Last night's NBA All-Star Game marks the end of the first two-thirds of the NBA schedule (32.1 percent of the season's games remain, according to Basketball Prospectus), and with so little time left in the season, we're going to see a lot more heated battles for playoff seeding in both Conferences.
Not all schedules are created equally, however, and some teams face lighter loads the rest of the way, thus giving them an opportunity to move up in the standings. That dynamic also works the other way, meaning some teams that look like they're in good shape now may falter in the second half. That's the subject of a special early-week edition of Holding Court.
The Philadelphia 76ers are one such team primed for a late-season push in the standings. At 27-29, the Sixers sit comfortably in the East's seventh position, two games behind the New York Knicks and two games head of the Indiana Pacers. But Philadelphia is stronger than its record indicates; some close losses due to baffling late-game decisions and plain-old bad luck have cost it so far, as it actually has the point differential of a 31-25 team. That record would put them ahead of New York in the standings.
For good reason, the NBA doesn't seed based on scoring margin, so that stat wouldn't mean much were it not for other factors. Indeed, other causes for optimism abound in the City of Brotherly Love.
For one, the Sixers are 24-17 in their last 41 games, so they've played better lately. Moreover, they've played just 26 games at Wells Fargo Center, where they have an impressive 17-9 record. Finally, their remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .470, according to PlayoffStatus.com.
A post-All-Star schedule loaded with home games against relative creampuffs, for a team that's won nearly 60 percent of the time over its last half-season's worth of games? All strong signs for Philadelphia, which is aiming to return to the postseason after a one-year absence.
The Atlanta Hawks, on the other hand, likely won't maintain their current status as the East's fifth seed. The Hawks have the most difficult remaining schedule in the conference by a pretty wide margin. They've yet to play the Chicago Bulls (whose All-Star point guard, Derrick Rose, will surely chew up the Hawks' iffy perimeter defense) or L.A. Lakers, and have two games remaining against the Miami Heat. Conversely, they have just one game left against the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Jersey Nets, the East's most accommodating doormats... and even the Cavs defeated the Lakers just before the All-Star Break.
Even in the games they have played, Atlanta's hardly impressed. The Hawks are 8-7 in their last 15 games, a span which includes home losses by 41 and 34 points.
Out West, the Oklahoma City Thunder stand an excellent chance of leaping in the standings, though they can't go much higher. OKC ranks fourth in the West, just 1.5 games behind the L.A. Lakers, and has a four-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers. Catching the two-time champs isn't out of the question, either. The Thunder, along with the Houston Rockets, have the easiest remaining schedule of any Western team.
But a tough lineup this week will test the Thunder's mettle. They face the NBA-leading San Antonio Spurs, the Orlando Magic, and the Lakers in consecutive games following the break. Their next two games come against the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers, two more Eastern teams that'll be highly motivated to improve their playoff positioning. But once OKC clears that three-game hurdle this weekend, it'll have a game each remaining against the Heat and Lakers, and won't have to face the Boston Celtics, Magic, Spurs, or Bulls again this regular season.
Sadly, it appears likely that the Trail Blazers' stirring run in the wake of injuries to Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, and Marcus Camby will near its end within the weeks ahead. LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, and the rest of the healthy Blazers have played admirably with their teammates shelved, but their standing as the West's fifth seed is tenuous at best.
Only 1.5 games separate fifth-place Portland from the Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies, who are tied for ninth. And the Blazers own the league's toughest schedule from here on out, which will cost them in the standings.
Portland is still a likely playoff team, as the Denver Nuggets will most assuredly plummet once they decide where to trade Carmelo Anthony, a saga you can follow in this StoryStream. But the ground Portland will lose the rest of the way is the difference between facing the Spurs in the first round, or a formidable (but more realistically beatable) Lakers, Thunder, or Dallas Mavericks squad.