The NBA’s Playoff Bubble Teams Heat Up

The NBA doesn’t offer the same hopes for Cinderella darkhorse postseason runs that college basketball does—unless you want to count Dallas winning it last year as the #3 seed in the West, which is about as big as a shock as you usually get. But the last time a compressed schedule was played was in 1999 and that was a year when everything blew up in the playoffs, and the 8th-seeded New York Knicks made the Finals. So perhaps we should pay attention to those races at the bottom for the last playoff berths and the jousting in the middle for homecourt advantage in the opening round.

New York and Milwaukee are both playing good basketball right now in the Eastern Conference, and only one will make the playoffs as the 8-seed. The Knicks have responded to interim head coach Mike Woodson, as well as taken advantage of a soft spot in the schedule to win five in a row. They hold a 1 ½ game lead on Milwaukee, who’s still won seven of their last ten and added guard Monta Ellis at the trade deadline last week. Ellis is the NBA’s eighth-best scorer and ranks ahead of names like Dwight and Dirk in raw point production.

The West is seeing some similar strong runs by the teams fighting for survival. Utah has won five straight and is now just a half-game back of Houston for the final playoff spot. The Rockets are doing admirable job holding together under Kevin McHale’s leadership, as even the injuries to Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin in the backcourt, along with a strong challenge from the Jazz, haven’t wilted Houston. The same can’t be said for Minnesota, for whom the loss of Ricky Rubio was too much to overcome. The Timberwolves have lost four of six and are fading fast from contention.

There’s no more consequential or heated divisional race than the Atlantic Division right now. Philadelphia is a half-game up on Boston and hosts the Celtics tonight (8 PM ET, ESPN). Winner of the race is guaranteed the #4 seed by virtue of the division crown, and second place means the seventh seed, with no realistic hope of climbing higher than sixth. It’s potentially the difference between homecourt advantage against an Indiana team that’s probably superior, but beatable, especially with homecourt—or that of playing the Chicago/Miami runner-up, an opponent that is definitely superior and unbeatable, even if the underdog played every game at home.

Dallas has nudged its way into fourth in the West and is in position to host a first-round series, although Memphis is right on their heels, as are the Clippers—though a strong run by the Clips probably pushes them past the Lakers for the Pacific Division title and would net the #3 seed. Even Denver won’t go quietly, at #7 and within one game of either missing the playoffs on one extreme, or grabbing the coveted 4-seed and homecourt advantage on the other.

Denver’s wide range of possibilities is a microcosm of what’s going on in the West. While Oklahoma City and San Antonio are comfortably ensconced in the top two positions and the LA Lakers with a three-game cushion on the crosstown Clippers for #3, it’s a crapshoot after that. Dallas, at #4 is 27-21. Utah, at #9 and out of the picture as of today is 25-22. That’s a 1.5 game difference between a first-round favorite and the NBA draft lottery. My inclination is to say that Dallas, Memphis and the LA Clippers will pull away, while Denver, Houston and Utah play a game of musical chairs for the last two spots, but that’s based entirely on reputation and not where the standings actually are at a time when teams have less than 20 games left.

The NBA will have to fight for its TV ratings from tonight through Sunday afternoon while the NCAA Tournament has center stage. But there are good games. The Celtics-Sixers matchup is noted above and you get a Denver-Utah showdown from Salt Lake on the ESPN’s Friday nightcap. Dallas also pays a visit to San Antonio. Then on Saturday, Dallas goes to Houston (8 PM ET, NBA-TV)—the Mavs will either solidify their position or really be in a dogfight by the time we wake up Sunday morning—while Memphis meets the LA Clippers and Milwaukee has a tough home date with Indiana. The early part of Sunday gives Utah’s crosscountry trip to meet playoff-bound Atlanta (probably the 6-seed and seemingly destined for a first-round rematch with Orlando), while Philly visits San Antonio. Sunday is opportunity day for Boston, as they host Washington, while their rival is battling Tim Duncan down in the Lone Star State.

Sunday night is when the league can essentially re-emerge from TV hiding. By 8 PM ET, the Final Four teams will be settled and ESPN is ready to strike, as Miami visits Oklahoma City. It’s the matchup most people still expect to see in the Finals—even if Chicago has moved three games ahead of Miami and is in strong position for homecourt all the way through—and gives us LeBron vs. Durant. That’s the scheduling work of a league that knows when it’s time to strike. Sunday’s late ESPN game is another good one, with Memphis visiting the LA Lakers.