The NBA's new post-season rules have thrown half of the teams into a wild playoff race with 12 days left

Scott Davis
·6 min read
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Jimmy Butler and the Heat could be a scary first-round playoffs opponent. Abbie Parr/Getty Images
  • Two key playoff races are unfolding in the NBA Eastern and Western Conferences.

  • In the East, four teams are fighting for seeds 4-6, while five teams fight for the 7-10 "play-in" seeds.

  • In the West, three big teams are fighting for seeds 5-6, while five teams fight for the 7-10 seeds.

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Less than two weeks remain in the NBA regular season, and the playoff race is getting chaotic.

The NBA's new play-in tournament has created two races in each conference: One group of teams racing to stay above the seventh seed to avoid the play-in tournament, while another jockeys for seeds 7-10 within the play-in tournament. At the conclusion of the regular season, the 7-10 seeds will then face off in single games to determine the final two playoff spots in each conference.

In both conferences, many teams are separated by just a handful of games, rising and falling night to night.

Here's how the races are breaking down in each conference.

Eastern Conference: The race for seeds 4-6

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The fourth seed might be the most coveted remaining in the Eastern Conference, since it means getting home-court advantage in the first round and avoiding the East's three juggernauts: the Nets, 76ers, and Bucks.

4. New York Knicks

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Julius Randle and the Knicks are surging. Troy Taormina/Pool Photo/AP Images

No team is hotter than the Knicks right now, who have won 12 of 13 games, with the league's best point differential in that span. Keeping the 4th seed and getting home-court advantage would be huge, but the Knicks have the third toughest remaining schedule in the league

5. Atlanta Hawks

Trae Young is back from a sprained ankle, free-agent additions Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari are healthy and playing well, and breakout second-year player DeAndre Hunter is close to returning to action. Those four players have shared the court for just 23 minutes this season. Arguably, no team in this race is as deep as the Hawks - when they're healthy.

6. Miami Heat

The reigning Eastern Conference champions have been uninspiring this season, but they may be peaking at the right time: They're 7-3 in their last 10 games, with the fifth-best offense during that span. A four-game stretch against the Celtics (twice), the 76ers, and the Bucks should be telling.

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Jayson Tatum. Elise Amendola/AP Images

7. Boston Celtics

The Celtics have been plagued by injuries all season. Their core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart have only appeared in 17 games together. To worsen matters, Tatum and Brown had to leave Sunday's game after a collision. They're expected to be okay, but the Celtics can only go as far as their leading scorers will take them.

Eastern Conference: The race for seeds 7-10

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Russell Westbrook. Sue Ogrocki/AP Images

This may be a race to get crushed by the Nets or 76ers in the first round. The Hornets and Pacers are limping to the finish line, but two teams stand out as potential headaches to the East's top seeds: the Wizards and Raptors.

8. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets recently welcomed back Rookie of the Year candidate LaMelo Ball from a wrist injury. But Gordon Hayward only recently got out of a walking boot, so it's unlikely he'll be back in time for the play-in tournament.

9. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers are ailing, too: Center Myles Turner is out indefinitely with a toe injury, starting guard Malcolm Brogdon is fighting a hamstring injury, and bubble star T.J. Warren is out for the season.

10. Washington Wizards

The Wizards are surging behind inspired play from Russell Westbrook, who is once again averaging a triple-double. Westbrook's trademark ferocity has helped the Wizards go 13-3 over their last 16 games. They're just two games back of the 8th seed, which only requires one win in the play-in tournament to make the playoffs. No top seed wants to line up against Westbrook and Bradley Beal in the first round.

11. Toronto Raptors

The "Zombie Raptors" have earned that nickname because they've refused to quit this season, and have relied on some rotation players that even hardcore NBA fans might not recognize. They have a foundation to make noise in the play-in tournament: championship experience and a defense that ranked fifth in April.

12. Chicago Bulls

It's probably safe to count out the Bulls - FiveThirtyEight gives them less than a 1% chance of making the postseason.

Western Conference: The race for seeds 5-6

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The top four seeds in the West are locked up, leaving the Lakers, Mavericks, and Blazers fighting for the 5th and 6th seeds to stay out of the play-in tournament. All three of those teams are bolstered by superstars that had high expectations heading into the season.

5. Dallas Mavericks

Dallas hasn't lived up to preseason expectations, but they have also gone 28-15 since beginning the season 8-13 - a deep hole. Coming up, the Mavericks have the fifth-easiest schedule.

6. Los Angeles Lakers

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LeBron James. Getty/Michael Owens

LeBron James' and Anthony Davis' injuries have caused the team to tumble in the standings. James' health is a concern. He returned from an ankle injury, but seemed to re-aggravate it, and is going to miss the Lakers' next two games. He likely won't be totally healthy for the playoffs.

However, if James and Davis are on the floor, few would bet against the preseason favorites to win the championship.

7. Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers live in extremes: They're the NBA's best offense since the All-Star break yet the league's second-worst defense on the season. The team seemed to be crumbling in April, losing 9 of 11 games, but then they responded by winning four in a row. They own the tiebreaker over the Mavs. Buckle up.

Western Conference: The race for the 8-10 seeds

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Stephen Curry. Jed Jacobsohn/AP Images

8. Golden State Warriors

The marquee squad of this group, the Warriors aren't especially good, but they have Stephen Curry, who can shoot an opponent out of the playoffs. Nobody wants to face him in a must-win game.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies (and the Spurs below them) are going in the wrong direction, losing four of their last five. However, they have the third-easiest schedule remaining.

10. San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have lost four in a row and have the hardest schedule remaining in the league.

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Zion Williamson. Carlos Osorio/AP Images

11. New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans are only two games back of the 10th seed, and Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram may be the two most talented players between the Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Spurs. New Orleans still has a game against the Warriors and one against the Grizzlies - those games could decide their seasons.

12. Sacramento Kings

Don't count out the Kings just yet. While FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 2% chance to make the playoffs, they have two upcoming games against the tanking Thunder, two games against the Grizzlies, and one against the Spurs. They have a clear path to erasing their four-game deficit and nabbing the 10th seed.

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