The way the Cavs have come together and even over the last 10 games playing as second in the league in defense, they’ll likely get up to second in the conference before the season is over. Perhaps setting up Bulls-Wizards II in the first round.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

A look at potential playoff matchups

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By Sam Smith | 2.2.2015 | 8:59 a.m. CT

Wednesday in Houston, the Bulls play their 50th game of the 2014-15 NBA season. And you know what that means. Right, Friday in New Orleans the Bulls play their 51st game. But other than that, 50 games as well as the upcoming All-Star break signal an unofficial beginning of the home stretch in the NBA, the race to the playoffs. Finally we are beginning to peek at potential playoff opponents.

Which makes it an opportunity to look at who’s hot—which means whom to avoid—and who’s not. Which could make a friendlier path to the NBA Finals.

In the Eastern Conference, of course, it’s the amazing Atlanta Hawks, just completing the first ever 17-0 month in league history. They have the top seed. It seems unlikely anyone takes that. But coming fast is LeBron and the Cavaliers, who now are fifth, barely behind the Bulls and about to blow by the Bulls while working on 10 straight wins. Their roster moves last month for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have worked well and so much for the slow process. The Raptors have won seven of eight, though mostly against non playoff teams. So if the playoffs started it would be in the Eastern Conference:

Hawks (1) vs Hornets (8): Charlotte has made a nice move to get to eight and seem only threatened by the Pistons to hang on. The Nets still seem in ready-to-be-blown up mode, though Miami seems vulnerable even as Hassan Whiteside moves into the league MVP discussion. Hawks in 5.

Raptors (2) vs Heat (7): The Heat cannot score enough and aren’t about to against this high scoring team. Raptors in 5.

Wizards (3) vs Bucks (6): The Bucks remain one of the great surprises in the NBA and come off a very impressive win over Portland with basically all their main guys playing. They’re 25-22 and you’re still going to have trouble naming two starters. Wizards in 6.

Bulls (4) vs Cavs (5): The Bulls have home court for now, but this matchup is the Bulls ultimate nightmare. If the Cavs pass the Bulls and stay there, Cleveland would have home court advantage and force the Bulls to beat, effectively, the two best teams in the conference on the road to get to the conference finals. Not good odds for that one. But the way the Cavs have come together and even over the last 10 games playing as second in the league in defense, they’ll likely get up to second in the conference before the season is over. Perhaps setting up Bulls-Wizards II in the first round. Cavs in 6.

The Western Conference playoffs are going to be great. And maybe without the Spurs or Thunder the way things are developing. It looked like the Thunder with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back would move quickly into the top eight. It hasn’t happened. The Thunder has lost four of five. Of course, they lost back to back to the top East teams, the Hawks and Cavs, as expected. Then they lost to the Knicks and were ground down by the Grizzlies Saturday, scoring 74 points. Suddenly, they don’t look like a playoff lock. Same with the Spurs, who got blasted at home Saturday by the Clippers and basically have all of February on the road. That’s their famed rodeo trip where they bond and all that jazz. But their top players keep getting thrown off that bull.

Warriors (1) vs Suns (8): The Bulls clearly sent Golden Satte into a depression with that overtime loss last week and then they went to Utah and lost. They rely a bit too much on jump shots, but it may work with guys who shoot jump shot like that. Warriors in 4.

Grizzlies (2) vs Spurs (7): No more miracles. Unless it’s injuries that will heal. Tony Parker’s had issues and Tim Duncan really isn’t quite an All-Star. In losing to the Clippers Saturday, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker combined for 18 points on 6-22 shooting. Duncan’s output was a season-low, Ginobili missed on 5 of 10 free throws and Parker was two of 10 as his scoring and assists are the lowest since his rookie year in 2001-02. They’ll compete and contest, but the Grizzlies look not only like a deserving second place team, but one that could go all the way this time. Grizzlies in 6.

Clippers (3) vs Mavericks (6): Two teams capable of losing pretty much anytime. The Clippers have a run going lately with seven of eight and have played their best of the season. But their two and three positions, facing the league’s best scorers, are their weakest and their center shooting free throws makes Wilt look like Kyle Korver. But the Mavs have gotten worse with Rajon Rondo, who holds the ball a bit too much and doesn’t shoot very well. They’re 2-10 against other West playoff teams, 13-9 with Rondo and 19-8 before the deal. Clips in 7.

Trail Blazers (4) vs Rockets (5): The Trail Blazers are into their annual midseason swoon getting swept going East. Better to get back to the soft West. They’ve lost eight of 10, but they’ve got their guys. The Rockets look like they’re losing Dwight Howard for a while, which could send them tumbling. If the teams behind them were playing better. Looking now like another heartbreaking loss to the Trail Blazers if it stays like this, though the Rockets also are about to wear out James Harden. Trail Blazers in 6.

NBA news and notes

No love in Minnesota

The Cavs will be second guessed for years about the Andrew Wiggins trade as it’s difficult to find anyone around the NBA who believes Kevin Love will be with the Cavs more than through next season, if that long. Wiggins scored 33 points Saturday mostly defended by LeBron James in Love’s return to Minnesota, where Love got little as he was booed. Love had 14 points and 17 rebounds. Wiggins will run away with rookie of the year and looks like a star in the making. But with James starting to experience some punctures to what seemed like an invincible body, it was the right move for the Cavs. They are in win-every-season mode as long as they have James, and Love gives them a better chance. And as good as Wiggins may be, he’s no LeBron ... A year after the Nets beat them in a Game 7 on their home floor, the Raptors Saturday extended the NBA’s largest division lead to 13 1/2 games in the Atlantic over Brooklyn. Probably safe to print up those division locker room celebration T-shirts and hats ... How about that deal? Not only did the Nets take Joe Johnson’s $125 million contract, but they gave the Hawks the right to swap draft picks this season. So it looks like the Hawks with the league’s best record get a lottery pick and the Nets get probably the last pick in the first round. Really, how can Danny Ferry not be executive of the year as that was one of his first deals when he took the job ... It’s been something of an NBA tradition for players with All-Star snubs to take it out on their next opponents. Not so for Damian Lillard, who has absolutely collapsed since being left off the team. In the next two games, Portland losses to Atlanta and Milwaukee, Lillard shot 12 for 39 and two for 19 on threes. In the last eight games, Lillard is shooting 23 percent on threes and 31 percent overall. Maybe the coaches saw something. The Bucks even sagged off he and Nicolas Batum, though most teams have done so this season with Batum shooting poorly, to double team LaMarcus Aldridge in mostly dominating Portland Saturday night.

Another coaching milestone for Spurs' Popvich

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich makes cranky an art form as among the most entertaining, if challenging, interviews in sports. So with Popovich closing in on 1,000 wins as a coach he told media, “Just write whatever I’m supposed to say and I’ll agree with you. Write all the trite stuff that every coach says when something happens like that, and I’ll say, ‘Yup, I said it.’” Popovich will be the ninth NBA coach to reach 1,000 wins and all should be in the Hall of Fame. Most are. Popovich, of course, will be, and thus far in order of wins Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson are in the Hall of Fame. George Karl with 1,131 isn’t and neither is Rick Adelman with 1,042. Larry Brown with 1,098 in the NBA is in the Hall of Fame. The NBA isn’t like college where top coaches can basically schedule themselves into 20 wins a season. It’s why Bill Fitch with 967 wins also should be in the Hall of Fame and probably Dick Motta and Cotton Fitzsimmons. In the NBA, you get bad teams that have little chance for a winning record when you begin coaching or along the way, as Fitch, Fitzsimmons and Karl did. No getting 10 wins from out of conference softies before even starting league play. Getting close to 1,000 wins under those circumstances is remarkable. It’s an indication of great coaching to achieve that many wins and have the longevity to endure even with so many expansion type teams ... How did they leave Serge Ibaka out of the three-point contest? The Thunder big man whom they opted to pay instead of James Harden for size and defense is shooting three times as many threes as last season and five times his career average. He is shooting a good 39 percent on the threes, but 46 percent overall. The lowest he’d ever shot was 53.5 percent. That’s a wild team ... DeMarcus Cousins’ statistics are excellent, but the team loses and he is tied with Michael Carter-Williams for the league lead in turnovers. A guard, OK. But a center? What’s going on with that team? Oh, right, Cousins is dribbling around. How is that an All-Star?

Hawks historic streak continues

Last week, the Pacers gave Luis Scola his first ever DNP-CD, saying they wanted to rest him. For what? The Finals? Scola said he wanted to play. Could a trade be imminent? It doesn’t make much sense for the Pacers to hold onto the savvy veteran ... This Atlanta run is truly remarkable and unexpected, 19 straight wins. It’s tied for fifth longest in league history and knocks the Bulls’ 18 straight in 1995-96 to tied for ninth. It also sets up the regular season Finals preview Friday with the Warriors in Atlanta. The Hawks could break the Lakers’ alltime record of 33 straight March 9 against the Kings. Joking. Their next four are against winning teams, the Pelicans, Wizards, Warriors and Grizzlies and the Hawks look like a boxer in the late rounds as they barely got past the 76ers at home Saturday ... If you’re looking for a team that appears to have packed it in, try the Nuggets. They’ve lost nine of 10, lost by 30 in Memphis Thursday and then came home and got blown out by the Hornets without Kemba Walker, trailing by 32 at halftime and 35 into the fourth quarter before the Hornets put in Muggsy Bogues and Rex Chapman. Break up the Nuggets? Any day now.

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