The NBA playoff picture is hardly any more clear in the aftermath of the trade deadline last week. While we know Dwight Howard will now keep the Orlando Magic in the East bracket and not help a lower-rung team get their spot, and while we can now accept that the Portland Trail Blazers will be in the lottery, little else has been made clear.
Here are the flashpoints in each conference as of Wednesday.
Only the No. 8 spot is in play ... we think. The Boston Celtics, currently No. 7 and looking to add size via the scrap heap, are a full three games ahead of the No. 9 Milwaukee Bucks with 21 games left. That's a gap that can be crossed, but it'd be a major surprise ... even if the New York Knicks and Bucks continue to play well. The No. 6 Atlanta Hawks have an additional 1.5 games of clearance above Boston.
As such, for right now it looks like a two-team race for one last spot. The Knicks have a slight edge currently with a 22-24 record. The Bucks are at 21-24. The two teams face off two more times this season: next Monday at Madison Square Garden and on April 11 at the Bradley Center. While what happens in the other 18-19 games obviously matters a whole bunch too, those head-to-head matchups will be great opportunities for one of the two teams to create separation.
Elsewhere in the conference, the Chicago Bulls now have a serious leg up in the race for the No. 1 seed, with a 2.5-game spread over the Miami Heat. The Orlando Magic have a small lead over the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and Hawks for No. 3, and while Philadelphia can essentially finish no lower than No. 4 unless Boston or New York overtake them, they could concede home court advantage in the first round to Atlanta or Indiana. It's a tight race for that spot, with the three teams within one game of each other.
In the East, it's primarily about seeding. In the West, we have 7-9 teams truly quarreling over 3-5 playoff spots. (I change my mind on whether the Dallas Mavericks are in trouble depending on the weather. The Mavericks are tied with the L.A. Clippers, so I can't very well leave one in danger and not the other.)
The Oklahoma City Thunder will almost assuredly be the West's No. 1 seed. There is an exceptional likelihood that the San Antonio Spurs will be the No. 2 seed. The L.A. Lakers are currently slated for the No. 3 seed, but seem safe to make the bracket regardless.
This is where it gets a little messy: the Clippers and Mavericks are currently just 2.5 games ahead of the No. 9 team, which is not entirely comfortable. The Memphis Grizzlies are currently safe by two games, the Denver Nuggets are one game up on No. 9 and the Houston Rockets have a half-game edge for No. 8. The Utah Jazz -- winners of four straight -- are the team scaring everyone from the No. 9 spot. The Phoenix Suns are another game behind Utah at No. 10, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are a further half-game back at No. 11.
Let's reset that: the No. 11 team in the conference is only four games behind the No. 4 team. That's extremely tight with right around 20 games to go.
As Zach Lowe pointed out on Wednesday, the Jazz have three more games against the tanking Blazers. That's huge. Every game matters in this race, and teams must beat lesser opponents. That's why Memphis has to be disturbed by its loss in Sacramento on Tuesday, and why the Lakers' back-to-back losses to teams lower in the chase aren't just annoyances. This continues to be one helluva race.