Don't look now, NBA fans, but we are fast approaching the postseason.
In less than one month, the wheat will be cut from the chaff, and the league's bottom feeders will be sent home to watch the games with the rest of us.
With that in mind, it's time to start looking at potential first-round matchups. There are likely to some thrilling playoff series from day one.
Everyone knows the unsurpassed depth of the Western Conference, but the recent strong play of some former Eastern Conference also-rans raises the possibility of a whole host of playoff intrigue.
In (100% playoff probability): Indiana, Miami, Chicago, Toronto, Brooklyn, Washington, Charlotte
Still needs work: Atlanta (94.0%)
Current first-round matchups (season series noted in parentheses):
- Indiana vs. Atlanta (Indiana leads 2-1)
- Miami vs. Charlotte (Miami won 4-0)
- Chicago vs. Washington (Washington leads 2-0)
- Toronto vs. Brooklyn (series tied 2-2)
Can Knicks sneak in?
The New York Knicks are the only team with an outside chance of crashing the Eastern Conference playoff party, but their 5.3 percent chance will drop after their loss to the Lakers on Tuesday night.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons came into Tuesday with less than a one percent chance. In the end, though, it looks like the eight-team playoff roster is essentially set. The only thing left undecided is who will face whom.
Who needs the No. 1 seed worse, Heat or Pacers?
For most of the season, it has been assumed that the Eastern Conference playoffs will boil down to an eventual Miami-Indiana finals. And Pacers head coach Frank Vogel is hoping his boys can hold on to the No. 1 seed and get that all-important Game 7 in Indy, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
We know what the odds are. Look at the odds over history of what Game 7's look like. I think it's 80 percent the home team wins. We just know that can be important. But it's not just about Game 7, either.
If you win a game on the road, they've got to win twice in your building. And that's really hard to do. We just felt it could be one of the difference-makers. It's not everything, but it could be one of the difference-makers.
Since the inception of the NBA, 114 game sevens have been played, and only 23 of those games were won by the road team.
There may be another, more pressing reason to prefer the No. 1 seed. That team will likely face the Hawks—losers of 17 of their last 23—in the first round. The No. 2 seed will likely face a much stiffer challenge against Charlotte and their seventh-ranked defense. While there's no upset potential there, the Bobcats could make for a tricky first-round series.
How will the middle of the pack finish?
The true first-round intrigue likely lies in the East's muddled middle. The Chicago Bulls currently sit 0.5 games up on the Toronto Raptors, and 2.0 on the Brooklyn Nets, for third place. The Washington Wizards will probably have to settle for a road series against one of the other three.
But while the Nets and Bulls are the teams getting all the press for their recent play, do not sleep on Washington or Toronto. The Wizards have yet to lose this season to either Brooklyn (3-0) or Chicago (2-0). As for the Raptors, they are a strong 24-16 since the start of the year and still hold the tiebreaker over Brooklyn, thanks to their conference record.
In (100% playoff probability): San Antonio, Oklahoma City, L.A. Clippers, Houston
Still needs work: Portland (99.8%), Golden State (99.1%), Memphis (77.4%), Dallas (66.5%)
Current first-round matchups:
- San Antonio vs. Dallas (San Antonio leads 3-0)
- Oklahoma City vs. Memphis (Oklahoma City won 3-1)
- L.A. Clippers vs. Golden State (series tied 2-2)
- Houston vs. Portland (Houston won 3-1)
Which team will be the odd man out?
As in all things—regular season and playoffs—the Western Conference is where the action is.
Pity the poor Phoenix Suns. Their 42-29 record would be good for the third-best record in the East, but in the West it is only good for a place in the lottery. Still, the Suns have a 55.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, by far the best odds of any team not currently in the dance.
They would likely give any team a tougher test then the squad currently holding on to to the fifth spot, the Portland Trail Blazers. That team is in a free fall, having lost eight of their last 11 games after Tuesday's humbling defeat at the hands of a terrible Orlando Magic team.
But take heart, Portland fans: Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is expected back shortly. And it's not a moment too soon, per The Oregonian's Jason Quick:
Aldridge's imminent return couldn't come at better time: Blazers cushion for the playoffs is just 2.5 games over Dallas and Phoenix— Jason Quick (@jwquick) March 26, 2014
Time to consider first-round matchup preferences?
While the Warriors should be able to jump Portland for the fifth spot, there's no guarantee that the No. 4-seeded Rockets would present an easier challenge than the No. 3 Clippers...or the No. 2-seeded Thunder. Such is the life in the "Wild West."
As for the lower seed nobody wants to face, the honor surely goes to the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis is 29-11 since the beginning of January and made the conference finals last season, beating the Clippers and Thunder (without Russell Westbrook) along the way. If they play the Thunder or Clippers again, we could be in for a not-so-shocking upset.
The No. 6-seeded Warriors still have talent and experience from last year's run, but they have largely underachieved this season.
The No. 8-seeded Mavericks are a one-dimensional team—fourth-ranked offense and 23rd-ranked defense. While it's hard to count out Dirk Nowitzki, defense usually triumphs in the postseason.
That means two factors will go a long way in determining which of the four teams with home-court advantage will move on:
- matching up with Portland
- avoiding Memphis
But make no mistake: There is no easy matchup. Given the historic imbalance between these two conferences, every first-round playoff series is likely to produce fireworks in the West.
Playoff odds courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.