Breaking Down 2014 NBA Playoff Scenarios for Every Contender

John DornCorrespondent IIIApril 7, 2014

Breaking Down 2014 NBA Playoff Scenarios for Every Contender

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    With a regular season as unpredictable as the one coming to an end, the ensuing NBA playoffs will present us with unique matchups and scenarios that are seldom encountered in postseason play.

    Thanks to injuries and otherwise awful disappointments ruining what was purported to be an improved Eastern Conference, the middle seeds all have a fair shot at advancing to the second round. 

    Once perceived to be a powerhouse, the Indiana Pacers have stumbled to the finish line, and their cakewalk to the NBA Finals may not be as breezy as everyone first suspected.

    In the West, the conference's top seeds have grown increasingly intimidating as the season has neared its finish. But can a lower seed in the conference manage to upset one of the dominant forces?

    Once they arrive, this year's playoffs are sure to provide interesting paths for all teams involved. Ahead, we outline each potential matchup for the league's postseason contenders.

    The following list is sorted by best record. All mathematically playoff-eligible teams are included, with the exception of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have five more losses than the eighth-place Atlanta Hawks and only four games left.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Matt Strasen

    With a 3.5-game conference lead—and just six left to play—the San Antonio Spurs will likely be slotted against the West's eighth seed to open the postseason. Unlike the Spurs' status, that final seed is far from cemented just yet.

    As we stand now, the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks, eighth-place Phoenix Suns and ninth-place Memphis Grizzlies are all separated by just a game-and-a-half in the standings. 

    Fresh off a 19-game winning streak, it's hard to imagine any team running off four victories against the Spurs over a seven-game series. Of the three competing teams, San Antonio has played a combined 10 games, going 9-1, with the only defeat coming at the hands of Phoenix—when Tony Parker sat out with injury.

    Each of the three teams has one rendezvous remaining with San Antonio over the next two weeks, starting Sunday: Memphis lost epically by 20 on April 6, Dallas will host the Spurs on April 10, and the Suns get their chance on April 11.

    The Spurs' opponent is an unknown, but their first-round fate is quite the opposite. They are playing perhaps the best basketball in years, and any upset would be stunning, to say the least.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki

    If the season ended on April 8, the Oklahoma City Thunder would be slotted in the West's No. 2 seed. The season doesn't end on April 8, but when it does, second place is likely where the Thunder will wind up.

    The Spurs have a 3.5 game cushion above OKC, and the Los Angeles Clippers sit 1.5 games back at No. 3. A slip down to the third seed by season's end wouldn't be overwhelmingly shocking, but after winning 12 of their last 15, the Thunder seem to have hit a nice groove as the postseason looms. 

    On the flip side of the standings, Oklahoma City's first-round opponent is very much up in the air. 

    Currently, the Dallas Mavericks rest in seventh place, with the Suns trailing just a half-game behind and Memphis one game behind Phoenix. The Golden State Warriors are only 1.5 games ahead of Dallas in sixth, and the Portland Trail Blazers, 9-10 over their last 18, are three games in front of the Mavs.

    Realistically, two of the Phoenix-Dallas-Memphis trio will qualify for the postseason. As the No. 2 seed, OKC's opponent will be one of them. 

    This season, the Thunder have taken care of the Grizzlies, going 3-1 against Memphis and outscoring them by an average of seven points. They've split a pair of games against the Suns and have dropped two games to Dallas in three tries—the most recent being an overtime thriller on March 25. Kevin Durant scored 43 in that loss.

    Memphis doesn't seem to have the offensive firepower to hang in a series with Oklahoma City. Phoenix possesses the youth and athleticism to compete in an entertaining series, but the heavy advantage would still go to the Thunder. Dallas likely poses the toughest matchup of the three, but over a seven-game series, it's hard to imagine Durant and Russell Westbrook failing to impose their will on Dallas' 23rd-ranked defense.

    With a healthy Westbrook in this season's playoffs and an MVP-caliber Durant, there's every reason to believe the Thunder will compete for the franchise's first championship since 1979.

Los Angeles Clippers

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    Danny Moloshok

    Among the West's top-three units, the Los Angeles Clippers sit comfortably in third, with fourth-place Houston three games behind. Oklahoma City has a one-game advantage on LA in second, but the Clips are two back in the loss column with just five left to play.

    For all intents and purposes, Los Angeles is the West's No. 3 seed.

    With 55 wins, the Clips are just one win shy of matching last season's total, which is worth noting as Chris Paul missed a chunk of the season with a shoulder injury. 

    The current standings call for a No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup against the Golden State Warriors, who are two up on Dallas in the loss column and have one more loss than the fifth-place Portland Trail Blazers. A potential series against either team is a reasonable possibility.

    Then again, nobody would be shocked if the Clips jump to No. 2 and Memphis rise to No. 7, lining up a third consecutive Clips vs. Griz playoff series.

    Against Portland's high-powered offense, LA has lost in overtime on the road on Dec. 26 and won by five in February at the Staples Center. The Clippers split the season series against Golden State at two games apiece, with each team winning both its home tilts.

    In theory, Portland's 17th-ranked defense wouldn't be able to hang with the league's best offense over a series. According to 82games.com, Portland is allowing a player efficiency rating of 18.6 to opposing point guards, 18.1 to centers and 16.0 to power forwards. In the two teams' first season meeting, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combined for 69 points. Griffin went for 36 in the second matchup, while Paul went for 20 and 12 assists.

    Against the Dubs this season, Paul is averaging 28 and 13. Griffin has posted a line of 25 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. 

    Both potential series would be packed with plenty of offensive output, and Golden State's fourth-ranked defense would probably have Clips fans sweating out a number of games. But it seems as if Los Angeles is finally primed to reach the next level under Doc Rivers and advance deep into the postseason.

Miami Heat

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    Wilfredo Lee

    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 Todayare "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.

Indiana Pacers

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    NELL REDMOND

    The Indiana Pacers' recent demise has been well-documented over the last month or so, but it would still take a monumental collapse for them to bow out of the postseason after just one round. 

    If they finish the season in their current position, their likely opponent would be the Charlotte Bobcats, who seem to have the seventh position locked down. If the Pacers manage to reclaim their top seed, the Atlanta Hawks loom as likely foes. Other potential matchups include sets with the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks.

    In Charlotte, the Pacers would be facing a diluted version of themselves. The Bobcats have posted the league's sixth-best defensive efficiency this season but have struggled on the offensive end, ranking just 24th in that regard.

    Indy has posted the league's best defensive mark but has scored just the 22nd most points per 100 possessions league-wide. 

    In a potential battle with the Hawks, who have gone 10-21 over their last 31, even a team as out of sync as the Pacers should have no problem coming out of the round in four or five games—even after Atlanta pummeled Indy by double-digits on Sunday.

    Indiana has gone just 7-12 over its last 19, and questions have been raised regarding the team's emotional makeup and whether it's capable of reaching an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with Miami. But against a Hawks team that seemingly hasn't been interested in winning for months, the Pacers would likely find a way to come away with four out of seven.

    The Pacers have gone a combined 4-4 against Charlotte and Atlanta this season, which holds true to the team's motif over recent weeks: It simply can't find a way to get up for games against lesser opponents. Point guard George Hill admitted it after a loss to Washington last month, according to Candace Bucker of the Indianapolis Star:

    I feel like when we play people that have that stature of a dominant team, we get ready to play them. Teams that we may think are less dominant for us, we kind of stoop to their level. But those are the teams that are going to burn you. They're playing for a reason and with a purpose and that's what we haven't been doing.

    This does pose threats to the Pacers this season, considering the dramatic drop-off in talent from the top of the conference to the bottom. 

    Still, it would be hard to imagine Indy dropping four games to Atlanta or Charlotte over a two-week span. If the Pacers do take an early exit, it would likely be at the hands of tougher Toronto, Chicago or Brooklyn in later rounds.

Houston Rockets

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    David J. Phillip

    Of all the Western Conference playoff battles, this one seems to be the most certain. The Houston Rockets seem to be penciled in as the No. 4 seed, while Portland has settled in as No. 5. Stranger things have gone down during final stretches, but this one seems to be in the cards.

    Two losses separate Houston and the Clippers in the battle for the third seed, and Portland is three defeats behind the Rockets. The Blazers are up one in the loss column over Golden State.

    Houston has won three of the four regular-season contests between the two, with the one loss coming in December on the road. On average, the Rockets have beaten Portland by seven. 

    Containing LaMarcus Aldridge would be the team's first priority in a playoff series. He recorded two 20-20 games against Houston's frontcourt this season. 

    According to USA Today's Sam Amick, point guard Patrick Beverley is expected to return in time for the postseason. He will not need surgery to repair his torn meniscus, according to the report.

    Dwight Howard's health will also factor in, with the postseason beginning in less than two weeks. Howard has been battling ankle troubles that have sidelined him for the better part of the last 10 games. In his place, Omer Asik has posted double-digit rebound performances in each of the last five games, including two 20-board contests.

    While Asik is a capable center in his own right, it would be impossible to replace the attention that Howard commands near the rim. He has averaged 26 points and 14 rebounds against the Blazers this season.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    BOB LEVEY

    After a scorching offensive start, the Trail Blazers have cooled a bit but still boast the league's second-most efficient offense. Their 50-28 record is good enough to put them in fifth, with a two-game cushion over sixth-place Golden State.

    Houston took three of four from Portland over the regular season, with the season series wrapping up in March. 

    The Blazers offense held true through each of the four matchups, scoring more than 100 points in each game against Houston. The woeful defense, ranked 17th in efficiency this season, gave up 115 points in three out of the four games.

    For Portland to prosper, it'll come down to the defensive end of the floor, where it has actually ranked 13th since Feb. 1, according to NBA.com. The Blazers have only taken on the Rockets once since then, resulting in a five-point overtime loss on the road.

    Houston's defense has been floating between 10th- and 12th-best throughout the season. This matchup could possibly be decided by which high-powered offense can manage to subdue the opposition's attack. Portland will have its work cut out for it with James Harden and a potentially healthy and rested Dwight Howard. 

Golden State Warriors

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    Danny Moloshok

    The Warriors' season didn't turn out to be as dominant as ownership has hoped, but the team is still in prime position to make some postseason noise. 

    With just five games left, Golden State seems guaranteed a top-six seed, with the possibility of bumping up to No. 5 under certain circumstances. The Warriors are in the sixth position, facing a likely series with the third-seeded Los Angeles Clippers. 

    The Dubs split the four-game series with LA, as each team secured its home bouts. This is important to note, as the Clips would maintain home court through a potential first-round set. 

    In the first matchup in October, Stephen Curry's 38 points and nine assists were overshadowed by Chris Paul's 42 and 15. Both star guards have kept their head-to-head stat lines a bit more subdued since the opening-night contest—Curry has averaged 17 and 10 in the three games since, while Paul has posted 21 and 12 over his two games (he missed one with a shoulder injury).

    Both teams have thrived on the defensive end, after early-season doubts as to whether they'd be able to survive in that regard. The Clips, however, have surged up the offensive efficiency charts to second, while Golden State sits outside the top 10 at 13th.

    Pound for pound, these teams play a similar style of basketball with strong defensive centers, power forwards who are adept at scoring, depth at the wings and star point men. But the Clips' talent will be difficult to match up with in the playoffs.

Dallas Mavericks

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    LM Otero

    With four games left, the Dallas Mavericks' playoff future is still up in the air despite having 47 wins already on the ledger. 

    If they win out, the seventh seed will be theirs, as they're a half-game in front of the Phoenix Suns with one game remaining against them. If the team flounders away the last week-and-a-half of the season, though, they could finish on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. 

    As the No. 7 seed, they're slated to face the Oklahoma City Thunder. If they fall down to eighth, the rival San Antonio Spurs will be in the cards. 

    Neither situation is desirable, but let's just say a meeting with the 60-win Spurs would likely end much more quickly. 

    If the Mavs manage to hold their position at seventh, it will have the in-season success to convince—at least themselves—that they stand a chance at advancing. They beat the Thunder in OKC by 23 back in March and withstood a 43-point Kevin Durant showing to knock them off in overtime later that month. 

    If the Mavs do slide down a spot, they'd need to defeat the Spurs four times in roughly two weeks. San Antonio has lost four games since Feb. 1.

    The third option is letting Memphis and Phoenix both overtake them in the standings and finish ninth in the conference. So all the Mavs can do at the moment is focus on winning games and worry about the opponent once their standing is set in stone.

Phoenix Suns

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    Ross D. Franklin

    One of the league's most entertaining surprises this season, the Phoenix Suns somehow find themselves in a playoff spot. Led by catalytic youth, Jeff Hornacek's team has scored at the eighth-best rate in the league and has posted the franchise's highest win total since 2009-10.

    The Suns are a half-game back of Dallas for seventh place but even in the loss column at 31. On the flip side, they're just a game in front of the Memphis Grizzlies and at risk of falling back into the lottery. 

    Either potential playoff scenario—whether it's against San Antonio or Oklahoma—would leave Phoenix as the overwhelming underdog. But if the Suns had their choice, they have a better chance at matching up athletically against the Thunder. 

    Phoenix defeated the Spurs once this season at home by 21, although Tony Parker was forced to sit out, while Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili combined to play only 34 minutes. The Spurs managed to defeat Phoenix in their two other contests this season, both by single-digit margins. They face off once more on April 11.

    The Suns lost early in the season on the road against OKC but have defeated the Thunder twice at home—once last month and once on Sunday. 

    San Antonio would likely be able to nullify Phoenix's athleticism and quickness and dictate a methodical game. Against the Thunder, the Suns would at least have the chance to play an opponent of similar structure.

    However their season ends, 2013-14 was a complete success for the Suns. Running off a few playoff victories—or simply putting their entertaining brand of basketball on display for the NBA world to see—would be a perfect way to punctuate it.

Toronto Raptors

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    For a while, it appeared that the Toronto Raptors had the No. 3 seed in the East locked in. That was until the Chicago Bulls' recent five-game winning streak; they've surged back into a deadlock with Toronto for the third slot, although the Raps own the tiebreaker as division leaders.

    Though a division crown isn't clinched, it's likely. Brooklyn is two back in the loss column with just six to play.

    If they hold their current position and enter as a No. 3 seed, the Raptors would be hosting the Washington Wizards in the first round, while a fourth-place finish would mean a likely series with the Brooklyn Nets. 

    Toronto has surprised many this season by becoming one of the East's more solid teams this side of Miami/Indy. It has racked up 45 wins thus far and could easily run the table with remaining opponents of New York, Detroit, Philly and Milwaukee.

    A set against Washington would feature a great point guard battle between John Wall and Kyle Lowry. It would be an interesting matchup between two teams that haven't tasted the postseason in some time. Neither team has made a postseason trip since 2008.

    Toronto took three of four regular-season tilts against the Wiz, with the only loss coming in triple-overtime on Feb. 27. If a single game could depict how evenly matched a pair of teams could be, it's one that takes 63 minutes to decide. 

    Charlotte also could potentially bump up into the sixth slot with a fortunate run last week. The Bobcats swept Toronto in the three-game season series, never allowing the Raptors to exceed 95 points in regulation.

    If Toronto slides into a matchup with Brooklyn, it would be in yet another evenly matched series. The teams split their slate of games, each squad taking one home game and one on the road.

    Of the teams that Toronto has played four times this year, Lowry has averaged his highest point total, 22, against the Nets. His highest assist average, 10.3, against such teams has come against the Wizards.

    The talent level of East teams No. 3 through 7 doesn't deviate much, which means Toronto's series will likely be a lengthy one. But based on what the Raps have shown over the course of the season, it would be difficult to bet against them versus some lesser East units.

Chicago Bulls

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Somehow, some way, the Chicago Bulls find themselves in another favorable playoff position this spring. Without Derrick Rose for essentially a second consecutive season, Chicago has matched its win total from last season with five games left. 

    The Bulls have won their last five to go even with the Toronto Raptors for the third seed, but the Raps own that tiebreaker. If Chicago overtakes Toronto and finishes the regular season with the No. 3 seed, it would face either the Washington Wizards or Charlotte Bobcats. If not, a first-round rematch from last season with the Brooklyn Nets seems most likely. 

    The Bulls lost to Washington twice in January but handily defeated the Wiz on Saturday in D.C. In that most recent victory, D.J. Augustin scored 25, while Joakim Noah added 21 with 12 rebounds to secure the victory. That's a stark difference from the teams' first two contests—those two players combined for just 15 in the first bout and 25 points in the second.

    Chicago defeated Brooklyn without much resistance on Christmas Day and then once again in February. But, after a second-half resurgence, the Nets have reappeared as one of the East's most intimidating opponents. Brooklyn took the Bulls down on March 3 by a score of 96-80, as no Bull put up more than 16.

    Charlotte has lost all three games against the Bulls this season, with one more try on April 16. The Bobcats play a similar, defensive style of basketball as the Bulls but with a bit more offense. Charlotte has posted the 24th-ranked offensive efficiency and sixth-ranked defense, while the Bulls offense has ranked 28th and its defense second.

    Any first-round series that Chicago  participates in would likely resemble its one from last year: a long, grueling battle for points. It's not certain that the Bulls can beat Brooklyn or Washington four times in seven tries, but their recent run of victories would make them a formidable opponent.

Memphis Grizzlies

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    D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

    The Grizzlies' playoff standing has seemingly changed daily over their most recent stretch. Entering Monday, they're on the outside looking in at 45-32 and in ninth place.

    Just one-and-a-half games separate Memphis, Phoenix and Dallas, while the Grizzlies are just a game outside the eighth spot. Sliding in as the No. 8 seed would mean a Western Conference Finals rematch with the San Antonio Spurs, and a seventh-place finish would likely entail a set with the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    Of Memphis' final five games, just two will come against losing teams. The last two contests will be, almost poetically, against Phoenix and Dallas, respectively.

    After starting poorly, Memphis has gone 30-12 since Jan. 24, clawing back into the playoff race. If it gets there only to face San Antonio, it would likely be a short trip back to the postseason. Like in last year's conference finals, the Spurs swept the season series from Memphis, four games to none.

    The Grizzlies did come within two points of knocking off the defending conference champs on Jan. 7 but dropped the game at home, in overtime, after fighting back from a double-digit deficit.

    If Memphis miraculously ends up as the seventh seed, it would face an opponent that it's actually beaten this year, albeit only once. Memphis defeated Oklahoma City 90-87 in January but dropped the other three meetings by a combined 31 points.

    The Grizzlies have some grinding to do to merely make the playoffs, and to advance, they'd need to display unprecedented levels of grit.

Brooklyn Nets

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    Nam Y. Huh

    There are several uncertainties within the playoff picture as we stand now, but Brooklyn seems to be planted into that No. 5 slot. Washington is three losses behind the Nets in sixth, and Chicago has a two-game advantage in the loss column in fourth place. The Nets have six games left on the schedule, with five against teams with losing records. 

    Brooklyn has remarkably battled to eight games over the .500 mark after a putrid beginning to the Jason Kidd era. The Nets have racked up 32 wins since New Year's Day, which is second-best only to Chicago's 33.

    A series with Chicago would likely be as lengthy as last postseason's—the two teams have posted nearly identical records since January. Chicago has posted the league's best defensive efficiency since Jan. 1, but Brooklyn isn't far behind in 10th.

    If the Nets stay steady in fifth place, while Chicago climbs to third, that would set up a No. 4 Raptors vs. No. 5 Nets opening series. Those two teams have split their four-game series, though Toronto has logged higher efficiencies on both ends of the court than the Nets have. 

    If Brooklyn overtakes Toronto for the division crown, the Washington Wizards could be a potential opponent as a sixth seed, though the Bobcats aren't out of play for this slot either. The Nets have gone a combined 2-5 against those teams this season and 2-2 in games coming after the New Year. 

    The postseason is why Nets management snagged Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics last summer. It's been an unpredictable and unlikely path to the playoffs, but when it finally does arrive, Brooklyn will hope that the two veterans can push the Nets over the top and advance them into the second round—or possibly even an Eastern Conference Finals matchup, considering Indiana's recent struggles.

Washington Wizards

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    Manuel Balce Ceneta

    The Wizards have clinched their first playoff berth since 2008, and they'll be going in as either a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, depending on how they finish the year. They have five games remaining, three against losing teams.

    They're slated to take on the Toronto Raptors, who are the East's No. 3 seed. The Chicago Bulls or Brooklyn Nets could also climb to that spot, depending on each team's final week. Washington is still only a game in front of Charlotte, who is the seventh seed, so its status isn't set in stone just yet, either. As a No. 7 seed, Washington would be taking on the Indiana Pacers or possibly the Miami Heat.

    With Indy or Miami looming to face the No. 7 seed, the Wizards will be motivated to finish this regular season strong and secure sixth place. 

    If the current standings hold, Washington will be hosted by a Raptors team that has taken them down three out of four times, with the only loss coming in a triple-overtime marathon. On average, the Raps have outscored Washington by seven. 

    John Wall has averaged 25.3 points per game against Toronto this season, which is his second-highest average against teams he's played four times (only to his 25.8 points against Philadelphia).

    Against the Nets and Bulls, Washington has gone a combined 5-1, with its only loss coming Saturday against Chicago by 18. 

    As long as Washington doesn't slip past sixth, it should remain competitive with any opponent in the first round. The Wizards will need to finish strong to get there, though, because Charlotte wants to avoid Miami or Indiana just as badly as they do.

Charlotte Bobcats

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    Brock Williams-Smith/Getty Images

    The Bobcats have presented us with one of the league's best comeback stories in recent memory. At 39-38, Charlotte is over .500 and exceeding expectations with a cast of talent that nobody expected to climb out of the depths of the draft lottery. 

    The one negative to its seventh-place standing is that it's set to face off against the Indiana Pacers in the first round, who are a game back of the Miami Heat for the top seed. Indy has been struggling of late, but it's still one of the league's best teams and would take the 'Cats down over a seven-game series. 

    Facing an offensively challenged Pacers team is a better fate than having to deal with the two-time defending champion Heat, but Charlotte will still do everything it can to bump into sixth place and avoid both scenarios. The Bobcats have posted the third-best winning percentage in the East over the last two weeks by going 5-2 and are one game behind Washington in the loss column for sixth.

    If they fail to overtake the Wizards, they'll face a Pacers team that has beaten them two out of three times this season. Charlotte actually came away with the last meeting on March 5 by 22 points, which makes sense given Indiana's recent inability to focus and take care of business against weaker opponents. 

    One would presume that the Pacers will be able to finally lock down and regain their composure once the playoffs finally start, but if Charlotte comes out firing on all cylinders to start off Game 1, there's no telling how Indiana may respond. 

    A month ago, predicting a Bobcats' first-round upset of Indiana would sound insane. Today, it sounds a less insane. However unlikely a playoff run may be this season, Charlotte players should walk away from this season with their heads held high, with even greater hopes for the new Hornets era tipping off next season.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Try as they might, the Atlanta Hawks appear like they'll be missing out on the draft lottery and will be backing in—nay, crawling in, with blindfolds on, with all four limbs tied together like one—to the playoff picture. There, they'll take the form of live bait for the Miami Heat to swallow whole.

    If it was possible for a seven-game series to end in three games, this would be the scenario.

    It's not necessarily the Hawks' fault, either. General manager Danny Ferry openly stated that clinching the eighth seed isn't what the team is aiming for, and it shouldn't be. Atlanta is attempting to build a sustainable winning model that brings it beyond the land between seeds No. 6 through 8, which may as well be named after the Hawks.

    Atlanta doesn't want this. It shouldn't have to happen this way. The Hawks would rather take their 2.2 percent chance at a top-three pick, call it a season and ride on home.

    But the New York Knicks can't even take hold of the playoff seed that's being hurled at their feet on a gold platter.

    The Knicks, with only four games left to play, sit three games behind Atlanta in the loss column. Any combination of three New York losses or Atlanta victories will eliminate New York and lock the Hawks into the eighth seed, setting up the carnage that will be the Eastern Conference's No. 1 vs. No. 8 first-round series.

    The Hawks have gone just 16-28 since the calendar flipped to 2014, the league's ninth-worst record in that span. Unfortunately, thanks to a Knicks team that's so bad it has to ruin two teams' seasons, Atlanta's tank job is going to fall just short. 

New York Knicks

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Yeah, this one is just not happening. 

    Still technically alive, the Knicks are three games back of eighth-place Atlanta in the loss column with four games left to their agonizing season. Four games left of Mike Woodson's NBA coaching career, four games left of Carmelo Anthony's Knicks tenure and four games until Phil Jackson can get to work on building something different.

    According to ESPN.com's Hollinger data, the Knicks own a 2.3 percent chance of cracking the East's top eight. With games left against Raptors, Bulls and Nets—and with Carmelo Anthony hurting—even that's very generous of Mr. Hollinger's data.

    Just one year removed from locking down the East's No. 2 seed and winning 54 games, the Knicks are back in pieces, perhaps more broken now than ever before. James Dolan has Phil Jackson to put it all back together, but no solution will be reached until the old pieces are ditched altogether and the franchise can start anew.

    If, by virtue of an explicit Atlanta tank job over the last week of the season, the Knicks stumble into the conference's No. 8 seed, they'll be swallowed up by Miami, just as they were in the 2012 postseason. 

    Perhaps it's for the best. Maybe this monstrosity of a season is what Dolan needed to grow cognizant of his shortcomings as an owner. Perhaps he needs to see his franchise flounder back into a laughingstock, his high draft pick blossom into a star on the Denver Nuggets' roster and his star player flee for Chicago or Los Angeles.

    Perhaps, one day, the Knicks won't be this way.