10 Must-Watch Games That Will Help Shape the 2015 NBA Playoff Picture

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 7, 2015

10 Must-Watch Games That Will Help Shape the 2015 NBA Playoff Picture

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The finish line is in sight for the 2014-15 version of the NBA's 82-game marathon.

    And while each remaining step on this journey carries the same weight in the standings, certain portions of this final stretch hold more importance than the rest.

    Playoff seeds will be won and lost between now and April 15. This fluidity will add a different level of intrigue to the marquee matchups that await the basketball world.

    The 10 games to appear on this list were selected for the information that they will reveal. Some feature clubs jostling in close proximity for playoff seeding. Others have two teams on the postseason periphery battling for one spot in the second season.

    The one interconference clash to appear has what the eye tests and stat sheets both say are the top-two teams in the entire league.

    Heated head-to-head battles are as revealing as any single game can get down the stretch, particularly for their potential impact on postseason positions. Add in the overwhelming star power prevalent in these heavyweight prizefights, and the league has some absolute gems left on the docket.

    This comprehensive viewing guide will help hoop heads determine when, where and whom to watch on the last leg of this wild ride.

March 11: Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Time: 10:30 p.m. ET

    TV: ESPN

    Season Series: Tied 1-1

    The Moda Center is where the Space City's dreams go to die. At least, that's how things played out on the Houston Rockets' last visit to the Portland Trail Blazers' home.

    Damian Lillard completed the Blazers' six-game series win over the Rockets in last season's opening round with a coffin-closing dagger. In doing so, he may have helped reshape Houston's roster.

    After Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his desire for his team to field a top-10 defense, the executive went about constructing a stone wall. Perimeter stopper Trevor Ariza joined the ranks last summer, and the Rockets later added Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and K.J. McDaniels in mid-season acquisitions.

    Houston now sits fifth in defensive efficiency after holding down the 12th spot last season. But Portland has made an even more dramatic leap, climbing all the way from 16th to third.

    Both units will be tested in this tilt. Portland will try to contain the explosive James Harden (27.1 points, 7.1 assists) while Houston deals with the potent combination of Lillard (21.2 points, 6.1 assists) and LaMarcus Aldridge (23.3 points, 10.5 rebounds).

    With nothing between them in the current standings, each club will be desperate to land the decisive blow in this three-game season series. And both could be without key contributors, as the Blazers have lost Wesley Matthews for the season to a ruptured Achilles and the Rockets are still waiting for Dwight Howard to return from a knee injury.

March 15: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Time: 3:30 p.m. ET

    TV: ABC

    Season Series: Los Angeles 2-1

    Assuming the division leads held by the Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies all stand, only one top-four seed remains unclaimed in the West. The Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers are both in prime position to claim it.

    After rolling to double-digit wins in their first two meetings with the Rockets, the Clippers collapsed late during their most recent matchup on Feb. 25. Los Angeles opened the final frame with a one-point lead, but a blistering 15-1 Houston run to start the period washed the Clippers' lead away—and then some.

    Behind 20 points from Brewer (13 in the fourth quarter) and 17 triples, the Rockets held on for a 110-105 win.

    "That's what they brought me here to do: come off the bench and bring energy," Brewer told reporters afterward, per The Associated Press. "I score. I run. I play defense—whatever it takes to win."

    The Rockets have limited Chris Paul's impact as a scorer, holding him to just 14.5 points per game on 38.7 percent shooting this season. But The Point God has tossed out 33 assists against only seven turnovers in those three games, proving he's more than willing to find teammates when his shots aren't falling.

    The Clippers should have Blake Griffin back for this contest, but the Rockets have some effective roadblocks to throw at him. Terrence Jones has held opponents to 8.7 field-goal percentage points below their averages, and Josh Smith has kept them 4.4 percentage points off their typical rates.

    If Howard hasn't returned by then, Houston will need its other defenders to keep the high-flying Griffin grounded.

March 18: Atlanta Hawks at Golden State Warriors

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Time: 10:30 p.m. ET

    TV: ESPN

    Season Series: Atlanta 1-0

    If numbers never lie, this is an early NBA Finals preview. The Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks both lead their conferences in winning percentage, and they sit at first and second in net-efficiency rating, respectively.

    When these surprise juggernauts first collided on Feb. 6, the Hawks battled to a 124-116 win behind the type of balanced attack that has come to define their magical season. Atlanta had seven different players reach double figures, led by Jeff Teague's 23 points and Paul Millsap's 21.

    The Hawks cashed in an absurd 55.6 percent of their 27 long-range looks, dominating the defense-stretching game the Warriors have used to launch their rise in the West.

    "Atlanta's aggressiveness led to a 33-10 disparity in free-throw points, but the Hawks' 15-of-27 three-point shooting showed how well they can play the space, pass and fire style the Warriors have patented," wrote Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.

    The first meeting checked off every box of an instant classicexcept that it wasn't accessible to a national audience. Luckily, ESPN has corrected that for this showdown, setting the stage for another exhilarating battle between the league's top two teams.

    Based on what we've seen so far, this could be the appetizer for an entree to be served in June.

March 20: Toronto Raptors at Chicago Bulls

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Time: 8 p.m. ET

    TV: NBA League Pass

    Season Series: Chicago 2-0

    For now, the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors sit at second and third in the Eastern Conference standings, respectively. Whether that's still the case when these two teams tangle in a couple of weeks remains to be seen.

    Both are dealing with ominous problems. The Bulls have fought another losing battle with the injury bug, this time losing both Derrick Rose (knee) and Jimmy Butler (elbow) for the foreseeable future. The Raptors' woes aren't as easy to diagnose.

    After winning 37 of its first 54 games, Toronto has dropped seven of its last eight—a stretch lowlighted by a 103-98 loss to the depleted New York Knicks. The sky isn't falling, but the ceiling isn't rising the way fans hoped it might after last season's surprise playoff appearance.

    "They have proved that the promise of 2014 was not a mirage, but that's about it," wrote Scott Stinson of the National Post.

    Facing a battered Bulls team would seem like a welcome proposition, but Chicago has this survival thing down pat. Without Rose or Butler, the Bulls survived Russell Westbrook's tour de force and eked out a 108-105 win over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday.

    If the overloaded Cleveland Cavaliers grab the East's second seed, the Bulls and Raptors will be left to fight for control of the No. 3 spot. This tussle will help decide which team ultimately wins that race.

March 27: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs

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    Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

    TV: NBA League Pass

    Season Series: Tied 1-1

    The Dallas Mavericks are slipping. With four losses in their last five games, the sixth-seeded Mavs are only a half-game up on their Southeast Division rival San Antonio Spurs.

    In other words, there will be more than bragging rights at stake when these teams wage war for the fourth and final time on Mar. 27 (their second head-to-head showdown of that week).

    The difference between finishing sixth or seventh in the West could be significant. A sixth seed likely means avoiding the Warriors or Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, and instead starting the playoffs against a Portland team missing Matthews or a Houston squad that may not have Howard at 100 percent.

    Both Dallas and San Antonio can hear their biological clocks ticking. The Mavs' second-leading scorer is 36-year-old Dirk Nowitzki. The 38-year-old Tim Duncan has been San Antonio's second-best scorer, and 37-year-old Manu Ginobili checks in at No. 5.

    Despite the age-defying powers these teams have flashed in the past, Father Time's unblemished record looms large over their respective futures. If a light exists at the end of their tunnels, it's close enough to touch.

    They have to maximize their current playoff push, because there are no guarantees that another will be available next season. That puts a priority on securing the easiest playoff path possible, and this contest could give the victor an edge in that endeavor.

March 29: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Time: 9 p.m. ET

    TV: NBA TV

    Season Series: Oklahoma City 2-1

    Some might be willing to concede the West's final playoff berth to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Phoenix Suns aren't waving the white flag just yet.

    Phoenix has been trapped in a downward spiral lately—five wins against 10 losses since Jan. 31—but it has shown some signs of life during this stretch.

    And none was more important than the Suns' 117-113 overtime victory over the Thunder when these teams last squared off on Feb. 26. Phoenix survived Russell Westbrook's brilliant 39-point, 14-rebound, 11-assist performance thanks in no small part to the combined 57 points it received from Eric Bledsoe and Markieff Morris.

    Both Westbrook and Morris converted and-one opportunities in the final 21 seconds of the fourth quarter to send the game to an extra session. The two teams scored a total of only 12 points in the overtime period, but eight of them came from the Suns—four each from Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker.

    "He's explosive and he's been playing out of his mind with tremendous confidence over the past month," Bledsoe said of Westbrook after the game, per Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic. "We just tried to show that toughness. Hopefully, it rubbed off on everybody else, which it did."

    The Suns thinned their ranks at the trade deadline, shipping out Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas for future draft picks and Brandon Knight. But Phoenix still boasts a collection of young, talented, athletic players.

    That still might not be enough to overtake Oklahoma City in the standings, but a Phoenix win in this contest could help keep that possibility in play.

April 5: Chicago Bulls at Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Time: 3:30 p.m. ET

    TV: ABC

    Season Series: Cleveland 2-1

    At worst, the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers will be fighting for control of the Central Division. At best, this might be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals.

    If it's the latter, it's still hard to tell which team would have the advantage. The basketball gods haven't allowed us to see these on-paper powerhouses square off at full strength yet.

    The Cavs won the first two meetings in this four-game series, but Jimmy Butler missed the first round and Joakim Noah sat out the second. Chicago sent Cleveland into the All-Star break with a 113-98 loss, but the Cavs were playing without Kevin Love.

    Rim protector Timofey Mozgov's foul trouble further weakened Cleveland's short-handed frontcourt in that last matchup. The Cavs were vulnerable on the interior, and Rose exploited that weakness at every opportunity.

    "Derrick Rose was the catalyst as he sliced and diced his way to 30 points and seven assists," wrote Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "Cavaliers head coach David Blatt used multiple defenders on the former MVP, but he managed to find his way to the hole throughout."

    The Bulls appear to have the perimeter defenders and interior scorers needed to challenge a Cleveland team that has won 20 of its last 25 games. The only question is whether Chicago will have all of those weapons available.

    Judging by the latest reports on Rose and Butler, the Bulls would be glad to have one back for this game—and thrilled to have both.

April 7: Charlotte Hornets at Miami Heat

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

    TV: NBA League Pass

    Season Series: Charlotte 2-1

    While the standings say the last two playoff spots in the East are still up for grabs, the Indiana Pacers would respectfully disagree with that assessment. They are, after all, the league's hottest team since Feb. 1., and they should be getting two-time All-Star Paul George back at some point.

    If there is only one seat available at this postseason table, the Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets could be waging a two-team war to claim it.

    The Hornets, who have won five of their last six games, are creeping closer to the return of their second-leading scorer Kemba Walker. While the Heat lost Chris Bosh for the season to blood clots on his lung, they also assembled one of the NBA's most talented backcourts in Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic.

    There is upward mobility for both clubs, especially in relation to the other teams bunched around them.

    The first three meetings between these two were decided by a total of 10 points. The outcomes of the last two weren't determined until the final minute—a one-point Heat win on Nov. 23 and a two-point Hornets victory on Jan. 21.

    With a paper-thin separation between them both in terms of talent and overall records, their final collision of the season should be a memorable one.

April 7: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Time: 8 p.m. ET

    TV: TNT

    Season Series: Oklahoma City 1-0

    Forget what the standings say. History suggests that this Thunder-San Antonio Spurs matchup could foreshadow a pivotal postseason clash.

    One of these two teams has represented the West during each of the last three NBA Finals. Two of those trips were booked after one dispatched the other in the conference finals.

    So despite the struggles each has encountered with injuries and inconsistencies this season, no one can rule either team out of this race.

    The Thunder have the reigning MVP in Kevin Durant and a current candidate in the sizzling Russell Westbrook, who's tallied 33.3 points, 10.0 assists and 9.5 rebounds a night since Feb. 1. Westbrook's 34 points and 11 dimes propelled the Thunder to their 114-106 win over the Spurs on Christmas.

    OKC's length and athleticism have bothered San Antonio—and 28 other teams—and the Thunder have won their last six regular-season meetings with the Spurs.

    But San Antonio's machine-like efficiency presents its own problems for an Oklahoma City squad that occasionally has issues with turnovers and iffy shot selection. And the Spurs have played some of their best basketball when the competition is at its highesthaving already defeated the Hawks, Cavs, Warriors and Grizzlies.

    Take the postseason ramifications off the table, and the contrast in styles alone would make this a must-see contest. Knowing what these teams are capable of come playoff time only strengthens that interest.

April 13: Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies

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    Time: 10:30 p.m. ET

    TV: NBA TV

    Season Series: Memphis 1-0

    This will be the third and final meeting between Western Conference powers Golden State and Memphis (they also lock horns on March 27). Given its proximity to the regular season's closing date, this matchup could decide which club grabs hold of home-court advantage for what's sure to be an exhausting playoff run.

    The Grizzlies are the only team out West that the Warriors have been unable to keep at arm's length. Memphis sits just 4.5 games behind Golden State and controlled the first grit-and-grind affair these sides had this season. The Grizzlies sparked their 105-98 win on Dec. 16 by storming out to a 20-0 run to open the second quarter.

    "They punched us in the mouth to start the second quarter, and that was the difference in the game," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss.

    When Stephen Curry was in the game, the Warriors outscored the Grizzlies by 16 points and shot 47.4 percent from the field, per ESPN Stats & Info. When he wasn't, they connected on only 15.8 percent of their attempts.

    It was smash against splash, and the Grizzlies were able to bury the Warriors in the mud. If the top seed is on the table for this matchup, Golden State will have to find a way out of the sludge that doesn't revolve solely around Curry's miracle shots.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.