NBA playoff picture: Loaded Wednesday night slate features many key games

USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday's slate of games could have major implications for Western Conference clubs on the postseason fringe.

The beginning of the NBA postseason is still a ways away, but the playoff picture is beginning to take shape as the conference standings sort themselves out. A few teams at the top have firmly established themselves as elite -- Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Clippers -- but there is still a lot to figure out.

From second-tier contenders trying to force their way into that elite discussion (Memphis, Indiana) to fringe playoff teams simply trying to extend their respective seasons (Utah, Milwaukee, etc.), many teams still have an awful lot to play for Wednesday night.

With such a full slate of games -- 14 in total -- we're here to break things down for the teams still playing to reach the playoffs.

Jazz vs. Cavaliers (7 p.m. ET)

As well as Cleveland has played of late, the team is still 11 games behind Milwaukee for the eighth seed in the East, so the focus here is on Utah. The Jazz are currently holding onto the eighth seed in the West by just 2½ games over the constantly improving Los Angeles Lakers, one of the few teams in the league still fighting to make the postseason.

At the moment, six teams are realistically jockeying for the final three playoff spots in the West: the Warriors, Rockets, Jazz, Lakers, Trail Blazers and Mavericks. Golden State, Houston and Utah are all bunched pretty tightly at this point, as L.A. is just four games out of the sixth seed in the conference.

For Utah, the best-case scenario could see the team bump up to the seventh seed in the conference with just a half-game separating the Jazz and Warriors. This would require a Jazz win and losses by Houston and Golden State, but it's possible.

Kings vs. Warriors (10:30 p.m. ET)

Golden State is one of the teams jockeying for a lower seed in the West, but the team is in a strong position given how well it played earlier this year. The Warriors badly need to turn things around before the end of the season, though, and a match-up against the Sacramento Kings at home would be a good place to start.

With a win and a Lakers loss, Golden State could expand its hold on a postseason spot up to five games.

Rockets vs. Mavericks (8:30 p.m. ET)

If Dallas wants even a remote shot at making the postseason in the final weeks of the regular season, beating Houston on Wednesday will be key. The Mavericks are currently 5½ games behind Utah for the eighth seed and six games behind the seventh-seeded Rockets, a pretty sizable deficit at this point in the season.

For Houston, a win and a loss by Golden State would bump the two teams into a tie for the sixth seed in the West. Adding a Lakers loss to the scenario would expand the Rockets' hold on a playoff spot to four games.

Lakers vs. Hornets (8 p.m. ET)

Coming off that loss to Oklahoma City, the Lakers badly need a victory Wednesday night. Trailing Utah by 2½ games for the No. 8 seed, falling any further behind in the standings would be a major issue for a pretty inconsistent Lakers team.

However, Wednesday night also provides a major opportunity for L.A. to make up some ground in the standings. If the Lakers can get a win over New Orleans while both the Jazz and Rockets lose, Los Angeles will be within 1½ games of Utah's postseason spot and two games out of the seventh seed.

Bucks vs. Clippers (10:30 p.m. ET)

Milwaukee is 7½ games ahead of a stumbling 76ers team, so it's unlikely the Bucks blow their hold on the No. 8 seed any time soon. The bigger question is whether Milwaukee can move up the standings, as the Bulls and Nets are only three games ahead.

A Bucks win over L.A. paired with Brooklyn and Chicago losses would bring Milwaukee within two games of the fourth seed in the East and possible home-court advantage in the first round.

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