Photo by Michael Tipton - Flickr
The NBA playoff push is on full effect for a handful of teams around the association. Both the Eastern and Western Conference have most spots still up for grabs. Here are the standings as of the morning of April 3rd, 2018:
CURRENT EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS
1: Toronto Raptors (55-21)*
2: Boston Celtics (53-23)*
3: Cleveland Cavaliers (47-30)*
4: Philadelphia 76ers (46-30)*
5: Indiana Pacers (46-31)*
6: Washington Wizards (42-35)*
7: Miami Heat (41-36)
8: Milwaukee Bucks (41-36)
9: Detroit Pistons (37-40)
CURRENT WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS
1: Houston Rockets (62-15)*
2: Golden State Warriors (56-21)*
3: Portland Trail Blazers (48-29)*
4: San Antonio Spurs (45-32)
5: Oklahoma City Thunder (45-33)
6: Utah Jazz (44-33)
7: Minnesota Timberwolves (44-34)
8: New Orleans Pelicans (43-34)
9: Denver Nuggets (42-35)
10: LA Clippers (41-36)
(*- clinched playoff birth)
The Pistons need to win their remaining five games and either the Heat or the Bucks to lose their remaining five games. The Pistons are scheduled to play the 76ers, Mavericks, and Raptors at home while playing the Grizzlies and Bulls on the road. Facing three teams looking to lose as often as possible will help the Pistons cause, but the 76ers and Raptors will certainly pose a challenge.
The Bucks square off against the Celtics, Nets, and Magic at home and traveling to play the Knicks and 76ers for their remaining games. The Bucks have the talent and drive to go 3-2 and potentially 4-1 if they can grab a win against either the 76ers or Celtics.
The Heat hosts the Hawks, Thunder and Raptors and will head on the road to face the Hawks and Knicks during the final stretch of the season. With two games against the Hawks, you've got to imagine they'll at least be able to win one if not both of those matchups. Like the Bucks, Miami should at least go 3-2 during their last five but have the potential to finish 4-1.
The Pistons look to be all but eliminated and Miami and Milwaukee will fight for position in the bottom of the conference. Given their remaining schedules, I imagine that the Bucks have the better chance to finish 4-1 and will take the 7th seed, pushing Miami down to 8th.
The Wizards have clinched a spot in the playoffs, but don't yet have their seed set in stone. Washington plays the Hawks and Celtics at home while facing the Rockets, Cavaliers, and Magic on the road. Washington should handle the Hawks and Magic easily, but may not see a win outside of that. The Celtics and Cavaliers are fighting for playoff position and won't allow a loss like the Hawks and Magic will. Best case scenario, the Wizards finish their final five games with a 3-2 record with wins against the Hawks, Magic, and a Rockets team resting their starters. I expect them to finish as the 6th seed but have potential to slip down to 7th.
In the middle of the Eastern Conference the Pacers, 76ers, and Cavaliers are in a tug a war. The Pacers are just a half game behind the 76ers and the 76ers are just a game behind the Cavaliers.
The Pacers take on the Nuggets, Warriors, and Hornets at home while playing the Raptors and Hornets on the road to finish the year. This one of the more challenging remaining schedules in the lead and could realistically go 1-4 if they're not on the top of their game. They play the Nuggets, Warriors, and Raptors first and could finish that three game stretch without a win. If the Pacers want any chance of becoming the 5th seed, they need to take care of both games against the Hornets, win on the road in Denver, and steal a game from the Warriors or Raptors.
The 76ers have six games left this season and have a good chance to surpass the Cavaliers for the 3rd seed in the playoffs. The Nets, Cavaliers, Mavericks, and Bucks travel to Philadelphia to take on the 76ers. Philadelphia will also travel to play the Hawks and Pistons. Philadelphia has won 10 straight and have no signs of slowing down, even with the absence of Joel Embiid. The 76ers have three easy games on their schedule (Nets, Mavericks, Hawks) and should get those wins without trouble. I also predict the 76ers to be able to handle the Pistons in Detroit this Wednesday. Most likely, the team finishing 3rd in the East will win the matchup on Friday night in Philadelphia when the 76ers play the Cavaliers at 7:00 on NBA TV.
The Cavaliers will play the Raptors, Wizards, and Knicks at home while traveling to play the 76ers and Knicks during their remaining schedule. The Cavaliers have a tough road ahead with games against the Raptors, Wizards, and 76ers and certainly have a more difficult schedule than the 76ers from this point on. I expect the Cavaliers to win both the games against the Knicks and win either the Raptors or Wizards game, but odds are not both. Again, I think that deciding game will come down to the game against the 76ers.
At the top of the Eastern Conference the Celtics and Raptors are battling it out for the top seed and home court advantage until at least the NBA Finals. The Celtics are two games back and have a tough road ahead if they desire to overtake the long-reigning Raptors.
The Celtics beat the Raptors at home 110-99 this past Saturday and now have 6 games remaining. Boston will host the Bulls, Hawks, and Nets at home and will face off against the Bucks, Raptors and Wizards on the road. The home games are extremely easy and should be three sound wins. However, their three away games could all result in losses. If the Celtics hope to becoming the 1 seed for the Eastern Conference, they will need to win their final three home games, beat the Raptors on the road, and win a game against either the Bucks or Wizards. Going 5-1 won't be easy, but becoming the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference was never suppose to be easy.
The Raptors are coming off a loss to the Celtics and it doesn't get any easier for the remaining stretch of games. The Raptors play the Celtics, Pacers, and Magic at home and the Cavaliers, Pistons, and Heat on the road. Every team but the Magic are competing for the playoffs at some extent and won't go down without a fight. If the Raptors can beat the Celtics at home and take care of business against the Magic, it should only take one other victory to really secure their position at the top of the East.
The Western Conference is extremely competitive with just 4 games separating the 4th seed and the 10th spot in the conference. There are several scenarios in which teams move in and others drop out of the playoff picture and only the top two seeds have their seed clinched (Rockets and Warriors). We'll start by looking at the two teams currently outside the playoff picture who still mathematically have a chance to slide into the playoffs.
The Clippers have a very small margin of error if they want to snag a spot in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. They're currently two games back of the Pelicans for the eighth seed and four games back of the Spurs for the fourth seed. They have five games remaining this season and four of those teams are also fighting for playoff spots. The Clippers host the Spurs, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Lakers at home and head to Utah on April 5th to face the Jazz. Having most of their games at home will be an advantage, but their level of competition is just too intense to realistic anticipate them to make the playoffs. The Clippers might be able to pull off going 2-3 down the stretch, but it's more likely their only victory comes against the Lakers on the last game of the season.
The Nuggets are on the outside looking in but are just a game back from the Pelicans for the eighth seed in the West. Denver plays the Pacers, Timberwolves, and Trail Blazers at home and visit the Clippers and Timberwolves on the road to wrap up their playoff push. This is a tough schedule for the Nuggets but, unlike the Clippers, the Nuggets have the personnel and thirst for this final stretch of games. Denver was bounced from the playoffs last year after Russell Westbrook banked in a deep three at the buzzer to win the game for the Thunder, and since then the Nuggets have been itching for the chance to make it into the playoffs. If Denver can win at least one game against the Timberwolves and find a way to go 3-2, they may be able to knock the Pelicans out of the eighth seed. It's important to note, that Denver has the tie breaker against the Pelicans.
The Pelicans have lost their last four and have the Nuggets and Clipper creeping up behind them. With the Grizzlies and Spurs coming into New Orleans and the Pelicans traveling to face the Suns, Clippers, and Warriors their odds of making the playoffs seem to be fifty-fifty. Anthony Davis needs to find a way to lead his team and he should be up to the task. The Pelicans should be able to handle the Grizzlies and the Suns without problem, and if the Pelicans can snag a win against the Warriors, Clippers, or Spurs they should be in a good position to secure they playoff spot.
The Timberwolves have been struggling since Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury but should be back by playoff time. They have just four games remaining: two of which are against the Nuggets and the other two are against the Grizzlies and the Lakers. Splitting these games at the very least is almost a given, but they should have enough firepower to also get at least one win against the Nuggets. The Timberwolves have to take care of business, but they should be considered a lock for the playoffs in the Western Conference.
The Jazz have been one of the more surprising teams of the year and seem to have bounced back from the departure of Gordon Hayward rather easily. They're currently sixth in the Western Conference and just one game back of the Thunder. The Jazz have to play the Lakers, Clippers, and Warriors at home and the Lakers and Trail Blazers on the road in the next week and a half. They are 13-3 since March 2nd and have been a force since the All-Star break. The Jazz should be be able to win all three games against the teams from L.A. and if they're able to either beat the Warriors or Trail Blazers, they could see themselves move up in the standings. Unfortunately for the Jazz, the Thunder have the tiebreaker so they'll need to have the overall better record in order to secure the fifth seed.
The Thunder have been up and down all season and could be a team that slips deeper into the bottom half of the playoffs in the Western Conference. Their final four games are against the Warriors and Grizzlies at home and the Rockets and Heat on the road. Given OKC's streaky play this year, it's possible they only go 1-3 and give up their fifth seed and slide as far down as eighth.
The Spurs were being told a few weeks ago by fans and analysts to tank and give up on the playoffs if they won't have Kawhi back in time. Now, they are fourth in the conference, won eight of their last ten, and just beat the Rockets 100-83 on Sunday. With home games against the Trail Blazers and Kings and road games against the Clippers, Lakers, and Pelicans. Coach Popavich will have his team focuses and read to go and should be able to hold onto their fourth seed with a 4-1 finish to end the season.
The Trail Blazers will most likely be a 50-win team this year which comes to a surprise to most basketball fans. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have lead this team to an impressive season and look to finish strong. They finish off the season with a home game against the Jazz but have four straight road games before hand. They face the Mavericks, Rockets, Spurs, and Nuggets on the road which gives them a tougher schedule than most. The Trail Blazers have a three game lead over the Spurs for the third seed in the playoffs. If Portland can get the win against the Spurs and can head into Dallas and get the win, that may be enough to ensure them the three seed come playoff time.
The Rockets and Warriors both have their seeds secured and cannot move up or down in the standings before the playoffs start. With all this being said, here's how the playoff seedings should shape out by the end of the regular season.
PROJECTED FINAL EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF SEEDINGS
1: Toronto Raptors (58-24)
2: Boston Celtics (57-25)
3: Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31)
4: Philadelphia 76ers: (50-32)
5: Indiana Pacers (48-34)
6: Washington Wizards (44-38)
7: Miami Heat (44-38)
8: Milwaukee Bucks (44-38)
9: Detroit Pistons (40-42)
PREDICTED FINAL WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF SEEDINGS
1: Houston Rockets (64-18)
2: Golden State Warriors (59-23)
3: Portland Trail Blazers (50-32)
4: San Antonio Spurs (49-33)
5: Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35)
6: Utah Jazz (47-35)
7: Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36)
8: Denver Nuggets (45-37)
9: New Orleans Pelicans (45-37)
10: Los Angeles Clippers (42-40)