MIAMI — A month remains in the NBA season, and nothing is truly settled.
The best team? To be determined.
The worst team? Also to be determined.
Playoff matchups? We’re a long way from knowing any of those.
Scoreboard-watching season has officially hit the NBA, with at least 18 teams realistically in playoff races and another seven teams still alive in the tanking-driven chase to have the best odds of winning the draft lottery. Every game matters to somebody, and the seedings battles — particularly for the No. 3 through No. 8 spots in both conferences — will almost certainly go down to the season’s final days.
“I think fun is the right word,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “It is fun. It’s not fun if you’re outside looking in and not in the NBA. That sucks. Been there before. But it’s fun. Every night, it’s a playoff atmosphere. You can go on a nice stretch and move yourself up in the standings, or you can go the other way and knock yourself out of the standings if you don’t come to play every night.”
There are five distinct races going on right now — Houston and Golden State for No. 1 in the West, Toronto and Boston for No. 1 in the East, logjams to determine the rest of the playoff brackets in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, and there’s the tankers who are waging their own tournament of ineptitude.
Entering Tuesday, San Antonio wasn’t even holding a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Spurs started the day as the No. 10 seed, tied with Utah and Denver and only one game in the loss column behind No. 4 Oklahoma City.
All that can be safely presumed is this: The top two seeds in both conferences have separated themselves. Seeds 3 through 8, the possibilities are somewhere near endless.
“Both conferences, there’s a lot of parity,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s good for the league. Obviously it’s a little bit top-heavy, at the very top. But everybody else, that’s a pretty even playing field depending on the night.”
A look at the races:
TOP OF THE EAST
Toronto leads Boston by 3 1/2 games. It’s not over yet, especially since the Celtics and Raptors still face off twice — March 31 and April 4. There isn’t a giant disparity in the strength of remaining schedules, though Boston has only six of its remaining 15 games at home and may be without Kyrie Irving (knee) for a little bit. Rookie forward Daniel Theis (knee) also has been ruled for the season.
“We are equipped,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “and we will battle.”
REST OF THE EAST
It seems like the postseason field is set, with No. 8 Miami leading No. 9 Detroit by five games. But seedings are still very much in the air, with little separation between third and eighth. The team to watch is Philadelphia, which has only five games left against teams with winning records — and all five are at home.
Indiana’s schedule down the stretch is brutal, with 11 of its next 13 games coming against teams over .500. The Pacers are as healthy as they’ve been all season, which will help.
“With more depth, we shouldn’t have to pace ourselves,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “We can go out and try to get after teams.”
BEST IN THE WEST
Houston is in control of the chase for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, holding a two-game lead over Golden State. It’s really a three-game lead since the Rockets won the season series 2-1.
“We’re pretty locked in defensively, as much as we can be right now,” Rockets guard Chris Paul said.
The Warriors know they can win on the road, so the sense is that they won’t be crushed if the No. 1 seed doesn’t go to them.
REST OF THE WEST
This is where it gets crazy. There’s eight teams vying for six spots, with four games separating third-place Portland from 10th-place San Antonio.
Most of those eight clubs play brutal schedules coming in as well. The Clippers have the worst of it; after their game in Chicago on Tuesday, 14 of the next 15 contests for Doc Rivers’ club will be against playoff-bound or at least playoff-aspiring opponents.
“It’s one game at a time,” Clippers guard Lou Williams said. “One game at a time. Some of this stuff is out of our control. A lot of it, we can’t control. Only thing we can control is go out, play one game at a time, and just live with the results.”
Memphis has lost 18 consecutive games, yet still only has a one-game edge over — er, below — Phoenix in the race for the most pingpong balls in the draft lottery.
Entering Tuesday, there’s seven teams with somewhere between 18 and 21 wins. Atlanta still has 12 games left against good teams, but it still seems unlikely that the Hawks will be bad enough to out-bad Memphis or Phoenix.
“They haven’t laid down yet,” Memphis interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “And I don’t expect them to.”
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