Only a few playoff vacancies remain as time runs out in the 2013-14 NBA season, and desperation is starting to set in.
That's not the case for everyone, though, as plenty of teams already have their tickets punched for the postseason tournament. The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers officially sewed up their spots in the East long ago, and the San Antonio Spurs are already in out West.
As you can see, the list of teams with technical playoff guarantees isn't all that long, but there are enough near certainties in each conference to drastically reduce the number of available spots. Here's how we think both conferences will shake out.
Although they're not mathematically assured of postseason berths just yet, the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats all have big enough cushions to breathe easy until the regular season ends on April 16.
Perhaps there's an argument the Bobcats should be worried, but they've got a comfortable five games separating them from the lottery. That seems like a safe distance.
On the other extreme, the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic are all mathematically eliminated from the postseason. The Boston Celtics, trailing the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks by 8.5 games, might as well be.
That leaves four bubble teams in the East, each of which has at least a halfway decent shot at visiting the playoffs.
Thanks to Dion Waiters' late-game heroics on March 26, the Detroit Pistons fell to 2-8 in their last 10 games. Even in the atrocious Eastern Conference, that's going to hurt your playoff chances.
Waiters nailed a game-winner to drop the Pistons 5.5 games behind the Hawks. With just 11 contests left on their schedule, the Pistons are far from officially out of the running. But this team has been performing horribly of late, and it's staring at a closing stretch that features the Heat, Pacers, Nets, Hawks, Bulls, Raptors and Thunder. All of those teams are currently playoff-caliber clubs.
That's too much for Detroit to handle.
By beating the Pistons, Cleveland moved a full two games ahead of Detroit. More importantly, it closed to within 3.5 games of the Hawks. With a relatively soft schedule remaining, you might think the stars are aligned for the Cavs to make a late-season surge.
But there's entirely too much systemically wrong with this squad to believe it can pull itself together.
Kyrie Irving is out, the offense is still a disaster, and head coach Mike Brown is still dealing with a team—now led by Waiters—that has tuned him out, per Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Mike Brown says he told Dion Waiters to drive, not shoot jumper for last shot. "That's how much he listens to me," Brown said.— M.S. Boyer/J. Valade (@PDcavsinsider) March 27, 2014
New York Knicks
It'd be nice to give an exhaustive analysis here. Perhaps we could cite the manageable two games separating the New York Knicks from the eighth-seeded Hawks. Maybe we could point to Phil Jackson's zen magic as a source of optimism.
And really, it's not like the Hawks are some elite, uncatchable bunch. If the Knicks were even somewhat reliable from game to game, it'd be totally reasonable to suggest they might overtake Atlanta for that No. 8 spot.
But you saw that gag-inducing 51-point quarter the Knicks surrendered to the Lakers on March 25, right? That actually happened. No playoff team does things like that.
Well, you've probably deduced that the Hawks are the lone bubble team we have yet to rule out. Ergo, they're the lucky winners of the eighth seed, which comes with the unenviable prize of facing either the Pacers or Heat in what's sure to be a first-round massacre.
Congratulations, Hawks. You're in.
We know the Spurs are in. And although the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets don't share that certainty, they're all at least six games ahead of the No. 9 spot—more than enough to exclude them from any bubble discussion.
The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans are all officially out. And as much as it might hurt to hear, we're excluding the Minnesota Timberwolves—who are seven games behind the No. 8 spot with 12 to play—from bubble consideration.
Sorry, Wolves fans; your boys are toast.
That leaves five teams vying for the final four playoff spots in the West. Buckle up.
We've all seen what the Memphis Grizzlies can do in the postseason. They took care of the Oklahoma City Thunder last year (admittedly without Russell Westbrook's involvement) and have made the dance in each of the past three seasons.
Boasting the league's fifth-best net rating since the All-Star break and defending like mad, these Grizzlies look primed to do more damage in this year's tournament.
Per B/R's Dan Favale, they're a team the top seeds should desperately want to avoid: "Locking down defensively has rescued the Grizzlies from ruin, catapulting them back into playoff contention as every opposing team's matchup nightmare, right where they belong."
Memphis is currently slotted in the No. 7 spot, but slippage is almost impossible to imagine. Marc Gasol is too good, the defense too stout and the recent history of success too fresh.
Currently on the outside of the playoff picture because they're on the wrong end of a tiebreaker with the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks will need to play extremely well over a tough closing stretch to move into postseason position.
They'll face the Clippers and Golden State Warriors during the next week, then kick off a four-game road trip with another tilt against the Clips on April 3. Fortunately, the final three games on that trip feature teams—the Lakers, Kings and Jazz—that have already been eliminated.
But the Mavs will have to do battle with the Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Grizzlies to close out the year. That's a tall order, but at least they'll have a chance to make up ground in head-to-head tilts at the 11th hour.
With as little certainty as possible, I'm betting on Dirk Nowitzki to get the job done. After all, he's been reaching remarkable milestones lately, like the one he achieved March 25 in a massive win over the Thunder, per Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com:
Golden State Warriors
Mark Jackson can re-assign all the assistant coaches he wants. As long as the Warriors have Stephen Curry and a dominant defense, they'll be tough to beat.
Currently occupying the No. 6 spot and enjoying a slim 1.5-game lead on the Suns, the suddenly drama-laden Dubs are in better shape than you might think. Home games against the Kings, Jazz, Nuggets and Wolves are all coming up in April, and they'll go on the road to take on the Lakers and Nuggets in the final week of the year.
Every one of those contests should be wins. So even if the Warriors can't handle the Grizzlies on March 28 or the Spurs on April 2, they should have enough victories to hold on to their spot.
Of course, if Brian Scalabrine's brilliant work as the No. 4 assistant on Jackson's staff was actually the secret to this team's success, the Warriors are screwed.
Give me Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and a cadre of floor-spacing shooters, and I'll give you a playoff team. Following a 99-93 victory over the Wizards on March 26, the Suns are now proud owners of a five-game winning streak, the second-longest active mark in the league.
Boasting a pace that makes them a nightmare for the fatigued teams playing out the string in the season's final few weeks, the Suns are likely to keep their run going. The Knicks and Lakers are on deck, which should extend that surge to seven.
This is a team with nothing to lose, and that mentality will only help the Suns finish strong. A stretch of three games in four nights from April 11-14 will pit them against the Spurs, Mavs and Grizzlies, and there's a good chance the Suns' season will hinge on that trio of contests.
Consider this a wager that they're up to the challenge.
Portland Trail Blazers
Currently the No. 5 team in the West, the Portland Trail Blazers have been headed in the wrong direction for a while now. All year, skeptics cited their defensive woes (the Blazers rank 20th in the league with a defensive rating of 105.1, per NBA.com) and still-unproven bench as reasons to doubt their hot start.
Those have been factors, to be sure, but LaMarcus Aldridge's bad back has been the bigger issue by far. Portland has gone 3-4 in the seven games he's missed, and the latest word from Aldridge, via Jason Quick of The Oregonian, isn't encouraging: "Running isn’t normal yet. I'm trying to stride out and run, but it hasn’t felt normal. It's felt better the last couple of days."
Nonetheless, he's expected back March 28.
With six of their last 10 games coming against playoff teams, the Blazers have a tough road ahead. Worse still, they're only up two games on the ninth-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
Maybe it's crazy, but I think Portland is going to drop at least half of its final 10 contests. In the brutal West, with Dallas, Phoenix, Memphis and Golden State all having won at least seven of their last 10 contests, that won't be enough.
Call it boring if you like, but the final predictions for this year's playoff entrants are only marginally different than what the postseason table would look like if the season ended today.
The key difference is the Mavericks sneaking in to steal the stumbling Blazers' spot. Perhaps it's overly bold to think the Trail Blazers will drop more than two games in the standings if Aldridge is back on the court. But their recent downward momentum has been building, and it's now too substantial to ignore.
Here's a rundown of our predicted final standings:
|Western Conference||Eastern Conference|
|1. San Antonio Spurs||1. Indiana Pacers|
|2. Oklahoma City Thunder||2. Miami Heat|
|3. Los Angeles Clippers||3. Chicago Bulls|
|4. Houston Rockets||4. Toronto Raptors|
|5. Golden State Warriors||5. Brooklyn Nets|
|6. Memphis Grizzlies||6. Washington Wizards|
|7. Phoenix Suns||7. Charlotte Bobcats|
|8. Dallas Mavericks||8. Atlanta Hawks|
A lot can change between now and the end of the regular season. Injuries could crop up, teams with certain playoff bids could give away games by resting stars, and spoilers are always lurking. Even if we end up being off in our predictions, the stretch run is going to be a whole lot of fun.
Unless you're the Wolves, of course.
*All stats accurate through games played March 26.