NBA Contenders and Pretenders

Matthew Heineman

With only a handful of games left in the 2012 NBA season, it seems appropriate to take a look at the playoff situation. Of the 16 playoff spots, 10 teams have clinched: Chicago, Miami, Indiana, Boston, Atlanta, Orlando, San Anto-nio, Oklahoma City and both teams from Los Angeles. That leaves two open spots in the East and four open spots in the West. Let’s take a look at the possible contenders.

East: In the East, the playoff scenario is pretty straightforward. There are three teams fighting for the final two spots (the seven and eight seeds). Those teams are the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwau-kee Bucks. Currently it’s the Knicks (32-29) and the 76ers (31-30) who hold the seven and eight seeds, respectively. The Bucks (29-31) are currently sitting just a game and a half behind Philadelphia. In my opinion, I think the Knicks are pretty much guaranteed a playoff spot and are probably locked into an exciting first round matchup with the Miami Heat. Interim coach Mike Woodson has them playing superb de-fense (fourth overall in defensive efficiency) and Carmelo Anthony is playing at an MVP level (30.4 ppg, 50 percent FG percentage in the last 11 games). They have just five games remaining, three of which are against teams in the cellar of the conference (New Jersey, Cleveland and Charlotte). Furthermore, they hold both tiebreakers over Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Even without Stoudemire and Lin, the Knicks have too much firepower to miss out on the playoffs.

That leaves the 76ers and Bucks fighting for the eight seed. By the end of the season, I believe the Bucks will catch the 76ers and take control of the eighth seed heading into the playoffs. A major reason for this is that the schedule favors Milwaukee. Both play relatively easy teams with the 76ers facing Cleveland, New Jersey and De-troit and the Bucks facing Washington, New Jersey and Toronto. However, Philadelphia will play all of their remaining games on the road making it a much tougher run. Another reason Milwaukee is likely to move into the eighth seed and make the playoffs is that they have less pres-sure on them than Philadelphia. Philadelphia is supposed to be a team on the rise. They made the playoffs last season as a No. 7 seed and this season they were supposed to take that next step forward into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. Expectations were high, especially after their hot start. Since the break, however, they have lost 16 of their last 27 games and are desperately trying to cling on to that final spot. Milwaukee, on the other hand, made the surprising move at the deadline to pair Monta Ellis from Golden State with rising point guard Brandon Jennings. Together the two might be the most potent offensive backcourt in the league. The Bucks have momentum and head-ing into the final matchup at home against Philadelphia on the 25th, I fully expect them to win the game and secure that final playoff spot.

West: The playoff scenario in the West is a lot more open. At this point, I think it’s safe to assume that the Memphis Grizzlies and Den-ver Nuggets will make the playoffs, likely tak-ing the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively. Both teams are playoff tested and have deep rosters that are loaded with talent. Furthermore, both have won seven of their past ten and are play-ing their best basketball of the season as we speak. They’ve gotten healthy at the right time in Memphis with the return of Zach Ran-dolph and in Denver with the return of Danilo Gallinari. Furthermore, the Grizzlies face an extremely easy schedule and could very con-ceivably run the table. The Grizzlies face New Orleans, Charlotte, Portland and Cleveland, all teams that are out of the playoff race. They also face Orlando who will likely be without All-Star center Dwight Howard. The Nuggets face a slightly tougher schedule, facing the L.A. Clippers, Phoenix, Orlando, Oklahoma City and Minnesota, but at the very least should split and remain in one of the playoff spots in the Western Conference.

The Dallas Mavericks find themselves with the seventh seed, a game and a half ahead of Phoenix and Houston and two games ahead of Utah. As tough as their schedule is (Houston, Golden State, Chicago, Atlanta), they are the defending champions and are battle tested, so I fully expect them to make the playoffs. They are still a top-ten defensive team and have a roster full of veteran playmakers (Dirk Nowit-zki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd), and an excellent head coach in Rick Carlisle. Furthermore, their players understand what it’s like to go through a playoff push and win big games down the stretch of a season. The Mavericks will be there come the postseason and no doubt will relish the fact that they are the underdogs and will look to make another deep run toward a championship.

That leaves just three teams (Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz) fighting for the one remaining playoff spot in the Western Conference. Currently that spot belongs to Phoenix, who sits at 32-29. The Rockets have the same record as the Suns, but don’t hold the tiebreaker. The Jazz remain just a half game back at 32-30. In my opinion, the final playoff spot will go to Phoenix. They’ve been playing the best of the other three teams, winning seven of their last ten. They have a ton of scoring op-tions, including six players averaging double digit points per game, one of which is former MVP Steve Nash.

Although 38 years old, Nash still finds a way to get it done, averaging almost 11 assists per game and shooting 40 percent from three on the season. Although they have a tough schedule (Thunder, Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz and San Antonio), four of their five games are at home where they play much better at 18-11. Houston and Utah have a lot of depth and talent as well, but in the end, I think the difference is Steve Nash. Stars win in the NBA and Steve Nash is still a bona fide star. He makes all of his teammates better and he is hungrier than ever to get back into the playoffs. That makes Phoenix a dangerous team and likely to clinch the eighth seed.

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