NBA playoff races to watch, predictions and first-round matchups we want to see

It's March Madness in the NBA! With only two weeks left in the regular season, many teams are still fighting for playoff seeding. Which East contender can avoid the Celtics' side of the bracket? Will the Rockets bounce the Warriors from the play-in tournament? Our NBA writers break down the playoff races to watch and make predictions for the stretch run.

1. What's the most intriguing playoff race in the East?

Vincent Goodwill: 2-3-4, because it’ll determine two things. One, who’ll avoid the Celtics in the second round since nobody would want to line up against them until absolutely necessary. And secondly, who would conceivably have home court against the other top seed in the semifinals. Cleveland needs to get healthy. Milwaukee needs to get right. And the Knicks are just right there, hoping health will allow them to make this playoff competitive.

Dan Devine: The 3-4-5 cluster. Can the Knicks, winners of seven of eight, keep surging up the standings? Will the Magic, who’ve run neck-and-neck with New York since mid-January, continue to keep pace? And if the Cavaliers can’t stem their slide once Donovan Mitchell comes back, just how powerful will their déjà vu be when they realize they’re once again locked in a 4-vs.-5 matchup with a tough-as-nails up-and-comer with a meat-grinder defense?

Jake Fischer: The Sixers' playoff seeding. The reigning MVP, who has never advanced beyond the second round, clawing through the play-in tournament as an 8-seed, would be phenomenal theater. As Joel Embiid nears his return from injury, where Philadelphia falls between seeds 6-8 will be fascinating for the conference’s overall landscape. We could get the Sixers having to stave off elimination, just to draw Boston or Milwaukee in Round 1.

Dan Titus: The battle for the No. 3 seed. The Knicks and Cavaliers have withstood a slew of injuries this season and are getting healthy at the right time. They are currently a half-game apart for the third seed, which, if the current standings hold, would mean playing the Pacers — a far more attractive first-round adversary than the slow-paced, defensive-driven Orlando Magic.

Mar 21, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green (4) handles the ball against the Chicago Bulls during the fourth quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Jalen Green and the Rockets are making a late push in the West. (Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports)

2. What's the most intriguing playoff race in the West?

Fischer: Man, oh, man, the play-in race is so juicy. You’ve got the Warriors dynasty clutching on to the 10-seed and its final threads of a contender, as Jalen Green and the upstart Rockets evolve like Pokemon before our very eyes. The fact they square off Thursday only adds to the intrigue. Mark your League Pass calendar!

Titus: The Rockets' unexpected late-season surge has them just one game behind the Warriors. While Golden State has a scheduling edge over the Rockets, Houston is ascending — winning 10 straight and 11 of their last 12 games. So expect to see a close battle the rest of the way. Keep silencing the haters, Jalen.

Devine: The race for No. 1. Everybody’s dealing with something: Minnesota, the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns; Denver, the sudden uncertainty over the state of Jamal Murray’s lower limbs; Oklahoma City, the skepticism that comes with having the second-youngest roster in a league where youth is rarely served. Locking down the top seed guarantees nothing in a conference this loaded; knowing you’ve persevered through everything else to grab it, though, is worth something. (Home-court advantage might be, too.)

Goodwill: It’s a double-edged sword at the bottom. To potentially have LeBron, Steph, KD and Luka in the play-in would be a ratings monster, but it also means half of those dudes are going home mighty early — if Golden State can even hold off the Rockets. It’s watching the old guard fight off Father Time while still close enough to its prime that we can envision these squads making life miserable for an inexperienced OKC or Minnesota.

3. What’s the first-round matchup you'd most like to see?

Devine: Bucks-Sixers in the 2-vs.-7. Give me the Doc Rivers Bowl with a healthy(ish) Joel Embiid! (And — if it’s not too much to ask, Basketball Gods — with the rest of Philly’s decimated roster back, too. It’s been too long since these eyes have beheld the majesty of De’Anthony Melton.) I believe Milwaukee has made real improvements since Doc took over. I’d just like to see the big fella — my MVP pick before the injuries — stress-test them, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have to respond in kind.

Goodwill: Thunder-Suns. Let’s hop in the wayback machine to when Kevin Durant was called a cupcake by the franchise he spurned. Durant leaving OKC was the first salvo in Sam Presti turning himself into the mad draft genius. It would be somewhat full circle if Durant had to march into his old territory with the Suns as old and grizzled underdogs, and if Durant could summon that greatness and knock off the young bucks.

Titus: Thunder-Mavericks. It’s an easy choice because of the star power involved in the matchup. A couple of MVP candidates in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Dončić, plus Kyrie Irving and a pair of future All-Stars in Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren, is must-see TV. Both teams also boast top-10 offensive ratings, though Dallas will need to step it up on defense if it wants to make a legitimate postseason run.

Fischer: Nuggets-Warriors. If Golden State holds off Houston’s late charge, then the Warriors’ highest possible place in the actual playoff picture would be 8th, drawing a potential opening-round matchup with Denver. The old champs vs. the new champs would be great enough on its own. But there’s a lot of extra flavor dating back to the Warriors’ upset over the Nuggets many playoffs ago, Michael Malone’s history with the franchise, and so on. Give it to us.

4. Make one bold prediction for the season's stretch run.

Titus: The Clippers are a play-in team. Whether it's fatigue or just going through the motions ahead of the playoffs, the Clippers are 4-6 in their last 10 games. In that span, they have the second-worst defensive rating and are bottom 10 in fastbreak and second-chance points allowed. They're currently fourth in the Western Conference, but the aging Big Three is fading fast.

Fischer: Orlando makes Jackie Moon proud and secures fourth place, thus home-court advantage, in the first round of the playoffs. The Magic have the 12th-easiest schedule remaining, a staunch defense and a connected team that will want to put its best foot forward in pushing Jamahl Mosley for Coach of the Year, in addition to Paolo Banchero’s exciting bid for an All-NBA spot.

Goodwill: I can’t remember seeing the Miami Heat above the seven line all year. But for the sake of the health of the Eastern Conference, and some of our traveling compadres who love good weather and warm breezes, the Heat will climb from the abyss and get to the sixth spot — perhaps setting up a grudge match against the Milwaukee Bucks in the East semis.

Devine: The Suns finish sixth. On one hand, that doesn’t feel that bold, considering they’re only a half-game out entering Thursday’s games. When you look at the work they’ve got ahead of them, though — the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, by a mile — and how inconsistent they’ve been for most of this season, banking on them to finish the drill starts to look a bit braver.