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Though nothing’s official just yet, the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are going to finish the regular season as the top-two seeds in their respective conferences.
The postseason fates of 14 other teams — six in the East, eight out West — are far from certain.
The San Antonio Spurs, for example, are the Western Conference’s fifth-place team, but are one losing streak way from falling out of the postseason picture entirely. In the East, only three games separate the fourth-place Washington Wizards from the eighth-place Milwaukee Bucks.
With one month of regular-season basketball left to be played, we take a look at one key question facing each of these 14 teams.
Cleveland Cavaliers: How much can the four trade-deadline acquisitions contribute?Cleveland’s much-maligned defense before the Feb. 8 deadline was ranked 29th in the NBA, allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions. In the 10 games since adding George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., that defense is up to 10th in the league (107.2 points allowed per). The former three all have three-point range while Nance Jr. has been a perfect complement to LeBron James in the frontcourt.
Denver Nuggets: Can they win away from home? Ten of the Nuggets’ 17 remaining games will be played on the road, where they’re 11-20 this season. Seven of those games will be played against teams currently in the playoff picture, including four in a row against Washington, Philadelphia, Toronto and Oklahoma City. To land their first playoff berth in five seasons, the Nuggets will have to get it done away from the comfy confines of the Mile High City.
Indiana Pacers: Who’s the No. 2 option? Once the Pacers get to the postseason and defenses lock in on Victor Oladipo, will they have anyone else to pick up the slack? The Pacers’ net rating is plus-7.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court and minus-8.3 with him off of it. Oladipo leads the team at 34.4 minutes per game, but they can ill afford to rest him. This is where their second unit – namely Lance Stephenson and Cory Joseph (once Darren Collison returns) – will be vital.
Los Angeles Clippers: Will it come down to a tiebreaker? The Clippers are neck-and-neck with Denver and Utah for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. The good news for Los Angeles should they end the season in a tie with one, or both, of these teams? They’ve already won the season series with Denver (with a chance to make it 3-0 on April 7) and are down 1-2 to Utah with an opportunity to even up the series on April 5.
Miami Heat: Will they hang on to their postseason spot? Detroit is currently five games behind Miami and Milwaukee in the standings with just 17 games left, so they Heat are in all likelihood safe. But they’re 5-9 since the end of January, and they’ve asked Dwyane Wade to turn back the clock. Wade’s taken the second-most shot attempts on the team since he came back. How much of a threat will they actually be to Toronto or Boston?
Milwaukee Bucks: How much can Giannis Antetokounmpo endure? The Bucks are 7-9 since Feb. 1 with only two good wins — at Toronto and vs. Philadelphia. Seven of those losses have come against current playoff teams. New coach Joe Prunty is trying to figure out his rotations, but because John Henson hasn’t offered much during the losing stretch, it’s forced Antetokounmpo to at times play out of position at center. The Bucks are last in the NBA in rebounding, and their frontcourt depth is being exposed.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Can they overcome the loss of Jimmy Butler? His absence means significant role increases for players like Nemanja Bjelica and Jamal Crawford, not to mention additional run for Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, who both rank in the top-15 in the league in minutes per game. The timetable for Butler’s return from knee surgery is still unclear, but if he comes back in time for the postseason, the T’Wolves are capable of making some noise. First, they have to get there.
New Orleans Pelicans: Can Jrue Holiday continue to thrive as the No. 2 option? There’s no denying that Anthony Davis is the man responsible for New Orleans’ 10-game winning streak and their fourth-place spot in the Western Conference standings. But Holiday has been there every step of the way, upping has game to another level since DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending Achilles injury. His per-game averages since New Orleans’ last loss? 24.9 points (on 52.1% shooting), 8.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Can they avoid a first-round date with Houston or Golden State? This is where seeding makes all the difference. The Thunder, currently in seventh, would face the Warriors if the postseason started today. Move up a spot or two and their first opponent would likely be one of New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio or Minnesota. Nothing comes easy in the playoffs, but you have to think a first-round exit wouldn’t help on the Paul George free-agency front.
Philadelphia 76ers: Can they keep their momentum going? The 76ers are one of three teams (Houston, Toronto) that ranks in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating since Jan. 1. Their defense ranks third in the league behind Utah and Boston during that span, while Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have spearheaded a 10th-ranked offense. They’re 10-3 since Feb. 6 with five wins over playoff contenders.
Portland Trail Blazers: Is the level at which they’re playing sustainable? Consistency has been one of Portland’s shortcomings this season. In fact, up until this current eight-game winning streak, the Blazers had nearly as many streaks of three or more losses (four) as they did three or more wins (five). What’s more, they have the third-toughest remaining schedule in the conference, with 13 of their 17 remaining games coming against above-.500 teams.
San Antonio Spurs: Can they stay afloat without Kawhi Leonard? The perennial MVP candidate, who has played just nine games this season due to a lingering quad injury, said Wednesday that he’s going to be back “soon.” But soon — if that’s actually the case — may not be soon enough. The Spurs have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, including three upcoming road games against Golden State, Oklahoma City and Houston. So long as Leonard’s out, San Antonio’s streak of 20 consecutive postseason appearances is in legitimate danger.
Utah Jazz: Can they finish in the same spot they did last season? What a story that would be. And it’s not that farfetched. The Jazz — who have been plagued by injuries all season and have relied on rookie Donovan Mitchell to carry the majority of the offensive load while filling the void of franchise cornerstone Gordon Hayward — are just 2 ½ games out of the same fifth-place spot where they ended their 2016-17 campaign.
Washington Wizards: When will John Wall return, and how easily will they adapt once he does? The Wizards have gone 11-6 since Wall went down with a knee injury in late January, as Bradley Beal has become the fulcrum of the offense. With Wall’s absence, the Wizards are up to 28.7 assists per game – the second-best mark in the NBA, and their shooting percentage is up as well. Does that prove the Wizards are better without him? Of course not. Wall wasn’t healthy, and the Wizards took the cautious route with an eye toward the playoffs.