We are less than a month from the start of the NBA playoffs. The majority of the league have just 12 games left in the regular season. With seeding so important in both conferences, each match has the prospect to be catastrophic for a team’s playoff chances.
In the West, Denver and the Clippers are keeping even the fourth seed Thunder looking over their shoulders. In the East, there is still a chance that Cleveland end up in the bottom-four of the playoff places.
Here we have it, then. A definitive week in both conferences, so let’s take a look at some of the key matchups…
Wednesday, 12am: Oklahoma City Thunder @ Boston Celtics
Russell Westbrook got his fifth-straight triple-double on Sunday evening for the Thunder to move into fourth in the West as they beat the Toronto Raptors. That took OKC to 8-2 over their last 10.
A top four berth is exactly what we expected of the Thunder when the season began, yet this recent run is so crucial. They briefly looked like they could drop out of the playoffs.
Boston are severely depleted right now. With Toronto way ahead in first, the remainder of the season is focussed on getting as many starters fit for the playoffs as possible.
The reserves have put in some impressive performances lately, but they are still 1-3 over their last four. I would fancy Westbrook and his Thunder in this one even if Boston were healthy. A weakened Boston makes a handicap bet the best offering.
TIP: Oklahoma City Thunder (-4.5) to win @ 19/20
Wednesday, 12am: Los Angeles Clippers @ Minnesota Timberwolves
A three-game losing streak has stopped the Clippers in their tracks. Doc Rivers’ side looked set to make a late run for the eighth spot – currently occupied by Minnesota - when they won three straight.
The loss of Blake Griffin has not hurt the Clippers as much as many expected, but their chances of breaking into the playoffs are slim.
The Timberwolves have had the same troubles all season. Luckily for this matchup, though, those troubles have largely been on the road. Their 26-9 home record is amongst the best in the league.
Defeats to Houston and San Antonio have put Tom Thibodeau’s team in a precarious position, but they should have enough to secure a playoff berth, even if it results in a first round meeting with the Rockets or Warriors.
I can’t see past the Wolves for this one. How DeAndre Jordan copes with Karl-Anthony Towns will be key, but I back the supporting cast of Minnesota to get the W.
TIP: Minnesota Timberwolves to win @ 8/13
Wednesday, 11pm: Toronto Raptors @ Cleveland Cavaliers
Toronto are safe as the number one seed. The Raptors’ 11-game winning streak was ended by the Thunder at the weekend, but there is no doubt they will have home advantage through the playoffs.
This game is not about the regular season for them, it’s a prologue to the playoffs. On the other hand, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers are still tussling in the midriff of the East to avoid finishing lower than third.
Fourth would set up a second round clash with the Raptors, which even the fearless LeBron would surely want to avoid.
The Cavs are 2-3 over their last five and are still waiting on the return of Kevin Love. However, the Raptors are not the same side away from Air Canada Centre. I have this down for a home win.
TIP: Cleveland Cavaliers to win @ 41/50
Thursday, 12am: Indiana Pacers @ New Orleans Pelicans
Indiana are another of the teams who could finish anywhere from third to eighth in the East.
Consecutive losses to the Raptors and Wizards were hardly surprising, but it does emphasise the impressive season that the Pacers have had, led by the breakout year from Victor Oladipo.
The Pelicans are in a similar position in the West. The difference is that their playoff berth is still at risk, though it would require a Denver or the Clippers to gain at least two games on Anthony Davis’ and co.
New Orleans’ home record is the worst of the top nine teams in the West. That said, I don’t think the Pacers have anyone capable of keeping Davis quiet. It could be another big night for the 6 foot 10 inch forward.
TIP: New Orleans Pelicans to win @ 10/11
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*