(Reuters) – The 16-team field for the NBA playoffs has virtually been set but there is plenty of jockeying for position still to be done, including ultra-tight races to determine the top seeds in both conferences.
The Miami Heat are percentage points ahead of the Indiana Pacers in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference while the San Antonio Spurs have a three-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference race.
Seven postseason berths are technically still up for grabs but with 12 days left in the regular season, many teams on the playoff bubble are all but mathematically eliminated from contention.
The Detroit Pistons are 5-1/2 games back of the eighth and final playoff seed in the East, where six playoff berths have already been secured, and have seven games to close the gap.
That may be too tough a task for a Pistons team that has to play six teams currently above them in the standings, including five on the road where they have struggled all season.
The seventh-seed Charlotte Bobcats, who play five of their remaining seven games against non-playoff teams, appear to have enough of a cushion to grab one of the two remaining East seeds.
That leaves the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers to battle for the final East spot. The Knicks are percentage points ahead of the Hawks for the eighth seed and both teams have a two-game edge on the Cavaliers.
In addition to the top two East seeds, the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards have punched their tickets to the postseason.
Toronto and Chicago are playing for the conference’s third seed, a battle that looks set to go down to the wire, while fifth-seed Brooklyn are trying to make a late push to gain home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
The East’s Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks have been mathematically eliminated from the postseason.
Five of the West’s eight playoff seeds are still available but a handful of teams are closing in on securing their spots, which means the teams currently on the outside looking in may have left it too late.
The fourth-seed Houston Rockets and fifth-seed Portland Trail Blazers are at least 4-1/2 games ahead of the ninth-seeded Phoenix Suns, which virtually excludes both from being at risk of missing the postseason.
The sixth-seed Golden State Warriors are two games clear of the cut-off line and appear to be in good shape as they play six of their remaining seven games against teams below them in the standings.
That leaves the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix, all within one-half game of each other, left to battle for the final spots. The Minnesota Timberwolves are still alive but have eight games left to make up a 6-1/2 game gap.
The Spurs, Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers have already secured postseason berths while the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, Los Angels Lakers and Utah Jazz have all been eliminated from playoff contention.
The Thunder showed their intentions of grabbing the top seed in the West by stopping the Spurs’ win streak at 19 games with a win on Thursday.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Gene Cherry)