With three weeks left in the regular season, the NBA playoff picture is beginning to shape itself. There are a couple of teams that have established themselves as contenders and others that look more like pretenders.
Contenders are locks to make the postseason and go far, while pretenders may get in but won’t necessarily go far. Here are four pretenders and four contenders for thought.
Pretender: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have gotten by without Blake Griffin for the most part, but they are going to need him in the playoffs. Doc Rivers said before practice on Tuesday that Griffin “looks better” and is working out but there is still no return date for the injured superstar.
“The hand’s fine. It’s all quad now. I think his hand is cleared. I wish he could play right now because he could test his out more. That’s going to be a process, too, to have the confidence to use it in the right place. But we just got to get him back on the floor.”
Rivers is confident Griffin will return before season’s end, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be 100 percent. Los Angeles will need more than Chris Paul to get it done in the playoffs.
Contender: Golden State Warriors
The defending champs had the earliest clinch of a playoff spot in NBA history, beating the 1986 Boston Celtics by one day. They have the best record (63-7), the best shooting percentage (48.8) and the best player in the NBA right now in Stephen Curry.
Golden State isn’t just a contender but the odds-on favorite to win it all…again.
Pretender: Boston Celtics
The Celtics are a young team with aspirations of being a contender, but they just aren’t there yet. Boston has dropped its past four games to teams with winning records, and it’s going to be at least another week until Jae Crowder comes back from an ankle injury.
The Celtics might do better than a first-round exit, but they will find it difficult to get past the more experienced teams in the East.
Contender: San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs clinched a playoff spot for the 19th straight season, the fourth-longest streak in NBA history. They are the best defensive team in the NBA right now, and they proved it against the highest-scoring team, holding the Warriors to a season-low 79 points last Saturday night.
San Antonio was an early first-round exit from the playoffs last year but not this year.
Pretender: Miami Heat
The Heat ranked 29th in points per game before acquiring Joe Johnson and improved to second after he signed with them last month. But without Chris Bosh, Miami won’t get far. Bosh has been out since the All-Star break with a blood clot in his leg but is hopeful to play again this season.
The Heat are playing good basketball at the moment, but they’re missing a big piece of their offense, and that can’t be good for the playoffs if Bosh remains out.
Contender: Oklahoma City Thunder
After missing the playoffs last year mostly because of injuries, the Thunder are back in the postseason and both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are healthy, meaning the rest of the NBA had better watch out for Oklahoma City. The Thunder have won five straight games but haven’t been able to defeat the Warriors in three meetings during the regular season. Should they be worried?
Oklahoma City has the talent to go far, but can it get past Golden State and San Antonio in the West?
Pretender: Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have won eight of their last 10 games and will look to stay hot to finish off the regular season, but Atlanta isn’t the same team it was a year ago. After winning 60 games and getting to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014-15, the Hawks will be lucky to get to 50 wins this season and don’t seem as ready for a postseason run as they did last year.
Atlanta will make some noise but not enough to challenge Cleveland in the East.
Contender: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers already clinched a playoff spot last week, but they continue to be highly inconsistent. LeBron James has switched into “playoff-mode“—whatever that means—and the Cavaliers hold the top seed in the East, but not by much. Still, Cleveland is deep and the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love can make it back to the NBA Finals if they can all get along and share the ball.
But they had better hope they don’t meet Miami in the playoffs. In Cleveland’s two trips to Miami this season, the Cavaliers have led for a total of 21 seconds, and they have lost 11 straight in Miami.