The NBA playoffs begin in less than a month. The races are tightening, the seedings are being sorted out, the picture is slowly becoming clear. With that, hereâs a look at the current playoff picture, and five things to know about each team thatâs in or in the running for a spot.
If the playoffs started today ...
Seeding analysis and magic numbers
Some notes: SportsLine data is based on 10,000 simulations based on SLâs forecast model. Thatâs why teams that have yet to clinch have â100 percentâ chances at things they havenât clinched yet. Strength of schedule is courtesy of NBA.com, and rank refers to rank among conference teams. Magic number for the assigned tables refer to their magic number to make the playoffs.
Curious as to why tiebreakers matter so much? The Nos. 3-6 seeds in the Western Conference were decided by a tiebreaker in 2015. The same thing happened in the Eastern Conference in 2016. Teams wind up clumping together at the end. Tiebreakers matter.
Note: âMagic numbersâ refers to combination of wins and losses by the competing team. Example: If the Cavaliers have a magic number of seven for a playoff spot, that means they need a combination of seven wins and losses by Miami (the team currently out of the playoffs with the fewest losses).
- The Warriors have clinched the following: A playoff spot, the Pacific Division and a top-four seed, along with home court in the first round.
- Magic number for a top-two seed is seven; magic number for the No. 1 seed and home court throughout the playoffs is 13.
- San Antonio has tiebreaker edge over Golden State.
- Remaining strength of schedule (via NBA.com): .486, which is comparably pretty easy. They have eight home games and just four road games remaining.
- The Dubs are up 2 1/2 games on San Antonio, and after dropping three of five, theyâve won four straight. Their odds of holding onto that top seed are decent, but even as a second seed theyâll remain a favorite in any playoff matchup, and thatâs before Kevin Durant gets back. SportsLine puts them at a 53.7 percent chance of winning the whole thing.
- The Spurs have clinched a playoff spot.
- Magic number for home court in the first round and a top-four seed is one; magic number for a top-two seed and home court in the first two rounds is seven.
- The Spurs have the tiebreaker edge over Golden State and Houston. They trail the Warriors by 2 1/2 games overall and two games in the loss column. They lead the Rockets by six in the loss column and have the tiebreaker. Theyâre a lock for a top-two seed.
- Of their final 13 opponents, 11 are currently battling for playoff positioning. They have a .537 strength of schedule.
- The Spurs are going to prioritize rest over everything, but they havenât really started that yet. Their first-round opponent differential is huge between the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds. Itâs the gap between Denver or Portland and Grizzlies/Thunder/Clippers. So thereâs real motivation to keep pursuing the No. 1 seed. SportsLine gives them just a 17 percent chance of winning the title.
- The Rockets have clinched a playoff spot.
- Their magic number for home court in the first round is six. They trail the Spurs by six in the loss column and San Antonio has the tiebreaker; theyâre not caching the No. 2 seed. That ship has sailed. They lead the Jazz by five in the loss column. Utah has the tiebreaker, but thatâs probably too big a gap for Utah to catch. The Rockets are a near-lock for the No. 3 seed.
- Houstonâs first-round opponent is going to be tough. The good news is that theyâre 6-3 vs. the Clippers, Thunder and Grizzlies this season. But Memphisâ toughness, the Clippersâ latent and the Thunderâs defense plus Russell Westbrook all present challenges. Itâs not going to be easy. SportsLine only gives them a 59.5 percent chance to get out of the first round.
- That second-round matchup is obviously going to be a challenge, but thereâs no discernible path between Golden State and the Spurs that is identifiably preferable. However, the Rocketsâ point differential against the Spurs was a minus-8 in a series they lost 3-1. They played San Antonio tough and the coin flips didnât go their way. Houston beat Golden State, but that was way back in November. The Durant injury question is so indecipherable, thereâs no real solution to that equation.
- Houston hasnât rested players this season, at all. It doesnât play hardly any teams tanking or resting the rest of the way, but still should have locked the third seed by the first week of April.
The dangerous second tier
- Utahâs magic number to clinch a playoff spot is three.
- Their magic number for home court in the first round is 11. After their loss to Indiana on Monday, their lead in the loss column over the Clippers is down to one, and they are two losses away from seventh. Their comfort zone has shrunk in the past week. Their tiebreaker scenarios are a disaster. Memphis and the Thunder both have the tiebreaker clinched. The Clippers lead 2-1 with one more matchup next week. A four-way tie with those teams means that the Jazz fall all the way to seventh. Winning that game on Saturday would settle a lot of these concerns, but not all of them.
- The Jazz might wind up being an underdog in any first-round series they play. The other teams have more experience and proven success. The Jazz can also win any of their potential 4-5 matchups. But if they fall to six or seven, theyâre in real trouble. The Rockets, Spurs or Warriors would probably have too much firepower for them. SportsLine, however, has gone from bullish to bearish on them in the past week, giving them a 46 percent chance of getting out of the first round, and only 6 percent chance to reach the conference finals.
- Their formula for an upset is pretty clear. Take the fourth seed, outlast the Clippers and then try and take out Golden State with athleticism and defense in a grind-it-out series.
- Utah faces playoff-desperate Portland twice more. The Jazzâs strength of schedule is boosted by their final two games, against the Spurs and Warriors, but itâs very probable those two will have sorted out the 1-2 and not have anything left to play for at that point. The 1-2 seed race could wind up deciding whether the Jazz go fourth or as low as seventh.
- The Clippersâ magic number for a playoff spot is four; their magic number for no worse than fifth is 11.
- L.A. has been in a tailspin and struggled to pull out if it, but then, it got to play the Knicks. A lot of teams have had these March dips and come out fine on the other side, though. The real question is if the Clippers can find that team they found in November that was the best team in the league. The Clippers are just 28-24 since Dec. 1.
- They trail the Jazz by one game in the loss column, and need to win their final matchup Saturday to secure the tiebreaker. They have the tiebreaker over Memphis which gives them an extra bump, but if they donât pull out of this, they could easily wind up seventh.
- The Jazz are obviously the preferred first-round opponent, even if it means Golden State in the second round. Honestly, the Clippers have to try and avoid Golden State in the second round at all costs. If the Spurs go No. 1, they need to try and land fifth. If the Warriors go No. 1, they should tank to sixth. Make Golden State someone elseâs problem for as long as possible.
- SportsLine gives them a 59.5 percent chance of home court in Round 1, and just a 50.8 percent probability of making it out of the first round.
- The Thunderâs magic number for a playoff spot is six.
- OKC is back in the thick of it after winning four straight last week and three of their next five are against tank teams. They lost to the Warriors for the fourth time this season Monday.
- Their tiebreaker scenario is preferable. They have a tiebreaker over Utah, they lead Memphis 2-1 with one more to play and theyâve split with the Clippers. If they wind up in a three-way tie with the Jazz and Clippers, they take the highest spot based on winning their division. If they land heads up vs. the Clippers, itâs going to be tight. They are a game up on the Clippers for the conference record tiebreaker. They face Denver, which has been better but still isnât a great team, twice in the final three games of the season. If they are within range of securing home court, theyâll be in a good spot to finish strong.
- SportsLine, however, gives them just a 4 percent chance of home court, and just a 32.5 percent chance of pulling off the first-round upset.
- The Thunderâs best-case scenario is a 4-5 vs. Utah, which they have topped in regular season matchups, have more experience than and would have the best player in the series. After that they want the Spurs in the No. seed. A Golden State second-round matchup would be physically and emotionally painful. However, donât sleep on the possibility of OKC making a run. The Thunder are dangerous.
- The Grizzliesâ magic number is just six for a playoff spot. Theyâre going to make it. They lead the Nuggets by five games in the loss column, and Denverâs strength of schedule is much more difficult. Memphisâ strength of schedule is just .458, the weakest of any team currently in the playoffs. So theyâre at least going to be the seventh seed.
- They have a tiebreaker over Utah, but not the Clippers, and OKC leads 2-1 with one to play. They only trail the Clippers by one in the loss column even after a big slide a few games ago. Every time you think Memphis is out, it comes back around.
- SportsLine has been down on Memphis consistently; it is a team that by and large is loathed by analytical models for a lot of reasons. SportsLine gives the Grizzlies just a 3.4 percent chance at home court and an 18.8 percent chance at making it out of the first round.
- If they open in the seventh spot, you can drop that down even further. The Spurs have been nearly invincible vs. Memphis since their 2011 playoff meeting that saw the Grizz pull the upset. San Antonio swept Memphis in the conference finals in 2013. But it should be noted Memphis is 2-1 this season vs. the Spurs. The Grizzlies did beat Golden State twice, but that was earlier in the season and it just seems unlikely they could manage to score with them.
- A first-round matchup vs. anyone else, though, is a different story. Memphis would feel good about matchups with the Rockets, Clippers, Thunder and Jazz. Theyâll make life difficult for whoever they play in the playoffs.
Someone has to win the eighth seed
- The Nuggetsâ magic number is 13 after their four-game winning streak was snapped by the Rockets. They still control their own destiny. Thatâs the good news. The bad news is everything else.
- Denverâs remaining strength of schedule is .548, the hardest of any team in the NBA.
- Denver trails Portland in the tiebreaker 2-1 with one to go, split with Minnesota and leads Dallas 2-1 with one to go. Worse, even if the Nuggets manage to win the final matchup with Portland to split 2-2, in order for Denver to win a tiebreaker through division record, Denver would have to win all of its remaining division games and Portland would have to lose them all. Most painfully, all this could come down to the early November game in Denver where the Nuggets screwed up the switch on an out of bounds play that got Damian Lillard a tying layup in the closing seconds.
- SportsLine had Denver with a 71 percent chance of making the playoffs Friday. After the two heartbreaker losses to Houston, thatâs down to just 39 percent, and the Nuggets currently projected out of the playoffs. Theyâre done after that even if they make it in, obviously. It doesnât matter who they play, but they would likely rather face Golden State in a wide-open, up-and-down series rather than getting dissected by the Spursâ precision.
- Denver is 26-27 since Dec. 1, and since making its lineup change to move Nikola Jokic into the starting lineup, it is 22-18 in games where he plays.
- The Blazers are tied in the loss column with Denver, with the second-easiest remaining schedule among teams competing for a playoff spot in the West. Ten of their final 13 games are at home. They lead 2-1 for the tiebreaker with one to play, and have a healthy lead for the division-record tiebreaker. They have an excellent chance of making the playoffs.
- SportsLine gives them a 59.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, up nearly 30 points after their East Coast swing over the weekend, and a not-bad 18.8 percent chance of making it out of the first round.
- Portland lost to the Pelicans in a blowout, then went on the road on a back-to-back and beat the Spurs. Then the Blazers ripped through a tough two-game set vs. Atlanta and Miami on a back-to-back on the road. Thatâs pretty much who Portland is. What that says about the rest of the Blazersâ season with such an easy schedule is anyoneâs guess. But they are going to control much of, but not all, of their destiny, with two games left vs. Minnesota and one vs. Denver. They donât have any real guaranteed losses on their schedule, especially after that Spurs win. They play the Spurs once more but itâs so late, San Antonio might be resting. They play the Knicks, Lakers and Suns once each. Schedule wise, they should make it.
- Jusuf Nurkic has drastically altered their makeup, giving them a scoring, rebounding and passing beast who looks nothing like the player he was in Denver.
- They have everything the rest of the way in their favor, but their margin for error is very slim. Lose both to the Wolves, and itâs disaster. Lose some of the gimme games, and itâs a disaster. They donât have to win out, but they do have to be very focused.
- Dallas is two back in the loss column for the eighth seed.
- Denver leads 2-1 for the tiebreaker with one to play. Portland and Dallas split the series 2-2, but the Mavericks trail Portland in conference record.
- The Mavs are 20-15 since Jan. 1. Their strength of schedule is .539, which is really tough compared to most teams. They face the Warriors, Clippers, Raptors and Thunder four in a row this week, all at home, but thatâs a murdererâs row. Next week might be it for them. They have to go 2-2 or better next week to stay in the race. Their blowout loss to the Sixers on Friday was an abject disaster.
- If they make it, they probably want the Spurs. They actually struggle more offensively than on defense, and they could trade buckets with the Spurs. A Dirk-Spurs series is always fun, though Seth Curry vs. Stephen Curry would be an easy storyline to enjoy.
- Dallas needs to win its remaining games vs. the teams in the race, obviously, to hang in. SportsLine only gives a 2.7 percent chance
- The Wolves are four back in the loss column and just barely hanging on.
- Minnesota does play the Blazers twice, which could help. Its strength of schedule is a brutal .545, one of the toughest of competing teams. However, the Wolves face only six teams over .500, and seven teams under. Most of the schedule is on the road.
- The Wolves managed the first part of their brutal March schedule well, but still have a lot of tough ones remaining. Five of their final six are on the road, and five of those six are vs. teams either in the playoffs, or the Blazers, in Portland.
- Their defense has stabilized, and that might give them a real shot to be pesky in a first-round series. Theyâre obviously talented. But Tom Thibodeauâs playoff history isnât great, itâs important to remember.
- The Wolves have almost no margin for error with a brutal schedule. SportsLine gives them less than a 2 percent chance.
I am declaring the Pelicans and Kings done for the season.
- The Cavaliers have clinched a playoff spot. Their magic number for home court in the first round is four. For home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs? Itâs 10.
- They have a 2-1 series lead over Boston, and a three-game lead in the loss column. They keep letting the East hang around with rest games like Saturdayâs debacle vs. the Clippers, but overall, theyâre still in fine shape to claim the No. 1 seed.
- Theyâre not playing their best basketball; they are 28th in defense since the All-Star break. We all kind of assume theyâll flip the switch and be fine in the playoffs, but if it takes them a while to find that switch, it could get dicey in the right first-round matchup.
- The Bucks are the kind of young, athletic team that might give them trouble. Milwaukee doesnât have the shooters, but with Giannis Antetokounmpo and a young, hungry squad, it might sneak up on the Cavs and give them a run.
- The Cavsâ championship hopes are alive and well, according to SportsLine. Although they arenât the Warriors, the Cavs still have a 19.3 percent chance of winning the whole thing. They are considerable favorites (68.5 percent) to win the conference title.
- The Celticsâ magic number is one for a playoff spot. Their magic number for the second seed is 10, and for home court in the first round is five.
- With the easiest remaining schedule in the league -- just a .404 strength of schedule -- Boston is the heavy favorite to finish second, and if the Cavs keep screwing around, the Celtics are going to catch them. They just donât play anyone with any teeth, and eight of their final 11 are at home. Thereâs really no excuse for their not getting the No. 2 seed.
- The Raptors have clinched the tiebreaker, so the Celtics are in trouble in Toronto catches them. Their win Monday over Washington was huge, though. They split the season series and now lead the Wizards by five in the loss column for conference record, which is the next tiebreaker. Their win Monday makes them a near-lock for the second seed.
- If anyoneâs going to take the No. 1 seed from the Cavs, itâs them. They have another game with Cleveland to split the tiebreaker, and are hanging in there for the conference-record tiebreaker. They could steal the top seed, which would pave a pretty easy path to the conference finals and make their regular season a smashing success.
- SportsLine is bullish on the Celtics, giving them a 35 percent chance of making the conference finals, but just a 2 percent chance of winning the title.
- The Wizardsâ magic number is five for a playoff spot. Their magic number is eight for home court in the first round and 12 for the third seed.
- The loss Monday to Boston hurt. They had a chance to take tiebreaker and tie in the loss column, and instead fall two back and likely lose tiebreaker on conference record to the Celtics. Meanwhile, Toronto is now only a game back in the loss column, and it has the tiebreaker. After a marvelous regular season, they are facing a wildly disappointing end if they canât pull out of this funk theyâve been in since the All-Star break.
- Their preferred matchup is probably Detroit or Indiana. They have more firepower and a good regular-season record vs. the Pacers. The Heat have to be the nightmare scenario, given their athleticism and shooting. The potential 4-5 matchup with Atlanta isnât terrible, and if theyâre going to have to face the Cavs at some point, might as well get them in the second round and find out if theyâre good enough to pull off the upset.
- The Wizards still have games against the Cavs, Warriors and two vs. the Heat. Their strength of schedule is .529, the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA.
- SportsLine thinks they finish third with a 93.9 percent chance of winning home court in the first round. But they give them just a 13.5 percent chance of making the conference finals, which feels low.
- Torontoâs magic number for a playoff spot is six. For home court, itâs nine.
- The Raptors have hung around despite the Kyle Lowry injury. They have the tiebreaker over the Wizards, so if they can jump up one more game, they can take the third seed back and stay out of Clevelandâs way in the second round. They would feel comfortable in a 2-3 matchup against Boston.
- The Atlanta matchup isnât bad. Dwight Howard would be tough underneath, but the Raptors have way more offense. However, the Raptors probably donât want to see Paul George again after last season if the Pacers get the fifth seed.
- The Raptors have lost two of their past three first-round series. They need a cupcake in Round 1, and if they get the Heat or Bucks, that could get ugly.
- SportsLine says they finish fourth, with a 90 percent chance of home court, and just a 0.8 percent chance of winning the title.
The messy middle
- Atlantaâs magic number is 10.
- The Hawks are going to have made the playoffs for 10 years in a row. I know they havenât ever really threatened to win the title, but thatâs still amazing.
- The Hawks are now four back in the loss column from the Raptors and just one up on the Pacers. Itâs not inconceivable that they fall all the way down to seventh or eighth.
- Theyâre without Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore, two of their best players, and have only five more home games, They have two late-season games vs. the Cavs, and whether Cleveland rests players could determine where the Hawks land.
- SportsLine thinks they finish fourth, but interestingly, they have a 49 percent chance of winning the first round. Thatâs basically tied.
- Indianaâs magic number is 11.
- The Pacers are 25-10 at home. They are just dynamite at Bankerâs Life. If they could sneak home court, that would be huge, but theyâre five back in the loss column from Toronto.
- They have a .505 remaining strength of schedule, which features games vs. the Grizzlies, Celtics, Raptors and Cavs, all on the road.
- Toronto is a preferable first-round opponent. The Pacers have been underwhelming all season, but they also pushed the Raptors last spring with a worse roster. They have the kind of firepower to hang with Boston. Indiana might be sneakier in the playoffs than people expect, especially in those home games.
- SportsLine says the Pacers have a 94 percent chance of making the postseason, which seems high. And it gives them a 40.6 percent chance of pulling off the Round 1 upset.
- Milwaukeeâs magic number is 13.
- Itâs hard to tell whether the Bucks are coming or going. Theyâre always surging and then fading. But theyâve won eight of 10 to get back into the race.
- Milwaukee has the tiebreaker over Chicago and Indiana, which could come into play, but Miami holds the tiebreaker over the Bucks.
- SportsLine gives them a 59 percent chance of making the playoffs and a pretty decent 13 percent chance of pulling off the upset.
- Milwaukee has the toughest remaining strength of schedule of any team in spots 5-10 in the East, with eight of their final 13 on the road.
- Detroitâs magic number is 13. They hold the eighth spot on account of the tiebreaker right now, tied with Miami.
- The Pistonsâ schedule is pretty soft, with eight of their final 12 vs. teams under .500.
- They still have tiebreaker games left vs. the Bulls, Heat and Bucks, which they absolutely need to win to give themselves cushion. The bad news is that eight of their final 12 are on the road.
- Their next four are on the road, but against the Nets, Bulls, Magic and Knicks. Detroit needs a good week to get some room and keep Miami from climbing over them, as they did at one point over the weekend.
- SportsLine still likes them for a playoff spot, giving them a 51.9 percent chance, but itâs narrow, obviously. SportsLine actually likes them to finish ahead of the Bucks for eighth, but gives them less than a 10 percent chance of a first-round upset.
- Miami is tied with Detroit, and stand at ninth due to the tiebreaker. They face Detroit on March 28 in a fairly major matchup to decide the tiebreaker. Detroit leads the season series 2-1.
- The Heat have been the best team in the league since Jan. 17, when their crazy win streak started.
- Their strength of schedule is tough with a .516 mark, but itâs balanced. They have six at home, six on the road, six vs. teams under .500, six vs. teams over .500
- Miami is definitely the team none of the top seeds wants to see in the first round. With their combination of defense, athleticism and shooting, they pose a major threat.
- SportsLine, however, likes them to finish seventh, giving them a whopping 79 percent chance of making the playoffs.
- The Bulls are just one game back in the loss column of the eighth seed. Despite everything, they could make it.
- Jimmy Butler is tough to deal with if they can get in, but they have to get in first. If they hadnât traded Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, or if Dwyane Wade hadnât gotten hurt, they might have been a real threat. Now theyâre just kind of âhappen to still be there.â
- SportsLine doesnât like their chances, giving them just a 12.7 percent chance of making the postseason.
- But Chicagoâs remaining schedule is insanely easy, with nine opponents under .500 remaining, and a 6-6 balance of road-to-home games.
- Somehow, this team refuses to die.
Iâm currently unwilling to consider the Hornets, mostly because they lose in tiebreakers already to Detroit and Chicago, but they keep finding wins to hang around. They just wonât leave the party. They might make it into future editions.