In the month of March, the NBA tends to take a backseat to the ongoing college basketball drama that is March Madness.
It's understandable—with hundreds of college games of utmost importance that make or break teams across the country, the six-month grind that is the NBA schedule can be forgettable for a few weeks.
But for some teams in the NBA, March is the most important month of the year, especially for those trying to solidify their spot in the playoffs.
By my count, nine teams look to be a lock for the postseason: Cleveland, Orlando, Atlanta, and Boston in the East, Los Angeles (Lakers), Dallas, Denver, Utah, and Oklahoma City in the West (that's right, I said the Zombie Sonics over Phoenix and San Antonio. They're a lock. It's time to start believing in them.).
That leaves four open spots in the East and three in the West. Let's take a look at each potential "bubble" team and examine their chances of still being around come mid-April.
Toronto Raptors (31-28, Fifth Place)
The Raptors are as close to a lock as any team in the East, but as of today, they're only two-and-a-half games away from being on the outside looking in.
They've hit a snag since returning from the All-Star break, losing five of seven and four in a row. Fortunately, they do have a pretty good excuse for their recent slide: The absence of their lone All-Star, Chris Bosh, who has missed the last six games.
While the Raps haven't been struggling to find offense in Bosh's absence, it's their defense that's taken the biggest hit, giving up nearly 110 points a game without him. They've gotten torched the last two games, losing by 20 at Oklahoma City and 24 at Houston.
Bosh could be back this Friday, just in time for a team that's starting to slip ever so slightly. With a four game Western conference road trip looming (at Lakers, Kings, Warriors, and Trail Blazers) and four teams in the East breathing down their necks, Toronto can't afford to prolong their losing streak.
The Raptors have home games remaining with Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Utah, Denver, and Boston, but their road schedule is light. Aside from the aforementioned Western Conference swing, Cleveland and Atlanta are the only above-.500 opponents left on the road.
With a healthy Bosh back in the lineup, the Raptors shouldn't have a problem getting into the postseason.
Projected Finish: 45-37, Fifth Seed
Chicago Bulls (31-29, Sixth Place)
The Bulls have seen the 2010 schedule treat them fairly well, going 18-12 since the beginning of the new year. A majority of that success should be credited to Derrick Rose, who has been tearing up the Association in the last month, averaging 22.3 points and 5.1 assists on over 50 percent shooting.
The vastly improved play of Taj Gibson inside has offset the trade of Tyrus Thomas, but the rookie is going to have to continue to produce at a high level. The Bulls announced today that Joakim Noah will miss the next three weeks with plantar fasciitis, an injury that's plagued him for the last month or so, meaning increased minutes for Gibson.
Noah's injury, coupled with minor tweaks to Luol Deng and Brad Miller and the loss of John Salmons and Thomas at the trade deadline, means the Bulls are wearing thin, and at the worst possible time.
Chicago is just beginning a brutal 12-game stretch, with home games against Atlanta (lost Monday, 116-92), Memphis, Utah, Dallas, Cleveland, Houston and Miami, and road games at Orlando, Miami, Memphis, Dallas and Philadelphia.
It's do or die time for the Bulls; a bad stretch in the next three weeks could drop them a few spots and put them in must-win situations in April.
On the plus side, Chicago has six games against their strongest competition down the stretch—Miami (twice), Charlotte (twice), vs. Milwaukee, and at Toronto.
A .500 record in their last 22 games will probably get the job done, but it'll be a daunting task.
Projected Finish: 42-40, Seventh Seed
Milwaukee Bucks (30-29, Seventh Place)
Quietly one of the hottest teams in the NBA, Milwaukee has sported a 14-6 record in their last 20 games, good for fourth best in the league, trailing only Cleveland (16-4), Utah (16-4), and the Lakers (15-5) in that span.
I like the pieces Milwaukee has in place: Andrew Bogut has been dominant on the inside, averaging a double-double for the season and should be in the discussion for NBA's Most Improved Player.
John Salmons was a fantastic acquisition, a legitimate scorer on the wing that takes pressure off of Brandon Jennings.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, aside from being a runaway for best name in the NBA, is a lock down defender (one of my favorites, especially on the perimeter) and should garner some votes for First Team All-Defense (that's right, FIRST team).
And Brandon Jennings, while struggling with his shot in the last two months, has done a decent job running the show and cutting back on his turnovers (averaging less than two per game in the last month).
Milwaukee has 14 of their final 23 games at home, and only four of their road games are against opponents that are above .500 (Denver, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston).
There's no reason to believe they won't continue to play well, especially since they beat the teams they should beat; they really only have one bad loss since the new year (93-81 home loss to Detroit).
The Bucks will be around in the first round...book it.
Projected Finish: 42-40, Eighth Seed
Miami Heat (30-31, Eighth Place)
It's hard to believe that a Dwyane Wade-led team is struggling to make the playoffs, especially in the watered down Eastern Conference.
This team is so up-and-down, it makes my head spin. They lose five in a row at the beginning of February, then win five in a row (even with Wade missing two of those games), then drop four in a row to end the month.
The Heat need consistency...now. They play nine of ten games at home to start the month (they won their first against Golden State last night), which is a perfect way to grab some key wins and get some momentum.
They also play Charlotte, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Chicago six times this month, and none of their opponents in April are above .500 (at Indiana, at Minnesota, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Detroit, at New York, at Philadelphia, vs. New Jersey).
I could sit here and type up 1,000 words, breaking down the Heat's remaining games and what players need to contribute in order for them to finish strong. But there's no need.
Dwyane Wade's play in the last 21 games will determine if they're in or if they're out. And I wouldn't put anything past him, especially during a long home stand and the easiest April schedule of any team.
Bet against Dwyane Wade? Are you crazy?
Projected Finish: 43-39, Sixth Seed
Charlotte Bobcats (28-30, Ninth Place)
Admittedly I'm not a Bobcat follower, and since they're rarely on national TV, I don't get a chance to watch their games as often as I'd like.
But since they acquired Captain Jack, I've watched them play (and beat) the Cavs three times, including two home games where they handed Cleveland of their worst losses of the year.
Watching those three games, I easily would have put them in the top 5 in the East. So Charlotte fans, help me out...what the hell is happening?
How are you losing to the Nets (twice!) and Clippers, then dropping 110 points on one of the league's best defensive teams?
Charlotte's road record is abysmal; at 8-22, they by far have the worst record of any team fighting for a playoff spot. And they face some tough road games, going to Boston (tonight), Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, New Orleans, and Houston.
They split a home-and-home with Chicago and Miami, and get home games against Toronto and Milwaukee.
While the Bobcats have been great at home, they need to get some road wins to make the playoffs. And as a Cavs fan, I'm really, really hoping they don't get them to sneak in as the eight seed.
Projected Finish: 40-42, Out of Playoffs
Phoenix Suns (38-24, Fifth Place)
After dropping 10 of 15 to start 2010, the Suns have bounced back big time, going 12-3 since Jan. 28, with wins over Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Denver (twice)—not exactly a cake walk schedule, either.
The Suns still have five back-to-backs remaining, with four of those games coming on the road. How Steve Nash holds up in these back-to-backs could be a looming factor in Phoenix's playoff chase.
The only reason I don't have them as a lock is, as they showed at the beginning of 2010, they can go cold and go on a losing streak. If another team gets hot, it could spell trouble.
That said, I still don't see that happening at all. With a seven game homestand upcoming, and road games against the Clippers, Warriors, Timberwolves, and Knicks, the Suns could easily go 11-3 or 10-4 this month, putting them at 47 or 48 wins heading into April.
Since they already are 6.5 games ahead of ninth place teams Houston and New Orleans, it'd take a huge collapse to keep Phoenix out.
Projected Finish: 51-31, Fifth Seed
San Antonio Spurs (34-24, Seventh Place)
All logic says the Spurs should be in the playoffs, but with arguably the toughest schedule of any playoff contender down the stretch, San Antonio won't be able to coast into the playoffs as they have in years past.
Fifteen of San Antonio's final 24 games are against potential playoff teams, with nine of those games coming on the road. They still have to play Orlando, Cleveland, and Los Angeles...two times apiece.
Also, the Spurs are an unimpressive 13-14 on the road, and have really struggled against quality teams this year.
Showing Jekyll and Hyde tendencies, the Spurs have wins at Denver and New Orleans and vs. Oklahoma City and Phoenix in the last month, but also have some bad losses (at Philadelphia, at Detroit).
And as one of the older teams in the league, the Spurs play a whopping 17 games this month, including five back-to-backs.
But with nearly a five game buffer zone to work with, San Antonio just needs to hold their own and stay near .500 to get into the postseason. With Tim Duncan & Co., they'll get it done...barely.
Projected Finish: 48-34, Eighth Seed
Portland Trail Blazers (36-27, Eighth Place)
What Portland has done this year, through all their injuries (even one with their coach, for crying out loud!), is remarkable. If they make the playoffs, they truly will have earned it.
The Blazers have a golden chance in the next seven games to reel off five or six wins and really create some separation with the playoff hopefuls.
Of their nine remaining home games, you would think only two teams have a realistic change of winning in the Rose Garden: Dallas and Oklahoma City. So a 7-2 or 8-1 home record means Portland would probably only have to win four or five road games to secure a postseason birth.
And with games at Golden State, Sacramento (twice), and the Clippers, I think it's feasible.
Projected Finish: 48-34, Seventh Seed
Houston Rockets (30-29, T-Ninth Place)
In a previous article I wrote this year, I lauded the way the Rockets play and praised them for their effort, but didn't think they had enough to make the playoffs.
After going 4-7 in February, it looked like those hopes were dead in the water.
But the schedule is a little more favorable this month. They have seven road games against Minnesota, Detroit, Washington, New York, Chicago, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio (not exactly a murderer's row of away games, right?); if the Rockets can win five of those and get hot at home, they have a chance.
Still, the schedule just looks too daunting for the Rockets to make a competitive run. If they were in the East, they'd be a playoff team.
Alas, fate is too cruel.
Projected Finish: 44-38, Out of Playoffs
New Orleans Hornets (31-30, T-Ninth Place)
The backcourt of Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton is so fun to watch. They're young, dynamic, fearless, and play with a poise that's beyond their years.
I wonder why. Collison was a four-year senior with Final Four experience who played over 125 games at UCLA, and Thornton dropped over 2,700 points in his career while being named SEC Player of the Year last year.
Imagine that...two seniors that can step in and contribute right away, instead of projects that sit on the bench and never pan out? Shocking.
All that aside, New Orleans has no chance of making a playoff push without Chris Paul. And Paul doesn't look to be back anytime soon.
Projected Finish: 42-40, Out of Playoffs
Memphis Grizzlies (30-30, 11th Place)
Unfortunately, one of the feel-good stories of the NBA has begun to dissipate recently, as the Grizz have dropped 11 of 16 to fall back to .500 and virtually out of the playoff race.
Memphis is going the wrong way for a team scrapping to make the postseason; it just doesn't look meant to be this year.
And with only six games on the schedule against sub-.500 teams, it looks like Memphis' season will end in mid-April.
Too bad. They were still an exciting team to watch, and have a solid foundation for the future.
(Did I just say the Memphis Grizzlies were exciting and should be good in the future? What the hell's going on?)
Projected Finish: 39-43, Out of Playoffs
So there you have it, NBA faithful. Now you know which teams will be around in the postseason, and which will have their bubble burst.
Dare to disagree?