-- When the final buzzer sounds Thursday in Toronto after Cavaliers-Raptors, half of the regular season will be in the books.
It's the 615th game on the schedule, and one far more interesting than the 616th game of the season between the Clippers and Kings, which kicks off the second half of the season. The midway point provides a good opportunity to check in on where we stand in terms of April playoff matchups.
Who will first run into the Golden State Warriors' buzz saw? Will the? Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics end up on the same side of the Eastern Conference bracket? Who snags the eighth and final playoff spots?
Rather than simply taking the current standings and slotting teams accordingly, we'll use ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) to project where teams finish. It's more accurate, as it helps sift through potential regression candidates (hello, Indiana!) while also taking into account remaining strength of schedule. With BPI as our compass, here's where we currently stand.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers
All signs point to the road through the West once again going through Oracle Arena. After opening the season with an 81 percent chance of claiming the No. 1 seed, those chances have since ballooned to 93 percent, as the Warriors have a three-game lead over Houston as we enter the second half of the season. This is the unprecedented fourth straight season where the Warriors own the NBA's best record through 41 games, which, according to Elias Sports Bureau research, is something no other team has done since the NBA went to an 82-game schedule in 1967-68. There's not much suspense here.
Golden State's projected first-round opponent is Portland, a team it has met each of the past two postseasons, and whom they swept in last year's first round. The Blazers are actually a good test case for using BPI rather than current standings to project opponents.
With the Blazers currently fifth in the West and 2.5 games up on the ninth-place Clippers, a quick look at the standings might reveal a likely first-round matchup with Minnesota. And while that certainly could still shake out, it ignores the fact that Portland plays the NBA's second-hardest schedule from this point forward, among other things.
(2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) New Orleans Pelicans
At one point, the Rockets were giving the Warriors a serious run for the No. 1 seed. Following a 14-game win streak that left them at 25-4 and atop the West, BPI gave the Rockets a 42 percent chance of snagging the top spot. As the Oklahoma City Thunder saw in the 2016 conference finals, home court matters when you're trying to take out the champs out West. Alas, a 2-7 stretch torpedoed the Rockets' chances of snagging the top spot, and coupled with James Harden's absence, it likely means finishing with the No. 2 seed.
As it stands now, the Rockets' most likely opponent is an intriguing clash with the twin towers from New Orleans. It's far from a given, as BPI has the Pelicans, Blazers and Nuggets all with more than an 18 percent chance of finishing seventh. One reason the Pelicans could jump the Blazers is they have a much more favorable schedule the rest of the way, grading as the 11th-hardest. They play each other Friday in a game that has major tiebreaker implications after they split the first two meetings, with a fourth game looming in March.
New Orleans presents a potentially tricky matchup for Houston, which built its roster to contend with the Warriors, and yet could first have to navigate Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Though they lost the first matchup, the Pelicans led by seven entering the fourth quarter, despite playing without Davis.
(3) San Antonio Spurs vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
With Kawhi Leonard's status up in the air after he suffered a partial tear in his left shoulder just eight games into his return, the Spurs are admittedly tough to place. BPI currently gives the Spurs a 57 percent chance of finishing with the No. 3 seed, which seems reasonable given the relative cushion between both Houston and Minnesota. Though BPI doesn't know that Leonard could miss extended time, the fact that the Spurs have still won without their All-Star should help ease some concern that they could slip into the dreaded 4-5 slot and a potential second-round collision course with the Warriors. If there's reason for doubting the Spurs' ability to tread water for the No. 3 seed, it's the schedule. The Spurs have played the sixth-easiest schedule to date but have the third-hardest remaining schedule.
Eyeballing the standings leaves you thinking that Denver could realistically finish anywhere from fifth to ninth. And yet, BPI's projections have the Nuggets finishing safely in sixth, with a projected record of 44-38 -- three wins behind Oklahoma City and two wins ahead of New Orleans. As revealed in an Instagram post on Tuesday, Paul Millsap's cast is off, which is a big step in his eventual return, as he has been sidelined since mid-November after suffering a wrist injury. February will be a major test: The Nuggets play the hardest schedule in the NBA and has the second-hardest month any team faces all season, trailing only Utah's gauntlet in December.
(4) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder
Wednesday's clash on ESPN was not only their fourth and final meeting of the regular season but could very well be a preview of more to come. Though BPI gives both the Timberwolves and Thunder reasonable chances of catching the Spurs for the No. 3 seed, the safe bet is on them meeting in the first round, as it grades out as BPI's most likely potential matchup in either conference.
Minnesota, of course, is trying to reach the postseason for the first time since 2003-04, and in the process end a 13-year drought that's not only the NBA's longest active streak but also the second-longest dry spell in NBA history, trailing only the Clippers' 15-year run from 1976-77 through 1990-91.
Though Oklahoma City would be foolish to look past Minnesota, looming is a potentially juicy second-round matchup that would pit Russell Westbrook against Kevin Durant.
Unlike the Western Conference playoff picture, which is shaping up to be fairly straightforward in terms of slotting teams, the East is a mess. So, while we're offering up playoff projections for the East, consider everything that follows to be one long, drawn-out shrug emoji.
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (8) Miami Heat
The Raptors trail the Celtics by three games, lost the first head-to-head matchup with Boston, have yet to play the Cavaliers and have played the NBA's easiest schedule thus far. Given how they flamed out in last year's postseason, it's easy to take a wait-and-see approach. We've been down the road of trusting Toronto before. Believe me.
And yet given all that, the Raptors still have a good chance of grabbing the No. 1 seed. Much of this hinges on the fact that the Raptors currently have the NBA's third-best scoring margin and one that equates to a 60-win team over the course of the entire season. Given that Boston has outperformed its scoring margin thanks to a bunch of close wins (currently 33-10, with the scoring margin of a 29-14 team), it's reasonable to expect Toronto to make up ground over the second half of the season.
Even if you don't think the Raptors are better than the Celtics or the Cavaliers, they don't have to be "better" to finish with the East's best record. But with? DeMar DeRozan emerging as a legitimate top-five candidate on the MVP ballot, Toronto is trending in the right direction.
( 2) Boston Celtics vs. (7) Milwaukee Bucks
I'm guessing Boston wouldn't be too thrilled about a first-round date with the Greek Freak. Though the Celtics won two of the first three meetings,? Giannis Antetokounmpo?averaged 35 PPG and 10.7 RPG and is the only player who has faced Boston twice and dropped more than 30 PPG. Toss in the return of Jabari Parker, and the Bucks -- when fully healthy, as they haven't been in the playoffs previously -- present some potentially difficult matchups not often seen in a 2-7 matchup.
Milwaukee might be the single hardest team to peg. In all likelihood, the team will reach the playoffs, as BPI gives the Bucks an 85 percent chance of making the cut. And yet they could realistically finish anywhere from fourth to ninth. Looking at the various percentages for seeds for every team in every slot, BPI is least confident about the Bucks. In a sea of chaos in the East, the Bucks are the most volatile stock.
(3) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers
This might be the single most enticing potential first-round playoff matchup. Even if LeBron James predictably flips the switch and Cleveland rolls, the opportunity to watch Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons go up against the King would be a treat. Though it might seem like a big leap to slate the 76ers in for sixth given that they are currently on the outside looking in, they have played the NBA's fifth-hardest schedule thus far (including hardest among any team in the East) and have the third-easiest remaining schedule.
There's a real chance Cleveland finishes third in the East. And as it stands now, BPI gives the Cavs just a 1-in-200 chance of finishing with the top seed. That's what happens when you're 5.5 games out of first, 2.5 back of a team playing at an almost 60-win pace, and only just now saw the return of your best guard. And yet -- as we've obviously seen before -- that doesn't mean the Cavaliers aren't still the team to beat in the East.
Models only know what has transpired on the floor. They can't capture waning effort, and when halfway through the season a team has outscored its opponents by only 2.0 points per game with its best player available in every game, models won't see what many (like Vegas) see as a juggernaut waiting to crash the party. It's what makes relying only?on metrics an exercise in futility. They are a tool, not the entire toolbox.
One crucial point that will certainly play a larger role once we reach the playoffs is that the Cavaliers are far and away the most experienced team. As outlined by FiveThirtyEight at the start of the season, playoff experience matters once the regular season ends. FiveThirtyEight's CARM-Elo ratings include a postseason bump to account for experience, and Cleveland's spike is far bigger than anyone else's. It's why FiveThirtyEight gives the Cavaliers the third-best odds of winning the NBA title despite ranking just seventh in regular-season Elo.
Until it no longer does, the road through the East goes through LeBron. End of story.
(4) Washington Wizards vs. (5) Detroit Pistons
The Wizards are better than even odds to play in the 4-5 matchup as BPI projects a 54 percent chance of finishing with either seed. As we've discussed, who they'll play is anyone's guess. It's a spot currently reserved for Detroit but one that's likely to switch hands almost daily over the next several months.