The NBA Landscape With A Month To Go

We’re down to a month left in the NBA regular season, with the race for the Atlantic Division staying red-hot and the jousting for the final spots in the Western Conference still heated. TheSportsNotebook takes an overall look at the standings with an eye to the weekend ahead…

Philadelphia and Boston are now in a dead heat for the Atlantic Division and likely #4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Each team is at 28-22, and both are in action Friday night. The Sixers play the Washington Wizards team that former Maryland coach Gary Williams says could lose to Kentucky if the Wizards were playing their third game in three nights and the game was at Rupp. I love Gary, but the man’s lost it on this topic. Sure, Kentucky has four solid NBA prospects. Prospects like John Wall, who happens to be the point guard for the Wizards. And overall, Washington’s got a roster of pro prospects. But I’m getting off the topic. They’re still no match for Philadelphia. The Celtics head north to face Minnesota in what’s going to be a battle. Even without Ricky Rubio, and even with their playoff hopes dim, the Timberwolves have shown fighting spirit, and Kevin Love is averaging 27 points/14 rebounds a game. With Ray Allen nursing a sore ankle, this will be a tough road win for the C’s to pick up.

The Philly/Boston runner-up is currently slotted for 7th in the Eastern bracket, meaning a date with Miami or Chicago (likely Miami), but both teams are creeping up on Atlanta for the coveted 6-spot and a playoff date with Orlando. The Hawks have to play a New York team that’s getting it done for Mike Woodson, and then Atlanta-Philly go head-to-head on Saturday. As for the Knicks, they’ll play tonight’s game, and tomorrow’s NBA-TV telecast at home against Cleveland (7:30 PM ET) without Jeremy Lin, in addition to being sans Amare Stoudamire for at least a couple weeks and possibly the rest of the regular season schedule. The injury bug may prevent New York from pulling away from Milwaukee for the last playoff berth. The Knicks are presently 2 ½ games up, and Milwaukee makes a road trip to Cleveland tonight and then plays a talented Memphis team back at home tomorrow. A healthy Knick team would be ripe to add at least one, and possibly two games to their lead. A wounded squad probably closes the weekend as they started—still in control, but a race far from over.

One race that’s a long way from being over is the bottom of the Western Conference. The top six, including teams like Memphis, Dallas and the LA Clippers have opened up a little bit of breathing room on the peasants, but are still only 2-3 games ahead in the race just to qualify. Utah, Denver and Houston all lost key games this week, creating the space to breathe. All three teams are 27-24 and two of them can make the playoffs. Utah visits the Clippers on Saturday, and then on Sunday, Denver goes to Orlando and Houston hosts Indiana. The odds say that the three teams remain packed, but the top six get a lot more comfortable.

Chicago and Oklahoma City continue to lead their conference races for the #1 seed, and the Bulls-Thunder go head-to-head in Oklahoma City on Sunday afternoon (1 PM ET, ABC). Chicago continues to amaze, getting it done without Derrick Rose and building a formidable case for Tom Thibodeau as Coach of the Year. Kevin Durant is the NBA’s second-leading scorer behind only Kobe Bryant, and looking to stake his claim to MVP. The award almost surely comes down to Durant-LeBron, with Kevin Love being the third-party candidate that will deserve more attention than he gets. A big day for Durant against a tough defense on national television could push him over the top. Oklahoma City remains three games up on red-hot San Antonio, two up on Miami in the event it’s a Heat-Thunder Finals, and 1.5 back of Chicago for the best record overall.