NBA Playoff Picture 2011: East Powers Jostle For Home Court As West Remains Sticky

As the NBA playoffs approach, we take a look at how the NBA playoff picture is shaping up. Which spots are up for grabs? Which critical seeding races remain?

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NBA Playoff Picture 2011: Wild West Back Again

As has been the case the last few seasons, the Western Conference remains out of control down the stretch run. A legitimate four spots are in play, and the race for the No. 2 seed behind the San Antonio Spurs is a real sprint to the finish. Some 11 teams in the West have eyes on the playoffs, with some of the trailing teams even holding out hope for a decent (read: better than Spurs' roadkill No. 8 spot) seed.

NO CHALLENGE AT THE TOP

It would take something catastrophic for the Spurs to fall from their perch at 54-12. The Spurs have a full seven-game lead on the Dallas Mavericks and remain 7.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers. It's unclear at what point Gregg Popovich will rest his stars even more; he seems to still be working to fine-tune the roster, recently replacing DeJuan Blair in the starting five with Antonio McDyess.

SPARRING FOR NO. 2

The Mavericks and Lakers are locked in a dogfight for the No. 2 seed, with L.A. taking the latest skirmish on Saturday. But the season series doesn't actually matter here; if the Lakers and Mavericks are tied at season's end, L.A. will win the tiebreaker owing to its Pacific Division title. The Mavericks are in the same division as the Spurs, meaning that even if Dallas takes the season series against the Lakers, if the teams have the same record L.A. cannot be the lower seed. (Divisions still mean something!) So Dallas needs to beat L.A. in the ledger to have home court advantage in a prospective second-round match-up.

That HCA in the second round is valuable, given that (barring a 1-8 upset) the winner of that series would be conceding home-court to the Spurs.

FINDING THEIR STRIDE

Like the Magic and Hawks in the East, the Oklahoma City Thunder are just kinda hangin' out, waiting for the playoffs and hoping to hit their stride. The Thunder seem wedged in the No. 4 spot, four games behind the Lakers for No. 3 and 3.5 games ahead of the Denver Nuggets, who are currently No. 5. The Thunder could slip down, but it would take a bad losing streak. But there is important on-court work to be done the final month of the season, as Kendrick Perkins should make his Thunder debut this week; Oklahoma City has four weeks to get comfortable with him at the center spot.

MESS IN THE WEST

The rest of the West's playoff picture is, uh, messy. Seven teams are competing for the final four spots, and while the Nuggets (39-27) and New Orleans Hornets (39-29) look safe, you never know. The Nuggets are 6.5 games ahead of the 11th place Houston Rockets (33-34), but just five games ahead of the No. 9 Phoenix Suns (33-31). Here's a table showing the situation for these seven teams, with opponents' record via PlayoffStatus.com.

Team W-L Games Back H/R Left Opp. WP%
Nuggets 39-27 -- 7 home/9 road 51%
Hornets 39-29 1 9 home/5 road 56%
Blazers 37-29 2 10 home/6 road 57%
Grizzlies 36-31 3.5 9 home/6 road 50%
Suns 33-31 5 8 home/10 road 53%
Jazz 34-33 5.5 8 home/7 road 54%
Rockets 33-34 6.5 10 home/5 road 51%

The Rockets may seem a long ways back, but with 10 games at home and just five on the road, and a not-impossible opponent line-up remaining, they are still in this.

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NBA Playoff Picture 2011: Celtics, Bulls, Heat Jostle For Favorable Seeding

The 2011 NBA Playoff Picture in the Eastern Conference is relatively settled in terms of what teams will participate in the NBA playoffs -- only one spot is truly up for grabs, as the top seven teams in the conference are on solid ground. But there's plenty of seeding jostling to be done in the weeks ahead. Here's on overview of the playoff picture in the East.

GUNNIN' FOR THAT NO. 1 SPOT

The Boston Celtics are currently in the No. 1 spot with a 47-17 record, but the Chicago Bulls (47-18) trail by just a half-game. The Celtics currently lead the season series between the teams, but the Bulls do host the Celtics on April 7; a Chicago win would tie the season series at 2-2. As both teams will win their division -- Chicago has actually already clinched the Central -- the next tiebreaker is conference record. The Bulls are currently 28-11 against the East. The Celtics are 31-8. As such, provided the Bulls win the final game against the Celtics, Boston remains in the pole position in terms of tiebreakers. Each team has fairly balanced home-road schedules remaining.

The third team who could get involved for the top spot is the Miami Heat, who sit three behind the Celtics today after that awful losing streak mucked things up. For all intents and purposes, the Heat are four behind the Celtics because Boston is up 3-0 in the season series, meaning that Miami needs to beat Boston's record to land at No. 1; a tie won't do. The same holds for the Heat and Bulls, where Chicago is up 3-0 in the season series. Miami's toughest remaining game is Monday against the San Antonio Spurs; the Heat do have a stretch through late March and early April where they have seven straight games without a playoff opponent.

The No. 2 seed is a nice consolation prize, as that team would have home court advantage over the No. 3 seed, should both teams advance to the second round. Winning two conference series on the road is a challenge, so the No. 2 seed is valued.

FIRST-ROUND SERIES BREWING

In all likelihood, the Orlando Magic will host the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the East playoffs; Orlando is quite a ways behind the Heat for No. 3, but won't be caught by Atlanta. The Hawks are similarly far enough ahead of the New York Knicks (3.5 games) that the No. 5 seed seems safe. For the record, the Magic crushed the Hawks in four games last postseason.

KNICKS HOPING TO HOLD ON

The Knicks were seen as a major threat to pull down the Hawks and claim the No. 5 seed, avoiding any of the East's "big three" in the first round. But New York is closer to losing the No. 6 to the Philadelphia 76ers than catching Atlanta; the Sixers are just a half-game behind the Knicks. The seeding there may not mean much -- it'd likely be the difference between facing the Celtics or Bulls and the Heat, if all holds. Either way, the No. 6-8 seeds in the East are in trouble.

BATTLE FOR EIGHTH

Three teams are in serious contention for the No. 8 seed in the East; by "serious contention" I mean "pratfalls and hijinks." The Pacers should have run away with the spot by now, but a six-game losing streak snapped by a win over the Knicks on Sunday kept the Charlotte Bobcats and Milwaukee Bucks in the race. The Bobcats and Pacers are tied at 28-38; Indiana has the tiebreaker owing to a 3-0 season series edge. The Bucks are 1.5 games back at 26-39; Milwaukee also has the advantage of currently season series edges over each other competitor. The Bucks are 2-1 against Indiana with one more game remaining, and 2-0 over Charlotte with one left. The Pacers and Bucks are really tight in the supplemental tiebreaker races, too, so every game counts.

IF IT BEGAN TODAY

If the Eastern playoffs began today ...

No. 1 Celtics vs. No. 8 Pacers
No. 2 Bulls vs. No. 7 Sixers
No. 3 Heat vs. No. 6 Knicks
No. 4 Magic vs. No. 5 Hawks

This post was edited to reflect a clarification on tiebreakers.

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