In a shortened NBA season, the playoffs are beginning to creep into the picture. The title contenders in both conferences are emerging from the pack, while the rest of the playoff hopefuls are jockeying for position, as well. Before division titles and playoff seeding start to be discussed, it’s time to take a look at how some of the top teams stack up.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (39-12): The Thunder has won five straight games to open up a three-game lead in the Western Conference. With wins over the Heat and the Lakers during the stretch, there is little doubt that Oklahoma City has what it takes to win a title this season. Kevin Durant is playing at an MVP level, and Russell Westbrook may just be the most explosive point guard in the NBA. Improved play from big men Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has solidified the Thunder’s interior defense, and the addition of Derek Fisher will provide much-needed playoff experience for an otherwise young team.
2. Chicago Bulls (42-11): Despite missing Derrick Rose, the Bulls haven’t missed a beat. Chicago is 8-2 in its last 10 games and is the only team to have already clinched a playoff spot. The Bulls own the best record in the NBA and have a league-leading 21 road wins, as well. Chicago will ultimately need Rose and his offensive firepower to have success in the postseason, but in the meantime, the second-best scoring defense will continue to get the job done.
3. San Antonio Spurs (36-14): San Antonio has taken command of the Southwest Division, and a seven-game win streak has the Spurs sitting second in the Western Conference. With Tony Parker and Tim Duncan leading the way, this is still an older team. However, young players like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard have provided energy off the bench. With Manu Ginobili getting healthy and the addition of Stephen Jackson, the Spurs suddenly have a ton of 3-point firepower to support Duncan and Parker. San Antonio has the pieces in place to make a run.
4. Miami Heat (37-13): Miami has been unable to take advantage of Rose’s absence, and the Heat is probably going to have to settle for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference behind Chicago. A recent 6-4 stretch has questions about the team’s half-court offense creeping up again, and given Miami’s recent point totals, the criticism appears justified. Granted, the Heat still has more athleticism than any team in the NBA, but the lack of a physical big man and consistent point guard play is going to continue to cause some rough patches.
5. Los Angeles Lakers (32-20): The bad news for the Lakers is that they still struggle to win games in the road, and there is a possible rift developing between Andrew Bynum and their coach Mike Brown. That being said, Los Angeles still has the third-best record in the Western Conference, Kobe Bryant is leading the NBA in scoring, and Pau Gasol and Bynum give the team one of the biggest frontcourts. Not to mention the fact that trading for Ramon Sessions has upgraded the point guard spot. This group still hasn’t really clicked, but the window hasn’t closed on Bryant and company quite yet.
6. Dallas Mavericks (30-23): The Mavericks are in the middle of a 7-3 stretch, but they continue to have some issues consistently beating the top teams in both conferences. The good news is that Dirk Nowitzki is having his best month scoring in more than a year, and Dallas still seems to have a way of mounting late-game comebacks. Ultimately, Mark Cuban’s decision to keep cap space open to sign free agents following the year will probably prevent the Mavericks from repeating as champs. However, Dallas is going to be a tough out in the postseason thanks to all the veterans on the roster.
7. Orlando Magic (32-20): If he isn’t causing a distraction by where he might play next season, Dwight Howard is raising eyebrows by refusing to be a part of the team huddle during timeouts. Still, Orlando’s big man has the Magic sitting a comfortable third in the Eastern Conference. Overall, the Magic is one of the toughest teams to get a feel for. Howard and company will knock off a top opponent one night and have almost no offense in an ugly loss the next night. The lack of consistency will hurt Orlando come playoff time, but at times, the Magic looks as good as any team in the NBA.
8. Boston Celtics (29-22): Thanks to a four-game winning streak, Boston has climbed back to the top of the Atlantic Division standings. Paul Pierce has shouldered most of the load offensively, but Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have shown some flashes of the glory days, as well. Point guard Rajon Rondo is always the X-factor for the Celtics, but he has to find a way to unleash his triple-double potential on a more consistent basis. The bottom line is that Boston is an old team that is going to drop some games that it probably shouldn’t. However, the Celtics play solid in the half court on both ends, and they are going to make the playoffs.
9. Los Angeles Clippers (30-21): A recent four-game winning streak has allowed the previously slumping Clippers to take their finger off the panic button. That being said, they are still lacking depth and have struggled to replace the intangibles provided by Chauncey Billups. With the current roster, Los Angeles basically lives and dies with point guard Chris Paul. The Clippers just don’t have a lot of guys that can create their own shot.
10. Indiana Pacers (30-21): The Pacers have been getting it done all season, and while their ceiling is limited, there is something to be said about having the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Indiana doesn’t have a lot of star power, but it has a nice combination of parts. From the ever-improving Paul George to veteran David West, the Pacers’ starting five is rock solid. They are a notch below the top teams, but the Pacers are one of the best of the rest.
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