- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
We know that we'll be watching the first round of the NBA playoffs a month from now, but we don't know who we'll be watching. The Eastern Conference playoff field is all but locked in, with the exception of the eighth seed. That last spot is still very much up for grabs. The New York Knicks, thanks to their impressive run under new head coach Mike Woodson, are keeping that seat warm right now with a 26-25 record and 2½-game lead on the Milwaukee Bucks.
Then we get into the wild, wild West. Just how wild is it? Consider that only 1½ games separate five teams. The Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets are all jostling for playoff positioning. If the season ended today, the Nuggets would be on the outside looking in, but the race is so close that the Mavericks or Grizzlies could easily be one of those teams left out in the cold.
Looking over at John Hollinger's playoff odds, we find that those teams that are in the exclusive top eight right now shouldn't book their playoff hotels quite yet. Here are the best candidates to steal a spot in the playoffs, starting with the Eastern Conference sleeper.
Milwaukee Bucks, 23-27
Playoff odds: 38.5 percent
Remaining SOS: .435 | Post-deadline W-L: 4-3 | Home-Away: 10-6
The Favorite: 26-25 Knicks, 77.1 percent odds
Get ready Knicks fans, because this one's far from over. The homestretch for the Bucks is just that: a "home" stretch. With Ekpe Udoh and Monta Ellis in the fold, the Bucks have just six games on the road, and four of those games come against East featherweights Washington Wizards (twice), Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons. Even better, one of their back-to-backs is against the Portland Trail Blazers, who have been in free fall for weeks now.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann