As always happens once we approach the final quarter of the NBA season, speculation has already started about which 16 teams will be securing a position in the playoffs in May.
This year, the truncated 72 game season means that this guesswork has an even more feverish tone to it than usual as teams who might otherwise have faded into bottom of the table obscurity could still be in with a reasonable shout.
Of course, some of the places are all but decided, even at this early stage, For example, it would take a series of pretty big upsets for the leading teams in the two conferences not to be in the running.
So we can reasonably confidently predict that we’ll be seeing Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and both the LA Clippers and the Lakers in the running from the Western Conference. From the East it’s the 76ers, the Nets, the Bucks and the Hornets whose places seem to be assured.
A general look at DraftKings NBA betting certainly seems to reinforce this view with all of the teams just mentioned still being heavily backed in their respective league matches. So betting on them in the 2021 NBA playoffs would seem to be a relatively safe move.
The outsiders who could be on the way in
But, after we’ve accounted for these eight shoo-ins for the play-offs, it still leaves a further eight places waiting to be occupied – and here are six teams who could be in the running.
You have to go all the way back to the 2012-13 season for the last time that the New York Knicks made it into the play-offs. But a number of observers are predicting that this may be the year of their return. They’ve a very strong defence to thank for this which has limited opponents’ scoring opportunities and this, coupled with numerous outstanding performances by Julius Randle, has put them in a very strong position indeed.
There’s also a precedent for unexpected success in the playoffs. Back in 1999 they became the first ever 8th seed to make it to the finals but, unfortunately, were undone by the Indiana Pacers.
The next team that could have a surprise in store for us is the Miami Heat. While their performances coming out of the Finals defeat by the all-conquering LA Lakers weren’t great, coach Erik Spoelstra has managed to reinvigorate the squad. This has undoubtedly been helped by the arrival last year of stellar names including Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo who, in February playing against Sacramento Kings, became the first pair of teammates to both record triple doubles on a number of occasions.
And let’s not forget Boston Celtics. Twice they’ve defied the odds and found themselves in the playoffs – in 1969 and 41 years later in 2010. It was the former that made the biggest headlines when they went from being bottom seeds to beating the Lakers by just two points in game 7 of the Finals.
This season two players in particular look like they will be instrumental in guiding the team to the play-offs. Evan Fournier was a great acquisition from Orlando Magic for coach Brad Stevens and Jayson Tatum was Player of the Week for the conference in early January and his form hasn’t let up since.
Turning to the other side of the country, there are also three teams who could well be in contention.
The Dallas Mavericks managed to grind their way through to the play-offs back in 2006 and beat some very tough opposition to make it to the finals. Sadly, Miami Meat were simply too hot for them then, but luck could be more on their side this year.
The fitness of Luka Doncic is going to be critical so reports of possible back trouble will be a worry for coach Rick Carlisle, so fingers crossed the wonder point guard can see the season out.
Last season was a huge fall from grace for the Golden State Warriors. So fans are hoping it was a blip rather than the start of a trend. It all hinges on the performances of three players in particular, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
At 33, Curry could either be hungry for more success or starting to hang back a little and Thompson may still have some lingering fitness problems following his ACL injury. Luckily, they also have Green’s intense style of play to fall back on and this may well be enough to see them through.
Finally, there are the Toronto Raptors. This season their high-scoring style saw then set a new franchise record when they recorded 144 points against the Sacramento Kings on January 8th.
With Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam along with OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas all performing well they certainly have the strength in depth that they’re going to need if they go all the way.
This all means it’s all shaping up for a very exciting run-in to the end of the season with the prospect of many mouth-watering encounters in store. Of course, it could be that we also have some even bigger surprises on the way with teams not on anyone’s radar suddenly showing a great spurt of success.
So sit tight and enjoy the action as this unique season moves ever closer to a conclusion.