Playoff picture far from clear
Atlanta and Boston are vying for No. 3 seed -- key to avoiding Cavs in Round 2
The Mavericks are in excellent position to win the No. 2 seed in the West
The Nuggets, Jazz and Suns have a lot to play for in the last couple of days
The last days of the regular season are for resting up, setting rotations and preparing scouting reports for future first-round opponents, right? Not if resting players could cost you home-court advantage -- an important factor considering teams with that edge have won 74.5 percent of playoff series since the 16-team format began in 1984 -- and the only thing you know about your first-round opponent is that you, well, have one.
With the playoffs less than a week away, much is still at stake. Let's examine all the possibilities, starting with the Eastern Conference (listed in order of current seeding; all records are through Monday).
Best case: The Cavs (61-20) have secured the top spot and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, so Wednesday's finale at Atlanta doesn't mean much. Shaquille O'Neal has been cleared to play after missing six weeks with a thumb injury. Coach Mike Brown might want to shake the rust off the 38-year-old center for a few minutes. Guard Delonte West scored 21 points against Orlando on Sunday, but because he hasn't shot the ball particularly well recently (6-of-25 in the three games before Sunday), Brown might want to extend West's minutes to build his confidence going into the playoffs.
All eyes in Cleveland, though, will be on the fight for the No. 8 seed. The Cavs split four games with the Bulls (including last week's LeBron James-less 109-108 defeat in Chicago) and are 3-1 against Toronto this season. You know the Cavs will be pulling hard for the reeling Raptors to sneak in, especially considering Chris Bosh's recent injury and Hedo Turkoglu's inconsistent play.
Worst case: Injuries. Injuries. Injuries. There's been a curiously stiff blowback from some over James' decision to sit out the last three games. But after watching Chris Bosh's face split from an errant elbow and Andrew Bogut's arm bend in ways God didn't intend, any minutes for LeBron against an Atlanta team that could have something to play for is an unnecessary risk.
Best case: While the Magic already know they are the No. 2 seed and will face Charlotte in the first round, they still have something to gain. The Magic (58-23) lead the Lakers (56-24) by 1˝ games for the league's second-best record, and L.A. owns the tiebreaker. Orlando still needs a victory (in Wednesday's season finale against Philadelphia) or a loss by the Lakers (against Sacramento on Tuesday or the Clippers on Wednesday) to claim the second overall seed and home-court advantage in a possible NBA Finals matchup. That's big, considering Orlando is more than capable of shooting the Cavs out of the playoffs and making a second straight appearance in the Finals.
Worst case: The Magic lost last year's Finals after dropping the first two games in L.A.; they would prefer not to find themselves in that situation again.
Best case: The Hawks (52-29), 1˝ games ahead of the Celtics (50-30), desperately want to lock up the No. 3 seed and swap a probable first-round matchup with white-hot Miami for a shot at the banged-up Bucks. Problem is, despite a 4-0 record against Boston, Atlanta might need to win on Wednesday to get it. Thanks to an inane rule that gives the tiebreaker to the division winner, if the Celtics win out and Atlanta falls to Cleveland, Boston probably gets the Bucks and a potential second-round matchup with Orlando. The Hawks? They get Dwyane Wade and an improved Heat defense and, if they survive, a likely second-round date with the Cavs.
Worst case: That No. 4 seed likely offers a rocky road, one Atlanta would prefer not to take.
Best case: The Celtics have been singing the same tune for months about how they expect to be able to flip the switch in the playoffs. In the meantime, they have dropped home games to the likes of New Jersey, Memphis, Houston and, most recently, Washington. The Celtics need wins, not just to try to pick up the No. 3 seed but to build some momentum.
Worst case: Losing its final two games, at Chicago on Tuesday and against Milwaukee on Wednesday, would slot Boston at No. 4, and send it tumbling into the playoffs as losers of seven of 10. Not sure if there is a switch to fix that.
Best case: The Heat (46-35) can clinch the fifth seed for the second straight season with a victory against visiting New Jersey on Wednesday or a Milwaukee loss at Boston on the same day. (The Bucks, who are one game behind Miami, hold the tiebreaker.) With coach Erik Spoelstra saying he won't sit any of his healthy starters against the Nets, Miami should cruise into the playoffs winners of 12 of its last 13.
Worst case: Jermaine O'Neal sat out Monday's win over Philadelphia with a sprained ankle, and Spoelstra told reporters that Wade and sixth man Udonis Haslem were "banged up." The last thing Miami needs is for Wade or O'Neal to aggravate a nagging injury before the playoffs.
Best case: Bogut pulling an Adam Banks at practice tomorrow doesn't count, does it? All things considered, the Bucks would be better off with a first-round matchup with the Celtics, but that would happen only if Milwaukee wins at Boston and New Jersey defeats Miami. Win or lose, getting more comfortable playing with some small lineups -- a Carlos Delfino-Luc Mbah a Moute-Ersan Ilyasova frontcourt could pose a lot of problems for defenses -- would help.
Worst case: Kurt Thomas, 37, has picked up most of Bogut's minutes. The Bucks cannot afford to lose him, nor do they want to exhaust him in the season finale, not with Dan Gadzuric and Primoz Brezec playing behind him.
Best case: Miami's win Monday removed any shot at the No. 6 seed, which could be a blessing. True, it locks the seventh-seeded Bobcats (44-37) into a showdown with Orlando, but it gives them a chance to rest All-Star Gerald Wallace -- the NBA leader in minutes played -- in Wednesday's season finale against Chicago. Theo Ratliff, 36, who has logged some heavy minutes since joining the Bobcats, could probably use a breather, too.
Worst case: Larry Brown, however, says he plans to play his starters against the Bulls, who are in a dogfight for the No. 8 seed. Brown says he wants to protect the integrity of the game; he had better hope that integrity doesn't come at a price.
Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors
Best case: Umm, making the playoffs? Chicago controls its own destiny: It clinches the No. 8 spot with victories against Boston (on Tuesday) and at Charlotte (on Wednesday). But if the Bulls falter in either game and the Raptors handle the Knicks at home on Wednesday, Toronto makes the playoffs by virtue of holding the tiebreaker. That makes Tuesday's Celtics-Bulls game critical for both teams.
Worst case: Umm, not making the playoffs? Toronto needs the berth more, if for no other reason than to make one final impression on Bosh before he becomes a free agent.
Click below for a look at the Western Conference playoff picture ...
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