Now that this shortened 66-game season is wrapping up, it's time to look ahead to the playoffs. Following their 124-89 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the San Antonio Spurs have officially clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. If the rest of the standings do not change, the schedule would look like this:
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Utah Jazz
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 6 Denver Nuggets
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies
No. 1 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 8 New York Knicks
No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers
No. 3 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 6 Orlando Magic
No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks
The Spurs have their best winning percentage in six years and are sure to roll over the Jazz in Round 1. The Spurs are so efficient on offense that whoever they play—Utah, Dallas, Denver, or even Phoenix—it shouldn't take more than five or six games to vault San Antonio into the second round.
On the other hand, the three high-seeded teams that are most likely to fall in the first round are the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers.
Los Angeles Lakers
Aside from their top defender's most recent "aggravated assault" charge, the Los Angeles Lakers are the most vulnerable team in the first round.
The Lakers have had a very successful regular season. However, their biggest weakness is their defense. The Lakers' point differential is just +1.7, one of the weakest in the Western Conference.
With superstar Kobe's ailing shooting percentage—coupled with shooting the ball 25-35 times per game—they'll have to rely on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol for rebounds while putting pressure on a weak bench to support.
What's unfortunate about the Lakers is that many of the stories published about Kobe focus on his unmatched clutch performances late in games, when in reality there are far more important issues to address in the previous 40 minutes of the game.
When Kobe hit the game-winning three-pointer on March 31, 2012 against the lowly New Orleans Hornets, many failed to mention that he was just 3-21 shooting overall that game. In reality, the Lakers should have mauled the worst team in the Western Conference that night.
If they stroll into the playoffs with spotty shooting from their "clutch" performers, the Los Angeles Lakers can be scheduling tee times a lot earlier than they had planned.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers and the rest of "Lob City" have been excited about their new acquisition of Chris Paul since the minute it happened—immediately vaulting the demand for Clippers tickets for the 2012 season.
Following a successful first half of the season, the Clippers lost their guard—and veteran leader—Chauncey Billups for the rest of the 2012 season. This tragedy only hinted at their minimal chances of playoff success.
Since the Billups injury, the Clippers have fallen to some of the weaker teams—Golden State, Cleveland, and even New Orleans—while simultaneously being unable to compete with powerhouse teams like San Antonio and the Lakers, their Los Angeles rivals.
Without Billups, the Clippers will have an extremely tough road to playoff success due to the lack of multiple scoring threats—a lack that puts them in the minority among top-seeded teams.
If the Clippers bring their best defense against the extremely talented Memphis Grizzlies, they may have a chance to make it out of the first round.
The Celtics have a playoff-ready roster anchored by Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce. However, they are extremely vulnerable in a matchup against the underrated Atlanta Hawks, who are ready to prove their dominance to the NBA.
Their season matchup favors the Celtics 2-1. However, the point differential is exactly zero. Anything can happen come the playoffs—the Hawks forcing a seventh game against Miami last season is a perfect example—and an even point differential doesn't help the Celtics' case against Atlanta.
What's underrated about the Hawks is their competitive roster, led by Joe Johnson and his 18.7 points per game and assisted by Josh Smith snagging more than nine rebounds per game. Both are ready to knock off the mighty Celtics in the first round.
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