With less than two months to go before the end of the regular season, this is the time when NBA fans begin to focus on the playoff picture. All of the top contenders are preparing for an all-out push to guarantee their places, while a host of fringe teams will be battling hard for every victory to grab a spot in the playoffs. What have we learned from this season so far?
The story in the West has been a familiar one. Golden State have gone about their business efficiently, picking up wins consistently, but they have been dogged by a James Harden-inspired Houston. Over in the East, the Raptors have taken advantage of a slow start from Cleveland and a mid-season stutter by Boston to steal a lead at the top.
Basketball fans looking for better odds on Stakers on outsiders to make the playoffs could consider the Knicks or the Hornets in the East and the Lakers in the West as they all have a number of games in hand. However, some teams are virtual certainties for the playoffs.
Going into the All-Star break, the Rockets had a half-game advantage over the Warriors, thanks to the efforts of Harden – the NBA’s top scorer – and Chris Paul. Having already beaten Golden State twice this season, they will be confident of finally toppling them when they meet in the playoffs, and they have added the experience of Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright to their roster. It’s possible that they may be overhauled by the Warriors if Harden is given a rest, but they look certain to grab a top-two spot.
Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant has been driving Golden State forward, and the reigning champions are quietly going about their business in the West. One of only two teams in the NBA to rank in the top five for both offense and defense, the Warriors have only once endured back-to-back defeats this season. The Warriors’ strength in depth could yet enable them to overhaul the Rockets and go into the playoffs as the number one seed yet again.
While Houston and Golden State appear to have the Western Conference wrapped up, over in the East, the playoff race looks more complicated, and Toronto have been setting the early pace. Having suffered playoff defeats at the hands of the Cavs in 2016 and 2017, the revamped Raptors are playing a more fluid style of basketball this time around, and have greater strength in depth than the last two seasons. They are the only other team besides the Warriors to rank in the top five for both offensive and defensive ratings, and their 133-99 victory over Cleveland last month was a strong signal that they are on the up.
Cleveland had a terrible run of form at the end of 2017, kick-started by a 99-92 defeat at Golden State, and as a result they undertook a major overhaul of the squad before the February trade cut-off date. Six players were cut and four more brought in, and those drastic measures appear to have done the trick. They scored significant victories over Boston and Oklahoma and ran up a sequence of four wins in a row going into the All-Star break to narrow the gap behind the Celtics and put pressure on the Raptors. A playoff spot is assured, but they will be pushing hard to pick up the number one seed.
After a solid start to the season, the Celtics ran out of form in the early weeks of February, losing ground on the Raptors. Unlike Cleveland, they didn’t hit the panic button, though they did bring in Greg Monroe, who should be a reliable backup for Al Horford. Boston will also be hoping for the early return of key player Marcus Smart as they try to shore up their struggling defense to hold on to a place in the top three. They may not be able to prevent the Cavs from overtaking them, but they ought to have enough in the tank to see off the challenge of the Wizards and the Pacers and clinch a top-three spot.
With five teams already looking certain to make the playoffs, and neither the Cavs nor the Warriors leading in their respective conferences, the regular season suggests that this year’s playoffs will be the most competitive that we have seen for years, and NBA fans can’t wait!