With NBA regular season drawing to a close, the name of the game has shifted for the bottom four seeds in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
What was once a five-team race for four playoff spots has turned into a four-team race for the fifth and sixth seeds.
The Chicago Bulls have been plagued by injuries and have lost 10 games in a row as a result. They currently sit 2.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors for the eight seed, but, from what's been seen lately, that gap probably won't get any closer.
That leaves the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats, Miami Heat, and Raptors in prime position to claim playoff berths and avoid the embarrassment attached to missing out on the postseason in a top-heavy, relatively weak Eastern Conference.
Up until the Bulls disappeared, five teams that were separated by as little as two games at one point were fighting just to get in; positioning wasn't really the priority.
Now, though, the motivation to close out the season will shift focus. The prizes at the end of the tunnel are the fifth and sixth seeds. It's from that position that any chance of advancing beyond the first round lies.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic are virtual locks to secure the first and second seeds in the East. The Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks sit a few games behind them, and while earlier in the year, both teams looked like contenders, recently they appear much more beatable.
That's the key to this race, a belief that not only can the Bucks, Bobcats, Heat, and Raptors make the playoffs, but that they can advance as well.
Realistically speaking, that isn't going to happen against LeBron James and the Cavs. Same goes for Dwight Howard and the Magic.
Those two teams are a clear cut above all the rest in the conference, and you can bet neither is going to make a quick exit in the postseason.
That can't be said about Boston or Atlanta. Miami has had the Hawks' number all year, and Charlotte's given them trouble as well. Milwaukee has put up good showings against both teams and closes its schedule with the Celtics, Hawks, and then Celtics again.
Any one of the bottom four seeds in the East are capable of making a run against Boston or Atlanta, especially if they get hot at the close of the season.
Right now, the Bucks hold the fifth seed, but they are only four games ahead of the eighth-seeded Raptors. With 13 to 15 games remaining for Milwaukee, Charlotte, Miami, and Toronto, it's really anyone's game; that's plenty of time to cover the spread.
That's exactly what you'd be hearing if you were in any of those four locker rooms. They're going to the playoffs; that isn't the issue anymore. Now, it's about surviving them.
The only way to do that is stay out of LeBron's and Dwight's way.
It's a four-team race for two playoff seeds.
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