NBA Playoff Race Update: Portland is Blazing a Trail to the Playoffs

The Portland Trail Blazers have won 13 of their last 16 contests and the once-compelling battle between them and the Denver Nuggets for the eighth and final playoff spot out west seems to be coming to an end.

Every Friday until the end of the season, we're dropping a new edition of this column to update the NBA playoff picture.

We'll explore each team's playoff probability (based on our algorithms), divide each conference into different tiers of playoff hopefulness, and then discuss any movement among the teams from week to week.

The tiers are as follows:

Sure Things
These are teams with a playoff probability of 99% or more. These teams would need to have the meltdown of the century to miss out on the playoffs.

Bubble Teams
These are the teams that have a decent to very good chance of making the playoffs, but still need to earn their spot and hold off other teams to get there.

Dead or Dying
These teams will need a miracle to make the playoffs or have already been eliminated.

Eastern Conference

Sure Things

(1) Boston Celtics (48-27, clinched)
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers (47-27, clinched)
(3) Washington Wizards (46-29, clinched)
(4) Toronto Raptors (45-30, clinched)

The Wizards and Raptors clinched their playoff berths this week, joining the Cavaliers and Celtics, and now all four teams are separated by only three games in the standings. It still looks like two tiers -- the Celtics and Cavaliers duking it out for first and the Wizards and Raptors fighting for third -- but there's at least the possibility of an even bigger shuffle now that they're all so close.

The Celtics and Cavaliers have switched places for first place a couple times this week and will likely do so a few more times before all is said and done. The Cavaliers currently hold a 2-1 lead in the season series, with the final game coming on April 5th. If the Celtics manage to tie the season series, the subsequent tiebreakers between these two teams have the potential to get pretty complicated, as they're both likely division winners and have similar records within the conference. We'll break that down as we get closer to the end of the season if a tie in overall win-loss record still looks possible.

According to our algorithms, the most likely order in which these four teams finish is still Cavaliers, Celtics, Raptors, Wizards.

Bubble Teams

(5) Atlanta Hawks (39-36, 96.1%)
(6) Milwaukee Bucks (39-36, 98.7%)
(7) Miami Heat (37-38, 77.4%)
(8) Indiana Pacers (37-38, 57.8%)
(9) Chicago Bulls (36-39, 62.6%)
(10) Detroit Pistons (35-41, 2.0%)
(11) Charlotte Hornets (34-41, 5.5%)

The seven teams from 5th to 11th in the Eastern Conference are all separated by only five games, so there's likely to be a lot of shuffling between now and the end of the season here.

The Hawks and Bucks are virtual locks to make the postseason with odds of 96.1% and 98.7%, respectively, but we're not moving them up into the "sure things" tier just yet since they both only sit three games ahead of the ninth-place Bulls at the moment.

The Heat moved up into seventh after a 2-1 week, while the Pacers dropped to eighth after going 1-3. Subsequently, the Heat saw their playoff probability rise from 53.7% last week to a pretty commanding 77.4% this week. Meanwhile, the Pacers saw their odds drop from 84.6% to 57.8%.

The Bulls are now only a game behind the Heat and Pacers for the seventh and eighth spots in the conference, respectively, after a 2-1 week, and they currently also hold the necessary tiebreakers over each team. Their 62.6% odds of making it are up from 42.9% last week and 30.7% the week before, and they have even leapfrogged the Pacers in playoff likelihood at this point.

The Pistons and Hornets are practically done, but with only three games separating them from the eighth-place Pacers, both teams can hold onto the slightest of hopes of making it for at least one final week.

Dead or Dying

(12) Philadelphia 76ers (28-47, eliminated)
(13) New York Knicks (28-47, eliminated)
(14) Orlando Magic (27-48, eliminated)
(15) Brooklyn Nets (16-59, eliminated)

All four teams in this tier have now officially been eliminated from playoff contention, with the Sixers, Knicks, and Magic joining the already-eliminated Nets this week.

The only other notable movement here is that the Sixers have overtaken the Knicks in the standings, which means the Knicks have now increased their draft lottery odds ever so slightly.

Western Conference

Sure Things

(1) Golden State Warriors (61-14, clinched)
(2) San Antonio Spurs (57-17, clinched)
(3) Houston Rockets (51-24, clinched)
(4) Utah Jazz (46-29, clinched)
(5) Los Angeles Clippers (46-31, clinched)
(6) Oklahoma City Thunder (43-31, clinched)
(7) Memphis Grizzlies (41-34, 100.0%)

Yet again, there was absolutely no movement in this tier, with all seven teams staying in the same order they've been in since the first edition of this column three weeks ago.

The most notable difference between this and recent weeks is that the Warriors have pulled away from the Spurs for the top spot in the conference, now with 3.5 games separating them after a 4-0 week from the Dubs and a 2-1 week from the Spurs.

Other than that, the only other news here is that the Jazz, Clippers, and Thunder all clinched playoff berths. The Grizzlies aren't far behind and should join them this week, if all goes well.

Our algorithms say that the most likely scenario is that these seven teams finish in this exact same order.

Bubble Teams

(8) Portland Trail Blazers (37-38, 90.6%)
(9) Denver Nuggets (35-39, 9.0%)

This tier went from being a compelling battle to almost non-existent over the last seven days.

After a 4-0 week, the Blazers saw their 48.6% playoff probability last week skyrocket to 90.6% this time around, while the Nuggets dropped from 45.3% to 9.0%. The Blazers have now won 13 of their last 16 games and are peaking at exactly the right time. They even locked up a 3-1 win in the season series against the Nuggets this week with a victory on Tuesday.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, went 1-2 (and have gone 2-4 over their last six) and now sit 1.5 games behind the Blazers. The Nuggets were above the Blazers in the standings in each of the last three editions of this column, and even saw their playoff probability peak at 62.8% two weeks ago, but now it looks like the Blazers have taken over and are never looking back.

Dead or Dying

(10) New Orleans Pelicans (32-43, 0.4%)
(11) Dallas Mavericks (31-43, 0.0%)
(12) Minnesota Timberwolves (30-44, 0.0%)
(13) Sacramento Kings (29-46, 0.0%)
(14) Phoenix Suns (22-54, eliminated)
(15) Los Angeles Lakers (21-54, eliminated)

The Pelicans went 2-2 this week, but with five whole games separating them and the eighth-place Blazers, you can pretty well put a fork in 'em. The Mavericks, meanwhile, went 0-3 and can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye, as well. We'd like to welcome both teams to this tier after several weeks of hanging around on the bubble.

The Timberwolves and Kings each went 2-2, while the Suns (0-4) and Lakers (0-3) went winless. The Suns have now lost 10 in a row and are making a real push to overtake the Lakers in terms of draft lottery odds. The interesting wrinkle here is Phoenix can knock the Lakers out of the top three, the Lakers have to convey their draft pick to Philadelphia. That is now perhaps the most intriguing storyline going on in the standings in the Western Conference, with all the playoff spots more or less falling into place.