Daily Sports: The NBA Playoff Race Amidst The Madness

The NBA is going to slide well under the media radar now that March Madness is underway, but the pros are taking full advantage of their Monday night with the TV spotlight. ESPN will be in Boston, as the Miami Heat put their 22-game win streak and run at history on the line against the still-surging Celtics in an 8 PM ET tipoff. That game will be followed by New York-Utah, another matchup of significance in the playoff picture.

TheSportsNotebook’s focus will be on the NCAA Tournament—regional previews will start going online early this evening in anticipation of the play-in games that start Tuesday—with our MLB coverage continuing with team previews, as we build to the April 1 opener. But we can’t completely lose sight of the NBA. By the time the sports world comes up for air when the NCAAs conclude on April 8, the NBA season will have just nine days left and all the races that are compelling right now might be mostly settled. As such, today’s daily sports look will double as NBA commentary, and we’ll summarize the key races within each conference and look ahead at the entire week of pro basketball.

We can pencil in Miami-Milwaukee as a first-round matchup in the Eastern Conference, with the Heat having pulled away with the 1-seed and Milwaukee three games out of seventh, yet well in command of the playoff push. But after that, it’s a crapshoot in the East.

Indiana is 40-26 and in second, but Danny Granger is again dealing with knee problems. New York is tied with the Pacers in the loss column, but have their own injury issues with Carmelo Anthony’s nagging knee troubles, so much so that even Knicks’ head coach Mike Woodson admitted concern in public. Brooklyn is only a game back in the loss column, while Atlanta, Chicago and Boston all have 29 losses, well within striking distance.

Everything is up for grabs and almost every seed level has its own importance. #2 gives you the homecourt path to a shot at Miami in the conference finals. #3 at least gets you opposite Miami in the bracket. #4 will give you a good homecourt to win a playoff series. The only area of strangeness might be the of the 5-6-7 spots, is probably the worst. You’re on the road in the first round, the opponent is not demonstrably easier and even if you win, you can’t get opposite Miami in the draw.

The Western Conference breaks down much more clearly, with three distinct races…

*San Antonio and Oklahoma City look locked into the 1-2 spots and are fighting for homecourt.

*Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver are in a tight battle for the next three spots, with the odd team out having to on the road for the first round. The winner of this mini-race avoids having to play the other two and gets a first-round opponent one rung down. The Nuggets by the way, are having about the quietest 11-game win streak ever, thanks to Miami’s bold charge at the ’72 Lakers record of 33 straight wins.

*Golden State is in the six-spot and leads up a group of six teams fighting for the last three spots. Houston and the LA Lakers are currently the other two teams, but Utah is tied with Los Angeles in the loss column. Portland and Dallas are still lurking. The Lakers and Jazz have 32 losses, while Portland has 34 and Dallas is at 35. The Blazers and Mavs aren’t finished yet.

Finally, let’s not overlook the race for the overall #1 seed. Miami’s big win streak has put them at 51-14 and in the lead. But the Heat’s slower start to the season (at least relatively speaking) means this is still a race. San Antonio is 51-16 and Oklahoma City is at 50-17. Miami was able to win the Finals last year without the benefit of homecourt, but as anyone who’s watched the NBA playoffs for any length of time can tell you, this isn’t the NCA A Tournament—seed position matters, because homecourt is huge, especially if a series gets to a decisive seventh game.

That’s the context of the NBA race. Now here’s what’s ahead this week…

*Besides the ESPN doubleheader tonight, you’ve got Denver-Chicago and Dallas-Atlanta in a key interconference games.

*Tuesday it’s a good game out West on NBA-TV, when Denver-Oklahoma City tip at 8 PM ET.

*Brooklyn-Dallas get ESPN coverage on Wednesday at 8 PM ET. It’s the headliner of a good night of pro hoops. Utah-Houston is a big game in the Western playoff fight, along with Golden State’s visit into San Antonio. The higher-ups have a key battle with Oklahoma City-Memphis, a tough road assignment for the Thunder coming off the Nuggets game the night before. Out East, Atlanta hosts Milwaukee. And there’s even some soap opera fun—LeBron and Miami go into Cleveland. Now it’s not a question of a hatefest, but whether LeBron will keep laying the groundwork for a return home when he can opt out of his contract the end of next season.

*The NBA then goes dark, like a Catholic church on Good Friday, at least when it comes to TV coverage. They don’t even try and contest college basketball now that the NCAA Tournament hits full gear and nothing is on national TV the rest of the week. Thursday only has one even notable game and that’s Portland-Chicago.

Friday has three noteworthy games of Milwaukee-Indiana, Boston-Dallas and Utah-San Antonio. The same goes for Saturday, with Indiana-Chicago, Boston-Memphis and Brooklyn-LA Clippers. This is an interesting southern road swing for the Celtics. They also have New Orleans mixed in earlier in the week and this comes off what’s likely going to be an emotionally exhausting game with the Heat tonight.

ABC eschews its Sunday doubleheader to give way to the colleges, but League Pass subscribers can still enjoy an Atlanta-Milwaukee rematch in the Midwest, or three games at the bubble of the Western Conference playoff race—Houston hosts the Spurs, Portland goes to OkC and Utah-Dallas go head-to-head.

It’s going to be tough for even passionate sports fans to find time for the NBA over the next few weeks. But don’t let them go completely off the radar, because who plays well know will go a long way to deciding who wins when everyone’s tuned back at the end of April.