Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Playoff Surge

With about 14 or so games left (depending on the team), the playoff race is starting to heat up and round into focus. The races for certain spots are definitely growing more interesting by the day.

Shootout in the Old West

With the Lakers concerned more with projecting the return of Andrew Bynum than looking in the rearview mirror, how terrific of a race is the rest of the conference is shaping up to be! 3 games separate spots 2 thru 7, and all 6 teams are within 2 games of a division crown. I could start to analyze the team's remaining schedules, recent performances, and what not; but how could anyone make a choice with so many teams locked so close? Let's just sit back and watch these fun matchups:

March 22: Houston @ SA
March 24: Houston @ Utah
March 25: Denver @ N.O.
March 29: SA @ N.O.
March 31: Utah @ Portland
April 2: Utah @ Denver
April 5: Utah @ N.O., Portland @ Houston
April 8: Portland @ SA
April 10: Utah @ SA
April 13: N.O. @ Houston
April 15: N.O. @ SA, Denver @ Portland

Could we have two games on the last night of the season that may determine a division crown? Could four teams be jumping between spots 2 to 6 in one night? Or all six teams? Stay tuned.

As luck would have it, I'll be traveling on April 16th, so I won't miss any of the action. But lemme just fix my mind to finish packing on the 14th or I might be struggling to make that plane early the next day.

First-round fodder

In the East, there is, mathematically, a 6-team shootout to see who becomes the doormat for the LeBronians -- I don't forsee anyone stretching them to a 7-game marathon like the Hawks last year against Boston -- but realistically, it's starting to look like a 2-team bout between the new-and-improved Bulls and the steadily-improving Bobcats. By my esteemable estimation, the teams will have identical 32-38 records by the end of the day, judging by the likelihood of Charlotte winning at home against the Pacers, and the Bulls losing to the Lakers. By any measure, the teams are neck-and-neck. While I recently thought it to be a foregone conclusion that the Bobcats would out-perform any other team racing for that 8th spot, the John Salmons/Brad Miller-infused Bulls have managed to reel off a respectable 6-4 record in their last 10 games.

The schedule seems to favour the Bulls; every game after today is more than winnable, with contests against the likes of Washington, Detroit, Indiana, Toronto, and the New York Area Rebuilders. The Bobcats on the other hand still have the Lakers, Boston, and Orlando to contend with.

We should know a great deal more when the two teams match up on the final Saturday of the season, a game that could potentially be huge. No matter the outcome of that game, Charlotte will own the tiebreaker, having won the first two games of the 3-game season series. It's gonna be tight.

With all due respect to injury-plagued Milwaukee, the now-Devin Harris-less Nets, the D'Antoni Offenders, and the Indiana giant-killers, math or no math, they'll be inking their golf and fishing plans by time April rolls around.

In the West, most people, myself included, have all but written off the Suns' chances at catching Dallas for the final spot, but perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to turn off the lights. Though the Mavs have put up more W's recently, neither team's play exactly inspires a wealth of confidence. Josh Howard is hurting for the Mavs, while Leandro Barbosa has joined Amare Stoudemire on the injury list, putting each team at a further disadvantage in the stretch run.

The Mavs were able to eeke out a win last night in Indiana, who despite their record has managed to play the top teams tough all year long; so perhaps we can give a pass to Dallas on this one. Had they lost, their lead would've shrunk to two games and made the race significantly more interesting. Going forward, Phoenix (Wizards, Grizz twice, Wolves, Warriors, Kings twice) seems to have more games verses teams they absolutely have to beat than does Dallas (Warriors, Wolves twice, Grizz). The Mavs have a shorter schedule, but have to play more teams that are more than capable of beating them. So, the schedule favours Phoenix slightly, but naturally, the 3-game deficit in the standings does not.

The biggest game will be 3 Sundays from now, when the teams play each other. If Dallas wins, that would give them a 3-1 win in the season series, and turn it into a 4-game deficit overall. If Phoenix wins, and beats those Sacramentos and Memphises on their schedule, they may end up with the better conference record tiebreaker. So who knows?

The Mavs hold on the spot still seems strong, but if you're Phoenix, you keep playing and playing hard until April 15th, cause they still have an outside shot at surprising us yet.

Congratulations in advance for the team that earns the right to become a playoff sparring partner for the Lakers.

The Rest

Naturally, everyone knows about the race for the best record overall, with a months-long battle-royal down to just the Cavs and Lakers. The Cavs look like they smell blood; I'm watching them plaster the 7-game win-streak Hawks as I write this (40-16 and counting). The Lakers meanwhile are juggling lineups (slightly) and waiting with baited breath on the health of Andrew Bynum's knee.

The Hawks' recent run nevertheless has seem to have put an end to the race between them and the Heat for the 4th spot; the Heat meanwhile are have to be more concerned with the Sixers and Pistons nipping on their heels. Playing the Hawks in the 1st round has to be a helluva lot more palatable than dropping into a showdown with the Magic, Celtics, or Cavaliers.

Can't wait to see how it all plays out. Well, as long as I don't go missing any flights.

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