Assessing the playoff picture
The top five seeds in the East are set; the bottom three will be decided this week
The Nuggets are in control in the race for the second seed in the West
After the top-seeded Lakers, the West playoff picture is far from settled
Much is at stake in the final three days of the regular season. Let's examine the possible scenarios for the 16 playoff teams, starting with the Eastern Conference (listed in order of current seeding).
Best case: On some level, the top-seeded Cavaliers would probably like to avoid a first-round matchup with Detroit, a division rival playing with a sense of desperation, knowing that the dismantling of the team that began in November with the Chauncey Billups trade will likely continue this offseason. A first-round matchup with Chicago, a talented but considerably less experienced playoff team with a rookie coach, is preferable.
However, the No. 1 priority for Cleveland has to be giving LeBron James (80 games played), Mo Williams (80) and 33-year-old Zydrunas Ilgauskas (64) a breather, either at Indiana on Monday or the season finale Wednesday against Philadelphia, another potential first-round opponent.
Worst case: The Cavs still need one more victory to clinch home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Losing that edge to the Lakers would be a tough blow, especially considering L.A. has beaten the Cavs twice this season and handed them their only loss at Quicken Loans Arena.
Best case: Well, if Gabe Pruitt can give the Celtics some quality minutes ... come on, is there a greater concern than the health of Kevin Garnett? Coach Doc Rivers said Garnett will test his balky knee in Wednesday's season finale against Washington. Twenty minutes of a no-limping, no-grimacing Garnett will be cause to break out the bubbly. Having a healthy KG in the lineup to anchor the defense means everything to Boston.
Worst case: If Garnett struggles Wednesday and looks like he will be a shell of his former self in the postseason, it will be a body blow to Boston's hopes for defending its title.
Best case: Hedo Turkoglu sprained his left ankle in Saturday's loss to New Jersey and Rashard Lewis has been dealing with tendinitis in his right knee. Locked into the third seed, the Magic need to concern themselves with getting their starting forwards as healthy as possible for the playoffs. Playing better wouldn't hurt, either, as the Magic have lost four of seven.
Worst case: The Pistons are lurking as a possible first-round opponent. Detroit, which swept the three-game season series, has eliminated the Magic in each of the last two postseasons.
Best case: Atlanta has clinched the No. 4 seed and will face Miami in the first round. But the final two regular-season games (including Tuesday's home date against the Heat) are important as the Hawks seek to work starting small forward Marvin Williams back into the rotation. Williams returned Friday after missing 16 games with a back injury.
Worst case: If Williams doesn't prove to be playoff-ready, the Hawks will lack depth on the wing as they get set to meet Dwyane Wade in the playoffs.
Best case: Jermaine O'Neal will be the first to admit he's not entirely comfortable in the Heat offense, which frequently yanks him out of his usual spot on the low post (Miami has just two straight post plays in the playbook) and puts him in two-man situations on the perimeter. If O'Neal can settle into his role, he would be a huge weapon for Miami in the playoffs.
Worst case: No team is more dependent on one player than the Heat are on Wade, so keeping him healthy is crucial. But Wade is a full-speed player who treats the hardwood like a trampoline -- it's not easy for him to cool his engines. The last thing Miami wants to see is Wade go down in a meaningless regular-season game.
Best case: With a season-high five consecutive losses, Philadelphia has gone cold at the wrong time. "We're not playing good basketball, that's what worries me," coach Tony DiLeo told reporters after Sunday's loss at Toronto. The Sixers need to pick it up in their final two games, against Boston and at Cleveland. They'd also welcome the return of small forward Thaddeus Young (sprained ankle), who is hoping to be ready for the postseason, if not sooner.
Worst case: If their slide continues, the Sixers could end up tumbling to the No. 8 spot and drawing a healthy Cleveland team in the first round.
Best case: Monday's game at Detroit is huge. If the Bulls win, they take the season series 3-1 and avoid Cleveland in the first round. A matchup with banged-up Boston or Orlando would be a more appealing option.
Worst case: See above. The Bulls are only 12-28 on the road. Can they make a statement against the Pistons?
Best case: The Pistons would be comfortable with the Magic in the first round, which means they have to find a way to climb into the No. 6 spot. Detroit has a huge mental edge over Orlando and is one of the few teams in the league that can play Dwight Howard straight up.
Worst case: An embarrassing first-round exit could await if the Pistons remain in the No. 8 spot. Cleveland would be charged up to play a division rival that has reached the last six conference finals.
Click below for the Western Conference ...
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