Whether it's due to a sudden resurgence or the Indiana Pacers' sharp decline over the last month, the Miami Heat find themselves atop the Eastern Conference with just six games to play.
After Sunday's victory against the New York Knicks, Miami is a full game up on Indiana and two games ahead in the loss column. The win against the Knicks effectively eliminated them from realistic playoff contention; they sit three losses back of the Atlanta Hawks with just four to play.
Although New York still has a mathematical chance, if Miami nails down the East's top seed, its opponent will be the Atlanta Hawks, who, according to general manager Danny Ferry via USA Today, are "not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that's not our goal."
Now that series reeks of competitiveness.
If Indiana retakes the No. 1 seed, Miami would fall to second place and most likely take on the Charlotte Bobcats. The Washington Wizards, who are just one game ahead of Charlotte, may also fall to No. 7.
The Hawks, who have gone 8-21 over their last 29 yet still hold a playoff spot thanks to the Knicks' and Cleveland Cavaliers' futility, would be lucky to get a game out of a Miami series. At 33-42, the Hawks wouldn't be the worst playoff team to ever qualify, but they wouldn't stand a chance at competing with the two-time reigning champs.
With Al Horford done for the season, the offense has been in the hands of Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. Before Atlanta fully committed to tanking, it defeated Miami by seven at home. The Hawks lost the other two contests and have one remaining before the season ends.
A No. 2 vs. No. 7 series against Charlotte would pose more of a threat to Miami but barely. The Bobcats have gained credibility this season, as they sit above .500 at 39-38. If their record holds true, it would be the franchise's second winning season ever. Steve Clifford's defense is ranked sixth in efficiency, while Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker have led the offense with 22 and 18 points per game, respectively.
Charlotte is one of the NBA's feel-good stories, but a series against the Heat would be an unfortunate end to its season. Charlotte fell to Miami by one point on Dec. 1 and took the Heat to overtime on Jan. 18, but the Bobcats have lost all four contests against them this year.
A series against John Wall's Wizards team would be interesting, although it's the most unlikely of these scenarios. The Wiz managed to beat Miami back in January, when John Wall posted 25 and nine assists. They've dropped the other two contests this year by a combined 19 points.
Miami hasn't crushed the competition as of late, but expect the defending champions to flip the switch back come playoff time, especially considering the weak competition in Round 1.