NBA Playoff Scenarios – Halfway Through the Season

NBA Playoffs 2015 - Photo credit: Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

The first half of the NBA regular season is over and done with, and most basketball fans are eager to see which teams will pull ahead and make it to the final stretch. A couple of teams have been hot enough this season that their presence in the playoffs is more than slightly predictable, but most of this year’s final sixteen contenders are still anyone’s guess. Based on the association’s current performance, here are some potentially bold (and some not so bold) scenarios for this year’s playoffs.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference is a little more divided than the Western Conference this year, and Atlanta has a pretty clear lead. Not only are the Hawks going to the playoffs, but they’re almost guaranteed to maintain their first-place conference ranking while they get there. Toronto and Chicago are in pretty close competition, with the Raptors playing 18 away games before the season is over. They haven’t done terribly in that regard this year, but they’ve got a game against Atlanta coming up that might set them back while the Bulls pull ahead. Some think they might slip down the rankings, but they’ve been boasting about upcoming improvements to their game that should keep them close to the top.

The Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers are right behind Chicago, in a dead heat for fourth place. They’ve both got a lot of games against low-ranked teams coming up, so it’s difficult to say who might pull ahead. It’s incredibly possible that the current top five in the Eastern Conference might not change by the time the playoffs roll around. It’s also possible that Cleveland or even Milwaukee might pull ahead. Washington only just recovered from a pretty harsh losing streak, but they did so with an almost 40-point lead against Brooklyn. In short, Washington’s nothing if not unpredictable right now.

Speaking of unpredictable, let’s go back to Milwaukee for a second. They’ve been pretty hard to read this season. It’s doubtful that they’ll take home gold this year, but they might get pretty far. They’ve had just as many high-scoring wins as some of this year’s better-ranked teams, but their games have been a lot closer overall. They’re playing fairly strong this year, but they aren’t really an overall threat to the field. Any judgment on their performance will likely have to be handled on a game-by-game basis.

Charlotte and Miami are currently heading up the last two spots, but Miami might fall pretty soon. The Heat’s been pretty shaky lately (although Hassan Whiteside is turning his game around), and the Pacers are due for a rise now that Paul George is back from injury. The Pacers are everyone’s current dark horse favorite for the title, but statistically it would take a miracle for them to get as far as some expert predictions are projecting. Many think that they’re going to rise to first while Atlanta falls to sixth or eighth. In fact, Atlanta would have to fall pretty hard, because there are only 28 games left and the Pacers are 25 wins behind. The Pacers will almost definitely make it to the playoffs, but they’re more likely to squeeze in at seventh or eighth.

With that all said, the playoffs bracket for the Eastern Conference might go as follows:

 

  1. Atlanta Hawks
  2. Indiana Pacers

 

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers
  2. Washington Wizards

 

  1. Toronto Raptors
  2. Milwaukee Bucks

 

  1. Chicago Bulls
  2. Charlotte Hornets

 

Cleveland will probably move forward. The Cavs have one of the top offenses in the league right now, and Washington’s been too inconsistent to justify calling a win for them on this one. But the real nail-biting series is going to be between Indiana and Atlanta. Those who expected them to climb to number one at the end of the regular season should finally get to see the Pacers uproot the Hawks in one of the most exciting series of the playoffs. They should then play an entertaining (but ultimately one-sided) series against Cleveland before coming out on top.

Neither the Bucks nor the Hornets seem likely to get too far. Toronto and Chicago should end up facing off, which should make for some decent basketball. The Bulls, much like the Wizards, have been somewhat inconsistent this year. That said, they’ve recently stated intentions to start working on their defense. If they follow through (and honestly, even if they don’t) then it seems unlikely we’ll be seeing them beaten by Toronto this year.

Indiana and Chicago might play a fairly close series. If the Pacers are smart, they’ll pay attention to the Bulls’ upcoming games and try to gauge how successful the Bulls are at bulking up their defense as promised. With Chicago’s inconsistency and the fact that the Pacers should be fairly pumped from their expected rise, Indiana will likely move forward to the championship.

Western Conference

The Western Conference has been pretty tight this year, and pretty much the only team that’s easy to call is the Golden State Warriors. There have been a lot of favorable projections for them this year, with some saying they might take home the most regular season wins in league history and pretty much everyone saying that Draymond Green is going to nab Defensive Player of the Year.

Portland suffered some pretty harsh losses recently, but if their last couple of wins are any indication then they just might overtake the Memphis Grizzlies. The Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks are right behind the Trail Blazers, and every one of them might overtake Memphis if the Grizzlies don’t solidify their game a little better. Assuming that happens, then they should at least stay ahead of Houston and Dallas while dipping only slightly behind Portland. The Mavs might sneak past the Rockets, especially now that Rajon Rondo is back on the court.

That would put either Houston or Dallas in fifth place, which might wind up going to Oklahoma City. Even though the Thunder are currently ranked ninth, their win-loss stats are a bit different when looking solely at games in which both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have participated. Taking only those games into account, there’s a statistical probability that OKC can move past Phoenix, San Antonio and Los Angeles. Assuming that Durant and Westbrook have nowhere to go but up, the Thunder should move up at least one spot beyond that.

Los Angeles has a great assist-to-turnover ratio right now. Since San Antonio’s wins have all been fairly close, it’s hard to say whether or not the Spurs will overtake the Clippers. Assuming they don’t, San Antonio and Phoenix are going to be vying for the eighth spot on the Western playoffs bracket. Unless, of course, the New Orleans Pelicans swoop in and uproot one of them. It’s not a crazy proposition, with Anthony Davis currently averaging 24.3 points and 10.4 rebounds. He might very well be on his way to a 25-10 season. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Davis alone won’t be enough to cement their rise to the playoffs. And with the Spurs’ recent spike in performance ability, they’ll probably knock the Suns out of the playoffs.

If this all plays out, then the playoffs bracket for the Western Conference should look something like this:

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. San Antonio Spurs

 

  1. Dallas Mavericks
  2. Oklahoma City Thunder

 

  1. Memphis Grizzlies
  2. Houston Rockets

 

  1. Portland Trail Blazers
  2. Los Angeles Clippers

 

Despite the strengthening performance by the Spurs, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll manage to beat Golden State in the playoffs. If the Thunder stay solid, they might beat the Mavs, pitting OKC against the Warriors. The Warriors should manage to hold fast in this stretch of the playoffs, although the Thunder might manage a win in the second or third game of the series.

While Portland is ranked much higher, Los Angeles arguably has the better defense. This means that the Clippers should easily take the Trail Blazers and go against the Memphis Grizzlies. While Memphis might not hold their current second-place ranking throughout the regular season, an excellent shooting game complemented by current star player Marc Gasol should serve them well in the playoffs.

 

That would pit the Warriors against the Grizzlies, and there’s really little comparison based on their current performance. Frankly, no matter who they wind up playing against, there’s a solid chance that Golden State’s making it to the championship. They’re inarguably the top team in the association right now, and there’s no reason to expect that to change any time in the near future.

Championship Game

It would be great to see the Golden State Warriors squaring off against the Indiana Pacers for the Finals this year. In a prime example of top dogs versus underdogs, it should take at least five games to settle this one. If this scenario plays out, then the Pacers might actually have a stark advantage.

The Warriors already beat the Pacers early in January, but that was without Paul George. And even then, their fifteen-point lead wasn’t nearly as high as many had predicted. Klay Thompson and Steph Curry pretty much carried Golden State’s victory in that game while the rest of the team provided letdown after letdown, with the exception of one supremely gnarly putback by Harrison Barnes. The Pacers established a much better defense in the first half, and they took the lead early on. David West and Luis Scola were largely to thank for the Pacers’ performance, while some might say that Golden State won in spite of Mo Speights.

Unless Draymond Green proves to be a good defense against Paul George, even the Thompson-Curry combination might not score enough to save the Warriors from a loss in the Finals. If this is the case, then the association’s best team this year will be find themselves completely deracinated by a team that struggled against its win-loss record for the first half of the season in order to make the playoffs and take home the title. It could easily be one of the greatest dark horse wins in recent memory.