With less than a week left in the NBA’s regular season, playoff matchups are becoming clear.
For the Bulls, waiting for them in the postseason is a likely repeat of last spring’s first-round series with Brooklyn. While the Bulls have stated a goal of trying to seize the Eastern Conference’s third seed, even with all of the momentum they have from an ongoing, season-high six-game winning streak, Toronto seems equally determined to hang on to its spot.
The two teams have an equal win-loss record and despite the Bulls’ 2-1 advantage in the season series, even if both teams were to win the rest of their regular-season games, the Raptors hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their status as the Atlantic Division leader over the aforementioned Nets. Toronto’s four remaining games are against teams with losing records—home games against the Knicks, still striving for the eighth and final East playoff bid, and Bucks, the NBA’s worst team, and road games in Detroit and New York, the latter being the season finale.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn appears to be safely in fifth place, though the Nets followed a big road win Tuesday at Miami with a loss Wednesday to the lowly Magic. A home matchup with Atlanta, which is currently in eighth, a rematch with Orlando, an all-Big Apple contest with the Knicks in Brooklyn and a season finale at Cleveland is the rest of the Nets schedule.
The Bobcats and Wizards are locked into a battle for sixth place following Charlotte’s overtime win Wednesday in Washington. That race is made more significant because while the Raptors are widely perceived to be an easier opponent than either the Bulls or Nets, with the Pacers—who have taken back first place from the Heat after reeling Indiana rested all five starters and barely triumphed over Milwaukee, while Miami lost at Memphis—struggling down the stretch, there’s seemingly the potential for a first-round upset.
The Bulls won’t state a preference for their playoff seeding, but although an improved Nets team is more daunting than the largely inexperienced Raptors in the first round, taking on a free-falling Pacers squad in the second round, playing a similarly blue-collar style, has to be more appealing than the defending champions. Indiana has both Miami and Oklahoma City on its schedule, but if the Pacers can survive, it will be interesting to see, if the Knicks can somehow beat out the Hawks for eighth—Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry went on record to say that the organization, after six straight years in the playoffs, isn’t interested in the bottom seed—whether or not Carmelo Anthony can carry New York on his shoulders to give Indiana some problems in a rematch of last year’s second-round series.
The Western Conference also has a handful of positioning battles left. San Antonio has just about locked up the top seed, but the Thunder and Clippers are still fighting for second—and the right to avoid Golden State in the first round, though the Warriors still have some work to do to solidify the sixth seed—in the aftermath of Oklahoma City's narrow win over their foe Wednesday in Los Angeles, a possible preview of a second-round series.
Houston and Portland are pretty much set to face off in the first round, but the two teams are still jostling for home-court advantage in that likely 4-5 series. But the bottom of the West is where it truly gets interesting.
There are two available spots left among Dallas, Phoenix and Memphis, and the trio of teams all play one another down the stretch. Between the physical Grizzlies, fast-paced Suns and experienced Mavericks, none of them is considered an ideal first-round matchup for any of the top seeds.