With the shortened 2012 NBA season already drawing to a close, many teams have all but locked up their playoff berths. The Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Oklaho-ma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have all either clinched or almost clinched their playoff berths. The Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clip-pers are fairly safe guarantees to make the playoffs. The biggest playoff berth ques-tions lie with with the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks, plus the fringe bat-tle between the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns in the West.
The sports media has been obsessed with the Knicks this year, from their huge ups and downs to Linsanity to D’Antoni’s resignation, and this will not change as the season progresses. The Knicks are now without Lin and Amar’e Stoudemire for the rest of the year, and if the team makes the playoffs, it will be on the backs of Car-melo Anthony and Baron Davis. This is in contrast to their primary competition for that spot, the Milwuakee Bucks, who are starting to heat up and finally click after the recent Andrew Bogut for Monta El-lis trade. This is the make-or-break mo-ment for the team, when Carmelo can actually prove that he is a superstar worth trading away all of that depth from last year – depth that would make the inju-ries to big-name players less threatening to the team’s chance to win. The Knicks and Bucks have one more crucial game against each other this season, one that is particularly important because, if the Bucks win, they not only gain a game on the Knicks, but also lock down the tiebreaker.
On top of this, the Knicks have several difficult games coming down the pipe. Of their final 12 games, they have two games against Chicago, and games against Orlando, Miami, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Boston and the Clippers. After watching them collapse against Indiana on Tuesday, I’m fairly confident in the Knicks’ chanc-es of losing over half of their remaining games. The Bucks only have four other games against playoff teams and should win the rest based on their recent level of play.
The raw breakdown of the Knicks’ situation is that they are decimated by injuries coming down the stretch, and they happen to have an extremely tough portion of the schedule for the conclusion of the season. If Carmelo Anthony can perform at an amazing level, play unself-ishly and play defense, he could theoreti-cally carry the Knicks into the eighth spot in the playoffs, but I don’t think that will happen. The Bucks will look like geniuses for making that Bogut trade and mov-ing Jackson to land Ellis, and they will close the one-and-a-half-game gap to grab the postseason berth.
Now, on the other side of the country, there is a much less predictable situation. There are six teams within three and a half games of each other, two of which are outside of the playoffs. As it stands now, Utah and Phoenix are stuck outside of, in descending order of record: Memphis, Dallas, Denver and Houston. Memphis has won three in a row and is finally in-tegrating Zach Randolph into the lineup, making them likely to make the play-offs. The Mavericks are virtually a lock. Between Denver, Houston, Phoenix and Utah, however, I believe that Denver will improve and eventually lock down the seventh seed as Javale McGee and Wilson Chandler are worked into Coach Karl’s rotation. Phoenix has a tough schedule coming up for the rest of the season and has over-performed up to this point, and I don’t think that Steve Nash can carry that team over the far better lineups of these other teams. This leaves Utah and Hous-ton. Houston arguably has the best player of these two teams with the injured Kyle Lowry, but Utah is well coached, young and extremely talented.
Although I believe that Utah will get close to and potentially pass Houston, the Rockets will get healthy by the end of the season. This will coincide with the Jazz playing an extremely difficult part of their schedule. Utah might catch the Rockets for a bit, but their schedule will wear them down and Houston should snatch the eighth spot.
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