With the All-Star break in the rear view mirror, teams will begin their playoff pushes in earnest this week.Considering 21 of the league’s 30 teams are either in a position to make the playoffs or no more than 2.5 games off the pace, the next few months will provide some exciting basketball.
The Miami Heat look unstoppable. Chicago has been able to stay atop their division despite Derrick Rose’s injury. Jeremy Lin hit a bump in the road, but will get the next 30 or so games to prove he’s not a fluke.
What else should we pay attention to between now and the playoffs?
Jeremy Lin came up VERY short against Miami last week, but as Charles Barkley said after the game, the kid deserves a pass.
More than 30 games remain on the Knicks schedule, which is plenty of time for New York's new-look roster to figure things out.
The team has already climbed into the Eastern Conference playoff picture and has its sights set on catching Philadelphia (3.5 games in front) for the Atlantic Division lead.
New York was awful without Lin, so any and all hopes of a playoff run rest on his shoulders.
As it currently stands, the Clippers have a small 1.5 game lead over the Lakers.
Not only is the Pacific Division at stake, the winner gets home court advantage in the first round.
As currently constructed, the Clips look set for a deep playoff run. Kobe's crew, on the other hand, needs some kind of jolt for its offence. Steve Nash and/or Dwight Howard make sense, but we're not sure the Lakers could pull off either trade.
Yes, we feel weird saying this too: Clippers are set for a deep playoff run.
Averaging 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists per game means LeBron James is likely well on his way to a third MVP award.
But will voters opt for a different choice this time around?
Kobe Bryant is scoring at a ridiculous pace. Chris Paul has completely changed the outlook, and perception of, the Clippers. Kevin Durant is still the most amazing combination of size and shooting ability we've ever seen. And Dwight Howard continues to be a double-double monster.
Do any of the Western Conference's lower playoff seeds have a chance at pulling off a playoff upset?
Six teams are vying for the last three playoff spots in the Western Conference: Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Grizz upset top-seeded San Antonio last year in the playoffs and took OKC to seven games in the conference semifinals. Could they pull it off again? Absolutely. Especially if Zach Randolph comes back from injury in time.
Based on how they're currently constructed the Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love-led T'Wolves look like the second likeliest of the bunch to eliminate a higher seed.
There's already been chatter about breaking up the Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce triumvirate and rebuilding around Rajon Rondo.
Such a huge roster shakeup is nearly impossible considering how much money Pierce is owned and how little production KG is providing these days.
Boston looks like a lower seeded playoff team and there's little chance of that changing going forward. Expect a first round exit from the Celtics.
Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Oklahoma City Thunder are clearly above the rest of the league, so can anyone truly challenge them?
The NBA has a definite hierarchy with the Heat, Bulls, and Thunder controlling the top level.
Miami and Chicago don't seem to have any real challengers in the East, lest the Knicks surprise us even more down the stretch.
As for OKC out west, they have Dallas, two L.A. teams, San Antonio, and possibly even Memphis to fend with. The Western Conference playoffs should feature plenty of seven game series. Also, don't bank on Kevin Durant and Co. locking up the top seed so easily.
Dallas has had an up and down season so far, but seems to be picking up the pace lately.
But having one of the best defensive teams in the league can afford head coach Rick Carlisle some leeway and a few losses. No matter what seed the Mavs end up with they'll be a formidable force.
Age and fatigue may keep them from a repeat title, though.
Can upstart teams like the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers stay afloat and make a playoff run?
Both the Pacers and 76ers looking like playoff teams is not as surprising as the fact that they are both in line to finish with top-4 seeds. The condensed season has been a blessing in disguise to these two young squads.
Indiana has an easier road to staying in the group that will get home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs because the team behind them in their division (Cleveland) is seven games back in the standings. Philly will have to keep the surging Knicks off their backs.
But considering how weak the lower half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket looks, both should get to the conference semis.
Head coach Gregg Poppovich was able to keep everyone rested well enough to win a championship the last time there was a lockout-shortened season in 1998, so the Spurs' performance thus far shouldn't be a surprise.
The difference this time around is that his stars are a bit older and a bit more banged up. If Manu Ginobili can come back and Tony Parker continues to play at a high level they should go far in the postseason.
Then again, a repeat early round exit is only a Memphis matchup away, which coincidentally is the team they'd play if the playoffs started today.
Dwight Howard wants out, but Orlando seems determined to convince him to stay. Picking up Steve Nash from the Suns would certainly be a boost.
There are a bunch of contenders in need of some point guard help, so Nash could help anyone from the Lakers to the Hawks.
If L.A. can find a way to dramatically improve the team and give Kobe a fighting chance at a sixth NBA title, Pau Gasol may be the odd man out. Houston wanted him in the offseason and would still love to have him to fend off teams like Denver and Minnesota for one of the West's final playoff spots.
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