Tony Parker and the Spurs are trying to hold off Russell Westbrook and the Thunder for the No. 1 seed in the West.
For the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks, every game is a must win. Their coaches must pull out all the stops. Several other teams are jockeying for playoff positioning in the hopes of securing a favorable matchup or home-court advantage.
Some teams that have nothing to play for are resting their players for the playoffs. There are also coaches who take the opposite approach and play their starters in order to keep them sharp.
When trying to determine which teams will win a playoff race, it is important to consider their strength of schedule. How many of their remaining games are at home? Are their opponents contending teams, and if so, are they still motivated by their own races or are they already looking ahead to the playoffs?
Miami's stars will be well-rested for the playoffs.
Current Record: 61-16
Projected Record: 65-17
The Miami Heat have wrapped up the best record in the NBA and are cruising into the playoffs. Coach Spoelstra has rested LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers and will continue to monitor their minutes over Miami's last five games. SI.com reported that Wade could sit out until the playoffs due to a sore knee.
However, it hardly seems to matter. The Heat have rolled over opponents without Wade and others in the lineup.
The one interesting game remaining on Miami's schedule is their April 14th meeting with the Chicago Bulls. It is the first time the two teams will face each other since the Bulls snapped the Heat's 27-game win streak. Chicago was very physical with Miami, and LeBron and his teammates will have a chip on their shoulder.
Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks should wrap up the No. 2 seed in the East.
Current Record: 51-26
Projected Record: 54-28
The New York Knicks have played fantastic basketball while winning their last 13 games. Their next stop is Chicago, where the Miami Heat's historic streak came to a screeching halt. The Bulls will try to push the Knicks around like they did to the Heat, and it may work due to a slew of injuries to New York's big men.
The Knicks have a two-and-a-half game lead on the Indiana Pacers for the No. 2 seed in the East, though Indiana can make up ground with a win in New York on April 14. Both teams will get up for what could be a preview of a second-round playoff series.
Even if the Knicks fall to the Pacers, they should be able to stack up enough wins to hold on to the No. 2 spot. They have games against the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Bobcats remaining.
Paul George and David West lead a scrappy Pacers team.
Current Record: 49-29
Projected Record: 51-31
The No. 2 seed is a long shot for the Indiana Pacers, who have fallen two-and-a-half games behind the New York Knicks. That may not be a bad thing, as they would avoid the battle-tested Boston Celtics in the first round.
The Pacers could still steal the two spot if they beat the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on April 14 and receive a little help from New York's other opponents.
Indiana has two other difficult games left on their schedule, against the Brooklyn Nets and at Boston. They should not have any trouble with the Philadelphia 76ers in their other remaining game.
Deron Williams and the Nets will have home-court advantage in the first round.
Current Record: 45-32
Projected Record: 48-34
The Brooklyn Nets fell short of their goal of winning the Atlantic Division, though they have nearly clinched home-court in the first round of the playoffs. They will have a favorable matchup against the Chicago Bulls or Atlanta Hawks, both of whom have faded over the second half of the season.
The Nets have two difficult games coming up against Boston and Indiana, followed by easier matchups with the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons.
Coach Carlesimo will have an opportunity to rest the Nets' key players down the stretch because the team is not fighting for playoff positioning. That should benefit shooting guard Joe Johnson, who has been hampered by a sore heel.
Joakim Noah has been the Bulls' leader in the abscence of Derrick Rose.
Current Record: 42-35
Projected Record: 45-37
Tom Thibodeau has gotten the most out of his players once again, this time without the services of Derrick Rose. However, the Chicago Bulls have worn down over the course of the season, and several players are battling injuries as the team limps towards the playoffs.
According to Doug Padilla of ESPNChicago.com, All-Star Joakim Noah suffered a setback with the plantar fasciitis in his right foot. The center will miss the rest of the regular season and could be limited in the playoffs.
Taj Gibson has missed the Bulls' last four games with a knee injury and Luol Deng has been sidelined with a sore hip. On a positive note, Richard Hamilton played in the Bulls' loss to the Toronto Raptors on April 9, for the first time since February 26.
The Bulls are trying to hang on to the No. 5 seed. They lead the Atlanta Hawks by half a game and the Boston Celtics by two games. Their success over their last five games will depend in large part on who is able to suit up.
The Atlanta Hawks are still in play for the fifth seed.
Current Record: 42-36
Projected Record: 44-38
The Atlanta Hawks are currently the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference and would face the Indiana Pacers in the first round. However, they are just a half game behind the Chicago Bulls for the No. 5 spot. The Bulls hold the tiebreaker after winning the season series 2-1.
Atlanta is also still in jeopardy of being passed in the standing by the Boston Celtics. The Celtics trail the Hawks by a game-and-a-half and also possess the tiebreaker over Larry Drew's team.
The Hawks' remaining four games are at the Philadelphia 76ers, versus the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors and at the New York Knicks. They should split those games and finish the season as the No. 6 seed.
Teams want to avoid the experienced Celtics in the playoffs.
Current Record: 40-37
Projected Record: 42-40
The Boston Celtics have a three-game cushion over the Milwaukee Bucks for the seventh seed and are in no real danger of having to face the Miami Heat in the first round. The sixth seed is still in play. The Celtics trail Atlanta by a game-and-a-half and would have the tiebreaker over the Hawks (they won the season series 3-1.)
However, the Celtics have a difficult schedule over the next two weeks, with games against the Heat, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers. The Celtics are also not very concerned with seeding. In fact, they may want to stay in the seventh spot and take their chances against the New York Knicks, a team they have owned in previous seasons.
Doc Rivers just wants his veteran team to be healthy heading into the postseason, which is why the team has been extra cautious in dealing with Kevin Garnett's recent knee injury.
Brandon Jennings and the Bucks are headed for a quick playoff exit at the hands of the Miami Heat.
Current Record: 37-40
Projected Record: 39-43
The Milwaukee Bucks are a weak playoff team and would likely not be heading to the postseason if John Wall had been healthy for the Washington Wizards' first 33 games.
The Bucks have not had much to play for recently and have acted like it, losing seven of their last ten games. They faced no real competition for the final playoff spot in the East and are not going to catch the Celtics for the seventh seed.
The Bucks still have to play the Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder, all of whom are fighting for playoff positioning. They should be able to beat the league's two worst teams, the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats, which would give them at least 39 wins for the season.
Tony Parker is the engine that makes the Spurs run.
Current Record: 57-20
Projected Record: 60-22
The San Antonio Spurs may have lost their grip on the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference when they fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder 100-88 on April 4. The Thunder have pulled within a half game of the Spurs and will own the tiebreaker due to a superior conference record (the teams split the season series 2-2.)
More importantly for the Spurs, two of their best players are injured. According to ESPN.com, Manu Ginobili could miss the start of the playoffs with a strained hamstring, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich stated after the loss to the Thunder that he was "very concerned" about point guard Tony Parker (via yahoo.com) whose shin problems have reduced his explosiveness.
The Thunder have an excellent shot at winning their final four games, which would require the Spurs to win their last five. Their next game is at Denver, where the Nuggets have won 19 consecutive games. San Antonio also has a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, who are fighting for their playoff lives. At less than full strength, the Spurs should stumble against at least one of those two teams.
Kevin Durant and the Thunder have their sites set on the No. 1 seed.
Current Record: 57-21
Projected Record: 61-21
The Oklahoma City Thunder bounced back from a tough loss to the New York Knicks by beating the Utah Jazz 90-80. They have pulled within a half game of the San Antonio Spurs, and with four games remaining, control their own destiny for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
OKC plays at the Golden State Warriors on April 11. If they can handle Mark Jackson's squad, it should be smooth sailing the rest of the way. They close out the season against three teams with nothing to play for: the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks.
The Thunder want to send a message to the rest of the Western Conference that they are still the team to beat heading into the playoffs. Expect them to win their last four games and secure the second-best record in the NBA behind the Miami Heat.
Ty Lawson must be healthy for the Nuggets to make a playoff run.
Current Record: 53-24
Projected Record: 57-25
The Denver Nuggets received a major blow when Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this month. Starting point guard Ty Lawson has also been sidelined for the past few weeks with plantar fasciitis.
Still, the star-less Nuggets have continued to roll along, winning their last four games. It is crucial for them to hold off the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers—who they lead by half a game and two games respectively—for the No. 3 seed, so as to avoid playing either team in the first round.
Three of the Nuggets' last five games are in Denver, where they are 35-3. The other two games are at the Dallas Mavericks and at the Phoenix Suns. The Mavs, who are desperately holding on to their playoff hopes, will pose the biggest challenge.
The Clippers could be staring down an early playoff exit after a great season.
Current Record: 51-26
Projected Record: 55-27
The Los Angeles Clippers wrapped up their first Pacific Division title, though they have played mediocre basketball since the All-Star break and have allowed home-court advantage in the first round to slip away.
L.A. is currently the No. 4 seed by virtue of winning their division, but as of now would be the road team in a first-round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies. They trail the Grizzlies by a game-and-a-half and the Denver Nuggets by two games.
Home-court could come down to the Clippers' matchup with the Grizzlies in Memphis on April 13. They possess the tiebreaker over Memphis by virtue of winning their division. The Clippers other four remaining games are against sub-.500 teams.
Marc Gasol anchors the Grizzlies' stingy defense.
Current Record: 53-25
Projected Record: 56-26
The Memphis Grizzlies have four games left in their season and can still finish anywhere from third to fifth in the Western Conference. They trail the Denver Nuggets by half a game for the three seed and would avoid playing either the Nuggets or Los Angeles Clippers in the first round if they move up in the standings.
On the other hand, if Memphis stumbles they can find themselves flying to Los Angeles for Game 1 of the first round. The showdown between the Grizzlies and Clippers on April 13 could be a preview of a great playoff series.
Memphis' three other opponents: the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz, are fighting to make the playoffs or to improve their positioning. The Grizzlies should be in good shape if they can take two out of those three.
Stephen Curry leads a much-improved Golden State team.
Current Record: 45-33
Projected Record: 48-34
The Golden State Warriors are desperately trying to hold off the hard-charging Houston Rockets for the sixth seed. The Rockets have crept to within one game of Mark Jackson's team and own the tiebreaker after taking the season series 3-1.
If the Warriors fall to the seventh spot they will have to face either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round, as opposed to a beat-up Denver Nuggets team whose fast-paced style of play is conducive to the Warriors' personnel.
Golden State plays three sub-.500 teams in their next three games, followed by the Utah Jazz, who may or may not have something to play for in their last game of the season. The Warriors should be able to pull off three more wins, which would likely be enough to secure the No. 6 seed.
James Harden has thrived in a leading role in Houston.
Current Record: 44-34
Projected Record: 46-36
The Houston Rockets have improved over the course of the season as Jeremy Lin and James Harden have learned how to play together. They have won seven of their last ten and are a game behind the Golden State Warriors for the No. 6 seed.
Golden State has the tiebreaker over the Rockets and an easier schedule over their last four games. Houston still has to play the Memphis Grizzlies and a hungry Los Angeles Lakers team.
Basketball fans are hoping for the Rockets to stay in the seventh spot, setting up a possible matchup between James Harden and his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the first round.
Al Jefferson leads the Jazz in points (17.5) and rebounds (9.1.)
Current Record: 41-38
Projected Record: 42-40
Utah Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin deserves a lot of credit for holding his team together. The Jazz appeared to be in big trouble a few weeks ago when a surging Lakers team jumped ahead of them in the standings, but they responded by winning seven of their last 10 games.
The Jazz trail the Lakers by half a game, but they own the tiebreaker with Kobe Bryant's team and have a slightly easier schedule. Utah has a home-and-home with the Minnesota Timberwolves, then finish the season at Memphis.
That being said, do not be surprised if Utah loses two out of three and falls short of the playoffs. Minnesota has been playing better lately, and it is always difficult to beat a team two games in a row. The Grizzlies are a tough matchup for Utah because they have the size to counter Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap down low.
The Lakers are trying to avoid their most disappointing season in NBA history.
Current Record: 41-37
Projected Record: 43-39
Every game is crucial as the Los Angeles Lakers fight for their playoff lives. They improved their odds by disposing of the New Orleans Hornets on Tuesday. A loss by the Jazz on the same night moved the Lakers a half game ahead of Utah for the final playoff spot.
The next stop for the Lakers is Portland to face the Trail Blazers on April 10. Then they close out the season with home games against three playoff teams: the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.
Assuming the Lakers defeat the Blazers, they will have to win at least one, and possibly two, of their final three games in order to wrap up the eighth seed. San Antonio is always a tough matchup, and Golden State and Houston's up-temp style will pose a significant threat to the Lakers' porous defense. Look for L.A. to lose two of the four games, but sneak into the playoffs anyway.