The NBA playoffs are just a week away, and a battle is raging for each conference's final playoff spots. Let's take a look at the teams still alive in the postseason hunt:
Current Eastern Conference Playoff Picture
The Celtics, fully removed from their early-season tanking trend, are currently parked at the seventh spot after a win over the Detroit Pistons and a Brooklyn loss to the Atlanta Hawks. As it stands now, Boston is looking at a less-than-ideal matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, while the Nets would be facing the conference-leading Hawks in the first round.
With LeBron James potentially resting for the Cavs' upcoming home-and-home against Boston, the Cs have a favorable chance of locking up the seventh spot, if that's something they would even want. (The Milwaukee Bucks hold a comfortable two-game lead for the sixth seed.) The Celtics are 0-2 against Cleveland this season, and a matchup with an early-season title favorite generally probably wouldn't bode well for a team approaching the playoffs with a losing record.
Brooklyn holds a one-game lead over both the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat, but Paul George is back for the Pacers, and the Heat hold a tiebreaker over the Nets, should both teams finish the season with similar records.
For the time being, it's a virtual toss-up between these three teams, as none have played consistently of late (or all season, for that matter, as indicated by their records) and none faces a particularly easy schedule from here on out.
Eighth Seed Prediction: Miami Heat
The Heat finish up with three of their final four games at home, hosting the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic before visiting the Philadelphia 76ers to finish their regular season. For Miami to pull out three of those four games is certainly possible, especially considering the Bulls just dropped a critical game to Orlando with Derrick Rose returning to the lineup.
Indiana, on the other hand, has the misfortune of playing two Western Conference opponents still fighting for playoff positioning (the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies) as well as the Pistons and Washington Wizards. Considering both the Grizzlies and Thunder are hungry for late-season wins and are significantly better than the Pacers, a .500 finish or below could very well be in store.
Meanwhile, if Brooklyn also manages to win three of its last four against Washington, Milwaukee, Chicago and Orlando, it'll still fall into a lock with Miami, whose tiebreaker would push the Nets outside of the playoff picture.
But, at the end of the day, it's the Eastern Conference, and none of these teams even have winning record. Who knows.
Current Western Conference Playoff Picture
8. New Orleans Pelicans (42-36)
9. Oklahoma City Thunder (42-36)
Despite getting thoroughly walloped by Memphis on Wednesday, New Orleans maintains a lead over Oklahoma City for the eighth seed by virtue of a tiebreaker. The Pelicans have been a great storyline this year, mostly due to Anthony Davis' meteoric rise to NBA stardom, but it would be hard to see them putting up a fight against the top-seeded Golden State Warriors. Regardless, the Pelicans schedule isn't doing them any favors as New Orleans has to face two of the league's top-five teams to finish out the season: the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs.
The Thunder, meanwhile, continue to ride the turbulent, yet miraculous Russell Westbrook roller coaster to the season's bitter end. Westbrook's triple-double onslaught has been the sole force keeping Oklahoma City, who by all calculations should be reeling from spectacularly bad injury luck, alive in the playoff hunt.
With Serge Ibaka nowhere near returning and reigning MVP Kevin Durant done for the season, the Thunder would be an impressive tale of perseverance should they grab the final playoff spot. Luckily for them, their remaining schedule consists of matchups against the Sacramento Kings, Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers, who may be resting starters by the time the two face off on Monday.
Eighth Seed Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder
This is really a lose-lose situation for NBA fans (and the strongest case for a playoff format reshuffling) as we will be losing either Westbrook or Davis, two of this season's most exciting players, to the unforgiving supremacy of the Western Conference. Either superstar could have record-breaking first-round stat lines, and it's always a shame when any of the league's best talent is spending late April watching the playoffs from home.
But since there can only be one, The Thunders' relatively easy schedule and the headstrong persistence of Westbrook make them the slight favorite. Oklahoma City has lost a combined total of one time against the Wolves, Pacers and Kings this season, making at least three wins in its final four games a distinct possibility.
This means that the Pelicans would also need to win three of their final four, including a victory over either Houston or San Antonio. However, New Orleans has beaten both teams twice this season, and who knows what the Spurs will be doing by the time that game rolls around. If the Pelicans face Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes and the San Antonio backup platoon, things could get even more interesting.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is why we love NBA basketball.