For many NBA fans the final quarter of a season is the most fascinating. Supporters are presented with a circumstance common only to the NBA or the MLB. This is a situation which sees teams play 15-20 matches within the last month of the season. The sheer scale of the toil remaining allows the chance for minnow teams to make a late run for the playoffs.
While there are still six teams fighting for the last three places in the Western Conference playoffs, the teams participating in the Eastern Conference playoffs have all but been confirmed.
Currently, Milwaukee is the only team in slight danger at 33-32, sitting in eighth place. While the sheer extent of an NBA season allow for Philadelphia (26-40) and Toronto (26-41) to be able to make a run, it seems unlikely.
With the post-season fast approaching I have considered the remaining schedule and translated the outcomes into a final eight, one which differs slightly to today’s standings.
1. Miami Heat
The unstoppable Heat is currently enjoying a 23 game winning streak which happens to take the cake as the second longest in the history of the game. 10 of the Heats last 16 games will be played against teams below the .500 mark.
Not only does that give them a chance to rest the ‘Big Three’ (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) but it should also consolidate them as the number one seed going into the playoffs.
2. Indiana Pacers
Given the difficulty of the New York Knicks home stretch the Indiana Pacers should finish second in the conference heading into the post-season, however it won’t be without a scare from the Nets.
The only injury concern for the Pacers is Danny Granger, however due to Indiana’s current record and the fact that he has been missing from the team for the majority of the season, his absence or imminent return is neither a concern nor a bonus.
The Pacers are the only team which has been able to consistently shut the Heat down on defence and subsequently they should flourish in a Playoff series where their likely opponent will be unable to supersede the tough and brazen style of Indiana basketball.
3. Brooklyn Nets
In their inaugural year, the Brooklyn Nets have lived up to the hype that was placed upon them in the pre-season. Brook Lopez has re-emerged in a big way, providing the necessary offensive punch in the post as well as improved defence.
Deron Williams has had a tumultuous season but seems to have broken out of his slump and the main thing is that the majority of the team is healthy heading into the most important part of the season.
12 of the Nets remaining 15 matches are against teams below them on the standings, which indicates that they will come home strong and they will head into the Playoffs with momentum.
The ease of the remaining schedule along with the health of their list should see the Nets eclipse the Knicks in the standings at the conclusion of the season.
4. New York Knicks
A team that was considered a NBA contender midway through the season is now looking battered and bruised after a rigorous 82 game season. While Tyson Chandler’s knee contusion has been and gone, he is now nursing a stiff neck.
Carmelo Anthony’s knees are tired and sore and the injury-prone Amar’e Stoudemire is now out getting a right knee debridement done, which could see him miss the entire Knick playoff run.
Given the ease of Brooklyn’s final stretch, where they should win at least 10 of their last 15 matches, not even the talent of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert will allow the Knicks to wrest back the third playoff seed. The Knicks have also lost four of their last five.
5. Chicago Bulls
Unlike past seasons where they have challenged for the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls have gone under the radar in the 2012/2013 season. This does not mean that they haven’t been a quality team; they remain one of the strongest defensive teams in the league.
Given the ease of their remaining schedule and the potential re-emergence of a former MVP, the Bulls could be the sleeper for the upcoming playoffs.
They are currently in a heated battle with Boston and Atlanta for the fifth seeding, however the other two teams do not boast a schedule like Chicago’s nor are they as healthy.
The Knicks could see themselves bundled out in the first round by a Bulls team which is heavily underrated at the moment.
6. Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks will be there and thereabouts as they have been for the past half decade or so. They don’t have the firepower to contest a team like the Heat at the top level but could be strong enough to push into the second round.
Josh Smith has performed similarly to past seasons, blocking shots, rebounding and defending hard however he is yet to reach that star status. Al Horford on the other hand has almost taken over Smith at the Hawks due to more consistent play. Teague has enjoyed a wonderful season.
While they are up there with the most athletic and youthful teams in the league they don’t have the weapons to shake anything up in May.
They should eclipse the Celtics in the standings due to a slightly easier schedule and a much healthier team which could set up an entertaining matchup with the Nets.
7. Boston Celtics
Early in the season, the Boston Celtics were beneath .500 and it looked like the aging list would miss out on playoffs for the first time since the year of 2006/07. However, they have picked up their game in a big way.
While the ACL injury to Rajon Rondo has put a massive dent into the Celtics playoff run, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry have all been serviceable as backups.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have picked up the slack on both ends of the court and while the former of the two is injured at the moment, there is nothing that will hold him back from donning the green and white come playoff time.
The pace and athleticism of the Indiana Pacers should see the Celtics bundled out in the first round but you never know with Boston.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks have only played in the playoffs once since the 2005/06 season and the last time they got past the first round was in 2000/01 where they lost to the Sixers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Because the Bucks face a tough final stretch of games, where they will play ten teams above .500, they are almost certainly resigned to an eighth seed. As a result, they will face a fired up Miami team in the first round and their poor record in playoffs, mentioned above, should continue.
Larry Sanders has emerged as one of the best shot-blocking big men in the game and Ersan Ilyasova is finally starting to put up the quality numbers he did last year, however it is Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings who will have to shoulder the load come May.
They are both quality players on their day; however neither of them have shown the necessary consistency needed to reach star status. Both Ellis and Jennings are going to need to put up all-star like numbers night in, night out if they have any chance of even challenging the Heat.
Even though the Eastern Conference playoff participants have almost certainly been confirmed, there is still plenty of room for movement within the eight. Teams could move as far as two or three places up or down in the last quarter of the season.
While the teams can be content with the fact that they will be playing basketball in May, gaining the highest possible seed is vital when it comes to ensuring a home-court advantage as well as a matchup with as weaker team as possible.
Final Playoff Picture
1 Miami Heat Vs 8 Milwaukee Bucks
2 Indiana Pacers Vs 7 Boston Celtics
3 Brooklyn Nets Vs 6 Atlanta Hawks
4 New York Knicks Vs 5 Chicago Bulls
Tom Parker is a second year Sport Journalism student at Latrobe University, you can find him on Twitter: @parker0_1