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With less than two weeks left in the regular season, there's postseason uncertainty throughout both conferences. A rash of injuries to stars and impact role players -- all with murky roads to resolution -- coupled with the usual jockeying for seeding makes for a compelling home stretch. The bottom half of each conference's playoff picture is also littered with potential land mines that offer up enormous contrasts in style and personnel. It could make for a potentially wacky first round. Let's roll through some of the key questions as we try to make some sense of it all, including a look at the games that could determine seeding and matchups.
This might be the most important and impactful seeding race. Entering Friday, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers are separated by just a half-game. Why does this matter so much? If the Pacers come out on top, it would likely lead to a Cavaliers-Sixers opening series, and that could be a blockbuster ... if the injured Joel Embiid can make it back in time. (Cleveland holds the inside track to a home-court tiebreaker.) It would also present what's likely the most difficult path possible for LeBron James to reach his eighth straight NBA Finals.
In addition to facing a Sixers team that should only get stronger as benches shorten in the playoffs, the Cavaliers would then most likely face the Eastern-leading Toronto Raptors. Make it through them and there's a decent chance the Boston Celtics await in the conference finals -- and the longer you wait to face Boston, the more time Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart get to recover from injury.
ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) currently handicaps No. 3 heavily in the favor of either the Cavaliers or Sixers, mostly due to the remaining schedules. Indiana has the hardest remaining schedule in the entire NBA, per BPI. Each of the Pacers' next four games are against teams well over .500, with three of them on the road, including at Toronto on the second night of a back-to-back after playing at home against the Golden State Warriors -- presumably with Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson back in the lineup.
Meanwhile, the 76ers sport the league's second-easiest remaining schedule, with the Cavaliers closer to middle of the pack. If the Pacers can keep pace through this daunting stretch, the potential three-team tiebreaker works in their favor by virtue of a 5-2 record in games against Philly and Cleveland. Of course, the severity of Embiid's face injury will be a huge factor here; the Sixers have posted a net rating of plus-11.6 with their All-Star center on the floor and minus-3.9 when he's off. Avoiding LeBron and the Cavs early becomes even more important for the Sixers if Embiid can't go in Game 1 of the postseason.
In all likelihood, the Raptors will be the No. 1 seed in the East, but that doesn't mean there's no suspense Dallas Thomas Youth jersey for the North. Typically, a three-game lead with seven to play for a team on pace to win 60 would be insurmountable. Then you realize the Raptors' next three games are at Boston, at Cleveland then home against Boston on the second night of a back-to-back.
Although unlikely, it's not unreasonable to think they could drop all three and suddenly find themselves tied with the Celtics with one week left. BPI still likes the Raptors to finish atop the East, giving them a 94.5 percent chance, a number that's probably too low since it doesn't fully weigh the injury to Irving. (On Monday, ESPN's Jeremias Engelmann projected Toronto to have a 98.2 percent chance at No. 1 using real plus-minus and factoring in injuries. The Raptors have snagged another win since then, while Boston has won twice.)
There's more for the Raptors to play for even if they wrap up the No. 1 seed. Their most likely first-round opponent is the Milwaukee Bucks. Though Toronto won the season series 2-1, two of the three games went to overtime, and Jabari Parker only played once. Either the Bucks or Miami Heat will likely finish as the No. 8 seed; they're currently a half-game apart. The Heat swept the season series, thus awarding them any potential tiebreaker for the No. 7 seed. If the Raptors decide they would much rather play the Heat than the Bucks, the schedule works out so that on the final day of the season, they might be able to do something about it. Toronto closes out on the road in Miami and could have a hefty incentive to win that game.
Without Parker and Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks took the Raptors to six games in the playoffs last season and held a 2-1 lead. With both of them now in the mix -- plus an improved Giannis Antetokounmpo -- Milwaukee potentially presents an early challenge that Toronto likely didn't expect with what has been the best regular season in franchise history. On the same night as Heat-Raps, the Bucks face the Sixers. Those could become two enormous games to Authentic Michael Strahan Jersey watch.
Since the All-Star break, only the Houston Rockets have a better net rating than the Jazz, who have outscored teams by 8.6 points per 100 possessions. The defense has simply been on another planet, with a defensive rating of 95.6 -- nearly six points better than anyone else. The gap between Utah's defense and the second-best D since the break is larger than the gap between the No. 2 and No. 14 defenses. Without Curry on the floor, Golden State's offense has been merely average, scoring at a rate that would rank 15th leaguewide in offensive efficiency. If Utah can manufacture enough offense, it could be the team to give a Curry-less Warriors more resistance than they're accustomed to in early rounds.
Although the Thunder sit fifth in the West, they also have the NBA's second-hardest remaining schedule, which means a slide to No. 7 isn't out of the question. They've already beaten the Warriors twice this season, and Tuesday they can become the first team to knock the champs off three times in one regular season during the Golden State's run under Steve Kerr. Watch even a few minutes of Thunder-Warriors games and it's apparent Oklahoma City is not scared. OKC is 6-6 as an underdog this year -- best among West teams -- and as good a bet as anyone to knock off a heavy Authentic Damon Severson Jersey favorite early. wholesale nfl jerseys wholesale jerseys cheap nfl jerseys cheap nfl jerseys wholesale jerseys cheap jerseys

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