clinched a playoff berth, including the top-five teams in the Western Conference.

But the immediate future of the next six teams on the standings is anything but a certainty. With just six games separating the sixth seed (Golden State Warriors) from the 10th (Dallas Mavericks), the only sure thing is that fans are in for a frenetic race to the finish line for these five clubs.

But which ones will still be standing when the dust settles on April 17?

 

"Hollinger's Playoff Chances" is a module designed by ESPN analyst John Hollinger to predict the odds of an NBA team making the postseason.

Golden State Warriors

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Current Record, Seed: 42-32, Sixth

Hollinger's Playoff Chances: 98.5

 

At one point during the season, the Golden State Warriors not only seemed like a lock for the postseason, but also a massive threat to any potential playoff opponent.

But they put their playoff lives in jeopardy by limping into the All-Star break, then struggling to find their footing coming out of it. In their 12 games in February, the Warriors were an abysmal 4-8.

But they may have righted the ship just enough by going 9-7 in the month of March, a record that's nothing to write home about, but should keep them from squandering the work they put in over the first three months of the season.

And things may only be getting better for coach Mark Jackson's club.

Andrew Bogut looks healthier with each passing game, having averaged 8.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 29 minutes per game over his last seven outings (via Basketball-Teference.com). Stephen Curry continues to make his All-Star snub look shameful; he's scored at least 24 points in six of his last seven games, shooting a hair under 50 percent from the field (via Basketball-Reference.com).

But the Warriors' biggest postseason claim may come from a generous schedule setter that will keep them at home for five of their final eight games. The Warriors have just two games remaining with teams currently seeded seventh or better.

Golden State's postseason stay may be brief, but Warriors fans would be happy about the fact that their team is in the dance for just the second time since the 1993-94 season. 

Houston Rockets

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Current Record, Seed: 41-33, Seventh

Hollinger's Playoff Chances: 98.9

 

For the Houston Rockets, it's all about quantity over quality.

The Rockets don't need to maximize the effects of every possession, but rather, look to increase the number of possessions they see on a nightly basis. They storm the court at breakneck speed—their 98.5 pace factor is tops in the league, via ESPN.com—and dare opponents to keep up.

Their offense isn't always pretty (they average a league-high 16.4 turnovers, via NBA.com), but it's certainly prolific. The Rockets average 106.9 points per 100 possessions (via NBA.com), which often overshadows the fact that they afford opponents 103.7.

It's not fair to call the Rockets a one-man show, but it's also not correct to say they have a great shot at advancing in the playoffs without getting James Harden back to 100 percent. The first-year Houston star has missed the team's last two games with a foot injury, but claims he's "getting better every single day," (via FoxNews.com).

Houston will begin a three-game road trip on Wednesday night, but may not need Harden for the first two games. It starts the trip against the lowly Sacramento Kings, then moves on to face a stumbling Portland Trail Blazers team that has lost each of its last five games.

Utah Jazz

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Current Record, Seed: 39-36, Eighth

Hollinger's Playoff Chances: 56.0

 

The Utah Jazz spent the first three months of the season strengthening their playoff position before apparently throwing it all away over the past two.

But perhaps due to a generous schedule, the Jazz have now rattled off five straight victories and once again control their own destiny.

Utah fans are hoping that this recent surge has had less to do with the opposition than it has with the Jazz founding their collective stride. They'll need to keep putting their best foot forward, as they still have matchups looming with the Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies.

And they may have to do so without the services of second-year big man Enes Kanter, who is out "indefinitely" with a dislocated shoulder (via Steve Luhm of The Salt Lake Tribune).

The Jazz opted to hold on to both of their impending free-agent big men, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, whose responsibilities have only increased with Kanter's absence. As it is, the duo rank first and second in both points (17.5 and 14.9 per game) and rebounds (9.1 and 7.2) on their team, respectively.

But Gordon Hayward may wind up as the real x-factor for this team going forward. He's helped spark this mini-resurgence, guiding the team to a 5-4 record since returning to the starting lineup in Utah's 90-84 win over the Grizzlies on March 16.

Los Angeles Lakers

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Current Record, Seed: 39-36, Ninth

Hollinger's Playoff Chances: 40.6 (Before Tuesday's game)

 

The Los Angeles Lakers may have at least the two best players in this playoff race.

But they've had those two (Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard) along with two other former All-Stars (Steve Nash and Pau Gasol) on the roster all season and still find themselves on the outside looking in.

It's tough to ever bet against Bryant. His will to win is unlike anything the league has seen since Michael Jordan left the Windy City.

But it's also hard to ignore what led the Lakers to this spot in the standings. Or the fact they've still lost four of their last seven games. Or how they've lost Metta World Peace for the remainder of the regular season. Or how their 39-year-old point guard missed the Dallas game with a strained right hip/hamstring (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com).

But as Gasol and Howard work their way back into health, the Lakers have an intimidating frontcourt duo to complement their MVP leader.

And while their remaining schedule pits some of the best teams in the West, they have only one true road game left on their schedule.

Bryant will do everything in his power to push L.A. into the postseason. The question will be whether his teammates let him see the reward of his effort.

Dallas Mavericks

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Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Current Record, Seed: 36-38, 10th

Hollinger's Playoff Chances: 6.0 (Before Tuesday's game)

 

The Dallas Mavericks have spent nearly the entire season on life support. Tuesday night's 101-81 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers may not have entirely pulled the plug on their playoff hopes, but it surely tugged on the cord on a bit.

Then again, the Mavericks have resurrected their chances before this season, including erasing a 12-point deficit in the final 3:30 in their 100-98 win over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.

As Nowitzki said after the game, "Every time someone writes us off, we find a way to come back," (via The New York Times).

We'll see how well Dallas responds after its latest loss, which will no doubt lead to them being written off by countless media members. 

Not to mention they'll face the tallest of tasks in Thursday's road matchup with the Denver Nuggets, a team that has disposed of 33 of the 36 opponents they've faced at home this season. The schedule certainly eases up after that game, with just two playoff teams looming in their final seven games of the season.

But the Mavericks don't control their own destiny. And attempting to leap two teams in the standings at this point in the season is something that even Mark Cuban's comeback kids may struggle to do.

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