Playoff picture is wide open

Normally talks about the NBA playoffs centre on a percentage of teams.

This year will be very different. With a little over a month left to go in the season, the NBA playoff picture is far from clear.

As of this Wednesday, 22 teams have a realistic shot of making the playoffs. That breaks down to 12 out of 15 teams still being in it in the Eastern Conference while 10 out of 15 clubs remain in the Western Conference.

It’s obvious why such a muddled playoff picture would be the case this year. The East has clearly closed the gap on the West. Apart from the two squads that already know they will contend for the title, no playoff spot is secure and no seed is certain.

In fact, the only two teams that have already clinched a playoff spot are the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons, both from the East.

The overall balance of most teams has caused a very small gap in the standings for both leagues.

As is the usual in the East these days, every one has a shot to claim seeds three through eight.

At this point, Orlando Magic are the front-runners for the three seed. With Dwight Howard dominating inside and Hedo Turkoglu sticking his jump shots, the Magic are in the driver’s seat.

Close behind are the defending Eastern Conference champions Cleveland Cavaliers. With King James leading the club, the Cavs will always have a chance at doing damage in the postseason, as they proved last year on their run to the Finals.

The last team in the playoff hunt with a winning record in the East are the Toronto Raptors. As a fifth seed, they could pose a problem to those above them with big man Chris Bosh in the middle and the likes of Jason Kapono and Jose Calderon lighting it up from behind the arc.

The real intriguing part about the East is who will claim the six through eight seeds. Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Jersey, Chicago, Indiana and Charlotte are all in contention. Of note are the Sixers, who have won seven out of their last ten and the Bulls, who hope the recent shake-up of the team roster will propel them to a postseason berth.

In the West, the standings are even tighter. The Kobe-lead Lakers are on top by a mere half a game over the defending NBA champions San Antonio Spurs. Close on both of their heels are the surging Houston Rockets, as Tracy McGrady and company have orchestrated an incredible 19 game winning streak.

Last year’s Western Conference finalists Utah are two games back in fourth while the overachieving Hornets are fifth after Chris Paul and the rest lead the West for parts of the season.

Two of the league’s biggest names are further down. In spite of Shaq, Phoenix are slipping rapidly and holding on to sixth place while Dirk Nowitzki and the rest of the Dallas Mavericks have failed to meet expectations this season, barely hanging on to the seventh seed.

The race for eighth in the West is a good one all on its own. Currently, last year’s playoff Cinderella Golden State are in position but other upstart teams aren’t far off. The Nuggets and Trail Blazers are both less than six games back and have the talent to catch up quick.

Normally there would be no real doubt as to who would make the playoffs. Aside from changes in the seeding of teams, generally who is in the hunt for the title and who is not would be obvious.

However, I can tell you that I’m not alone when I say I’m very unsure as to who will get in and where this year. But like many, I’ll enjoy finding out over the next five weeks.

With so much up for grabs and left to be decided, the games this weekend will be of extra significance.

Some key games to look out for are: the Sixers taking on the Bulls tonight at 8:30pm. The Sixers hope to keep their momentum going and get a better playoff position while Chicago will keep searching for signs of the team that left their mark in last year’s playoffs.

Also the Raptors take on the Nuggets at 9pm. Denver is in a precarious position out West and need some momentum for a late season playoff push while Toronto will look to prove they can flash a defence that’s playoff-worthy.

On Sunday, look out for the 7pm match up pitting the Lakers against the surging Rockets. Houston will look to show their streak is no fluke while the Lakers are eager to continue their stay on top of the West.

So sit back, relax and stay tuned to the madness that is the NBA playoff picture.

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