NBA Playoff Picture: Some Stratification Out West, But A New Mess In East

March 28, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) reacts after getting poked in the eye in the second half of the game against the Phoenix Suns at the Staples Center. Clippers won 103-86. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

We have a very messy situation in the middle of the NBA's East bracket. Things are coming into a bit of focus out West, though. For now.

In case you'd lost track, we still have giant messes in the two NBA playoff pictures. In the West, things are so tight that the difference between the No. 4 seed and the lottery might be two games. In the East, the entire back half of the bracket is completely muddled, with teams tripping over themselves and each other.

Let's give it a reset.

WEST

The Western Conference somehow become more clear over the past week, despite there remaining a tight spread among six teams fighting for five spots. The L.A. Clippers have bounced back strongly from a bad three-game skid, and sit in sole possession of the No. 4 spot ... with a half-game margin over the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks, in turn, are a half-game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies.

This is where we're starting to see some real separation: the No. 6 Grizz are 1.5 games ahead of the No. 7 Utah Jazz. The Jazz, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets are all essentially tied, with two playoff spots available. So we have the makings of two races: the race for first-round home court advantage among the Clippers, Mavericks and Grizzlies, and the race for one of two playoff spots among the Jazz, Rockets and Nuggets.

Of course, there's a strong possibility that the groups will end up mingling at least once more -- we still have a month of basketball left. There have been two other developments:

1. The L.A. Lakers aren't catching the streaking San Antonio Spurs for No. 2. The Spurs have opened up a 4.5-game lead on L.A.

2. The Phoenix Suns are drifting off the pace, and now sit two games behind the 7-8-9 cluster. Making up two games on two of those teams at this point is asking a bit much.

There are also two more items to keep an eye on over the next week, in addition to jockeying within the clusters:

1. The Spurs are only 2.5 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 1 seed. It's not urgent (especially considering that they don't play each other again in the regular season), but it's worth watching. San Antonio has the head-to-head tiebreaker, by the way.

2. The Clippers are only two games behind the Lakers for No. 3. The head-to-head tiebreaker will be settled April 4. That's potentially a huge game.

EAST

The East was supposed to be simple. So much for that.

There are three critical-level races at this point.

1. The race for the Atlantic crown. The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics are knotted up at 28-22, but Philly has the head-to-head tiebreaker. The New York Knicks are 2.5 games back, and have a tiebreaker on Philly. The Knicks-Celtics head-to-head tiebreaker will be decided April 17; the C's are up 2-1. Why does this race matter so much? The winner of the three-way race wins the No. 4 seed and a first-round series against (in decreasing order of likelihood) the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic or one of the other two Atlantic teams. The team that finishes second will likely either draw the Magic or the Miami Heat. The team that finishes third in the Atlantic will draw the Heat or, most likely, the Chicago Bulls. Have fun with that!

2. The race for No. 4 and 5. The key here is in avoiding the Bulls, Heat and Dwight Howard in the first round. (Atlanta is the only team that might rather see the Magic than one of the other 4-8 teams.) The Atlantic champ will claim No. 4, but the No. 5 team would take home court advantage in that first-round series if it has a better record. Right now, Philadelphia has the No. 4 spot, but No. 5 Indiana has a 1.5-game lead and, thus, home court advantage. Atlanta is also a game better than Philly, but sits in No. 6, a half-game behind Indy. As mentioned above, Boston is tied with Philadelphia and could sub in there if they get ahead.

3. The race for No. 8. The Milwaukee Bucks aren't dead yet. The Bucks are 2.5 games behind the Knicks after Wednesday's action, and can win the tiebreaker on April 11. If the Bucks lose that game, tying the season series at 2-2, and finish the season tied with the Knicks for No. 8, the next tiebreaker is in-conference record. New York is currently at 19-15 and the Bucks are 17-18. So it's pretty critical for the Bucks to beat the Knicks on April 11.

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