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As the NBA‘s 2017-18 schedule winds through its final weeks, the playoff picture is coming into focus.
Barring a reversal of fortune from the slumping Detroit Pistons or Charlotte Hornets, the Eastern Conference’s eight-team field is likely set. The Western Conference is a different story, though, with only four games separating seeds four through 10.
Let’s run down the current standings, then, and spotlight a couple of hypothetical first-round matchups with must-see potential.
Eastern Conference Standings
1. x-Toronto Raptors: 53-19
2. x-Boston Celtics: 48-23
3. Cleveland Cavaliers: 42-29
4. Philadelphia 76ers: 40-30
5. Indiana Pacers: 41-31
6. Washington Wizards: 40-31
7. Miami Heat: 39-33
8. Milwaukee Bucks: 37-34
9. Detroit Pistons: 32-39
10. Charlotte Hornets: 31-41
11. e-New York Knicks: 26-46
12. e-Chicago Bulls: 24-47
13. e-Brooklyn Nets: 23-49
14. e-Orlando Magic: 21-50
15. e-Atlanta Hawks: 21-50
Western Conference Standings
1. y-Houston Rockets: 57-14
2. y-Golden State Warriors: 53-18
3. Portland Trail Blazers: 44-27
4. Oklahoma City Thunder: 43-30
5. New Orleans Pelicans: 42-30
6. San Antonio Spurs: 42-30
7. Minnesota Timberwolves: 41-31
8. Utah Jazz: 40-31
9. Denver Nuggets: 39-33
10. Los Angeles Clippers: 38-33
11. Los Angeles Lakers: 31-39
12. e-Sacramento Kings: 23-49
13. e-Dallas Mavericks: 22-49
14. e-Memphis Grizzlies: 19-52
15. e-Phoenix Suns: 19-53
*x-clinched a playoff spot; y–clinched a division title; e-eliminated from playoff contention
Potential Can’t-Miss Matchups
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Philadelphia 76ers
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No, the Cavs and Sixers aren’t currently slotted to face one another, but the East’s third through sixth seeds are so tightly bunched this could easily be the draw.
And if it is, buy as much as stock as possible in popcorn poppers, couch manufacturers and huge-screen TVs.
On one side of the equation, you have the Association’s most dominant player (LeBron James) and perhaps its most polarizing one (Kevin Love). Each is more than capable of orchestrating an explosive performance—James just cooked up a 35-point, 17-assist, zero-turnover masterpiece, while Love has reached 25 points 11 different times this season.
And don’t discount their potential to send the social-media world into a frenzy.
James, 33 years young, is the dunk of the year front-runner for this brutalization of Jusuf Nurkic that might warrant a criminal investigation:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
OH MY LEBRON! 😱😱😱 https://t.co/gjHAuNrPyA
And then there’s Love, who’s apparently liable to bust out his backstroke in the middle of a game:
Shaqtin’ a Fool @shaqtin
You good, @kevinlove? 😂 #shaqtin https://t.co/XY3Mg0H0pO
The other side of the ledger boasts two of the game’s brightest young stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The former is steamrolling through his first All-Star season with per-game marks of 23.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. The latter is looking to join Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson as the only freshmen ever to average at least 16 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
Embiid might be the best social-media follow in sports. I mean, what’s not to like about this?
Joel Embiid @JoelEmbiid
JUICY LIPS #TheProcess https://t.co/ROtEZxgtS1
Simmons, meanwhile, is a 6’10”, 230-pound point guard with hops. His viral potential speaks for itself:
NBA Draft @NBADraft
Ben Simmons on the move. #NBARooks https://t.co/jvyeBIWpnB
The Cavs probably take this series (maybe by a comfortable margin), but it would still be loaded with epic hoops, epic highlights and epic sound bites.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. New Orleans Pelicans
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Think of this as the Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man meme come to life.
Russell Westbrook was the undisputed one-man-army king last season. His triple-double average not only netted him the MVP, it made him appointment viewing on a nightly basis.
That’s now the best way to describe Anthony Davis, sans-DeMarcus Cousins.
Once Boogie was lost to a ruptured Achilles, the Brow set his sliders all the way up and blew the top off his production. In the 23 games he’s played since, Davis—the primary focal point of opponents’ defensive game plans—has averaged 31.1 points on 51.7 percent shooting, 12.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 2.0 steals and 2.0 assists.
“Instead of two of these guys putting up big numbers, you’ve got Davis throwing up unheard-of numbers, averaging 40 points (for a chunk of NOLA’s 10-game winning streak),” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said, per Pelicans.com’s Jim Eichenhofer. “The rebounding, the steals, getting a number of assists. The scoring is off the hook, crazy.”
New Orleans Pelicans @PelicansNBA
.@antdavis23 is in good company, joining Moses Malone, as the only other player in 40 seasons to average over 35 points and 10 rebounds in a calendar month. #DoItBig https://t.co/yiAEgcuvsQ
Davis produced five 40-point outbursts over a nine-game stretch, including a monstrous 53-point, 18-rebound, five-block effort. He’s had a triple-double with 10 rejections. He’s hit at least three triples in seven different outings and tossed out five-plus assists in eight others.
He can do it all, and he’s done that to keep the Pelicans afloat without their hobbled All-Star.
Westbrook’s counting categories have taken a hit almost across the board, but that says more about last season than this one. He’s still a nightly source of 25.4 points, 10.2 assists and 9.7 rebounds, and he has managed to up his field-goal percentage (from 42.5 to 45.1) and trim his turnovers (5.4 to 4.7).
He’s also no longer a solo act, since the Thunder added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to help lighten their point guard’s load. George remains on the shortlist of the NBA’s top two-way talents, and Anthony is still capable of catching fire any given night.
The Pelicans have defeated the Thunder twice this season, and they’ll square off once more before it’s finished.
If that contest proves to be a postseason preview, consider that a win for the hoops world.