There are three real battlegrounds in the Eastern Conference playoff race as All-Star Weekend wraps up and the second half of the condensed season begins on Tuesday.
1. The battle for home court advantage throughout the East playoffs.
2. The battle for home court advantage in the first round.
3. The battle for the final playoff spot.
This isn't abnormal -- most playoff races end up in a similar situation, unless one team runs away with the top seed. Let's break down each battle, then assess the bracket as it stands at midseason.
BATTLE: NO. 1 SEED
The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are locked in a tight fight for the No. 1 seed ... just like last season. (A year ago, however, the Boston Celtics also remained in the mix until April. We'll get to the 2012 Celtics soon enough. Well, not soon enough, actually.)
Currently, the Heat have a half-game edge on Chicago, plus one head-to-head win over the Bulls. For all intents and purposes, this thing is tied up. The teams next meet in Chicago on March 14, then have a home-and-home in April. Those games could decide the race, assuming it remains tight. That both teams have survived injuries to star players -- Derrick Rose for the Bulls, Dwyane Wade for the Heat -- indicates that nothing is going to stop either from having a dominant season.
Were this a season of normal length, the Heat would be on track for a 65-win campaign, and the Bulls would be on track for a 63-victory season. The NBA has never seen two 63-win teams come out of the same conference, so this would be a historic duopoly if the pace holds. (Of course, the teams wouldn't be getting to 63 wins this season because of the lockout, but the winning percentages over 77 percent would be a first.)
This race could come down to the last games of the season, and it should be a good one. But remember that Chicago had home court advantage in the playoffs last season ... and the Heat were still able to knock them out in five.
BATTLE: HOME COURT IN FIRST ROUND
This is where it gets messy. Five teams are fighting for two spots in the top half of the East playoff bracket, hoping to earn home court advantage in the first round: the Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. Here's what the standings look like:
- Pacers: 21-12
- Sixers: 20-14
- Magic: 22-13
- Hawks: 20-14
- Knicks: 17-18
One of these teams is doing his own thing. One of these teams is not like the others. Yes, the New York Knicks are 3.5 games behind Atlanta for No. 6 in the conference. However, given that team's relative heat over the past few weeks, and given the struggles that all of the other teams in the mix have experienced, it seems prudent to include them. They have some work to do, but remain a legit option at No. 3 and No. 4.
As for everyone else, injuries and trades will play massive roles. If the Magic do deal Dwight Howard, a Jazz-like plummet out of the race could follow. If the Sixers get Spencer Hawes back soon, they could pull away from the rest. Indiana has a few key players for which injuries would be devastating; if Al Horford returns early, the Hawks could profit mightily. And of course, the Knicks depend on a rebound and health from Carmelo Anthony.
These teams will play each other quite a bit down the stretch, and it should be a nice little race. Keep in mind that records will determine home court advantage in individual series, so while it would appear that Philadelphia has an advantage as a probable division winner -- something the Hawks, Pacers and Magic have no shot at, thanks to the Heat and Bulls -- it wouldn't matter if the Sixers have the lower record in a 3-6 or 4-5 matchup.
BATTLE: LAST PLAYOFF SPOT
Right now, the Celtics sit in the No. 8 spot ... but they only have a 1.5-game lead over Cleveland Cavaliers. The two teams have split their season series to date, and have their third and final matchup on Tuesday. The winner of that game earns the tiebreaker for the season. If you told anyone in Boston back in December that they'd be playing a critical game against Cleveland in February, they would have guffawed or gasped, and possibly both at the same time, which would sound really weird.
The Milwaukee Bucks loom, too, just 2.5 games behind Boston and hoping to get Andrew Bogut back during the season. The Celtics still have three games against the Bucks, having missed them so far. The Bucks are actually 7-5 with Bogey on the court this season.
The other team that could leap into this conversation: the Nets, should they land Dwight Howard. Of course, any Howard trade also has the distinct possibility of dropping the Magic out of the race and opening up a second spot, so for the three teams currently fighting for the No. 8 seed, it'd be a mixed blessing. They'd prefer that Howard get shipped out West, surely.
CURRENT PLAYOFF BRACKET
If the current standings were to hold, this would be your Eastern playoff bracket:
- Heat (1) vs. Celtics (8) (!)
- Bulls (2) vs. Knicks (7) (!!)
- Pacers (3) vs. Hawks (6)
- Sixers (4) vs. Magic (5) -- Orlando has home court
- Heat/Celtics vs. Sixers/Magic
- Bulls/Knicks vs. Pacers/Hawks
It'd be a rather glamorous first round and a non-! second round, unless some of these mid-rung teams heat back up.
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