1. San Antonio Spurs, 59-19. The Spurs, after losing six in a row, have won two in a row. They remain one game ahead of the Chicago Bulls and three games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers in the loss column, and, barring another long losing streak, should wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Spurs fans, however, should be worried about the team limping into the playoffs. A faster-paced offense that uses a deep rotation is the biggest factor in their success. Their championship pedigree makes them a serious threat to win it all. Tim Duncan’s health will be key to the Spurs making a deep playoff run.
2. Los Angeles Lakers 55-22. The Lakers, led by All Stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, are striving toward their third-straight NBA championship, and the Lakers are sometimes unfocused, as Bryant said earlier this season when I asked if it was difficult for the veteran team designed to win a championship to get motivated for regular season games. With the post-All Star break schedule here, the Lakers are more focused. The Lakers were 17-1 in the second half of the season, with that one loss coming against the Miami Heat, who seem to cause match up problems for the Lakers, but are currently on a two-game losing streak, with losses to the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz.
3. Boston Celtics, 54-23. Led by All Stars Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo, the Celtics are poised to make another championship run after losing in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in 7 games in 2010. The trade of Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson for Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic has many Celtics fans worried about size in the playoffs, but Shaquille O’Neal may be able to fill in the gap. Jermaine O’Neal appears hurt, or either incapable of giving the Celtics what they need. The Celtics are tied with the Miami Heat, and if the season ends that way, the Celtics will clinch the second seed. Catching the Chicago Bulls is a long shot that would require them to lose at least three of their last six games.
4. Miami Heat, 54-23. After a 9-8 start, the Heat, led by All Stars Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, have rebounded to go 45-15 over their last 60 games. They have lost three to the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls, and two to the Dallas Mavericks, so there is still doubt about the ability of the Heat to beat the best. The acquisition of Mike Bibby may put them over the top. Chris Bosh appears to be the key for the Heat, as they rarely lose when he plays well. The thought of Bosh, James and Wade all playing well together is what makes this team so dangerous in the playoffs.
5. Chicago Bulls, 57-20. All Star guard and NBA MVP candidate Derrick Rose leads a Bulls team that hasn’t had their starting lineup together for long. The Bulls have won four in a row, and look to finish the season strong. They also should finish the Eastern Conference with the best record and have home-field advantage against all Eastern teams. They are one game behind the San Antonio Spurs, do it is still possible for the Bulls to capture home field through the NBA Finals.
6. Dallas Mavericks, 53-24 All Star forward Dirk Nowitzki leads the Mavericks, but it is the addition of center Tyson Chandler that appears to have given them a defensive edge, one that has Mavericks fans thinking about a championship run. The season-ending injury of Caron Butler really hurts the Mavericks, but they are still poised to make a championship run. The Mavericks have lost three in a row, and have missed an opportunity to capture the second seed in the West after the Lakers lost two. Could this be the same old Mavericks?
7. Orlando Magic 49-29. All Star Dwight Howard leads a team of talented players that haven’t seemed to gel as of yet since the big trades that took place in mid-December but with the likes of Hedo Turkoglu back, along with guard Jason Richardson, and Gilbert Arenas, the Magic definitely have the talent to match up with any team in the league. The Magic are essentially locked into the four spot, and shouldn’t have a problem getting past the Atlanta Hawks, but then they will face a tougher team. Will they be able to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals?
8. Oklahoma City Thunder, 51-26. All Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lead a Thunder team that is poised to take their next step in the playoffs, after intensely battling the Lakers in the first round last season. The recent acquisition of Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson for Jeff Greene and Nenad Kristic shows that the Thunder are prepared with size to battle the best in the Western Conference. The Thunder appear headed for a first-round collision with the Denver Nuggets, who are 15-5 since the Carmelo Anthony trade. Should be one of the more entertaining match ups of the first round.
9. Denver Nuggets 47-30. The Denver Nuggets are 15-5 since trading Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, and have had eight different players lead them in scoring, including new additions Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, and Danilo Gallinari. The Nuggets lost last night to the Oklahoma City Thunder at home, something that may give them a mental edge over the Nuggets. We will soon see if Denver is for real, and have the ability to make a deep playoff run.
10. Atlanta Hawks 44-34. All Stars Joe Johnson and Al Horford lead a Hawks team that is trying to improve upon their second-round playoff exit last season after being swept by the Orlando Magic. The acquisition of guard Kirk Hinrich from the Wizards for Mike Bibby may improve the team in the long run. The Hawks are a puzzling team, losing bad games at home, like 114-81 to the Chicago Bull at home, but still have the talent to scare a team like the Orlando Magic, their likely opponent, in the playoffs.