The NBA’s regular season is nearly over as just about every team in the league has 20 games or less to play.
While there’s still a lot to be determined in regards to teams vying for the play-in spot, there appears to be some real clarity near the top with respect to who the actual legitimate championship contenders are.
As much parity as this season has featured, the league’s elite have still appeared to separate themselves from the pack with, perhaps, a few other clubs with the potential to join this group of title hopefuls here in the last portion of the regular season.
Here’s a look at how we view the league at the moment.
The NBA’s elite
There’s little doubt that these six teams are the absolute best the NBA has to offer at the moment and will likely remain in this conversation for the rest of the season, barring something truly catastrophic happening.
Other teams that could potentially find themselves back up top here are the Los Angeles Lakers (when LeBron James and Anthony Davis eventually return) and maybe even the Milwaukee Bucks, but as things look right now, these are the true title contenders in the league.
And quick PSA: Mark your calendars for Wednesday when the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers will face off with likely tops in the Eastern Conference on the line.
The Hawks are soaring
It took a while, but the Atlanta Hawks are finally playing like the team many expected them to be before the season began.
Bringing in Nate McMillan has done wonders for the Hawks, who have gone 15-5 since March 2 under his watch. Additionally, playing for McMillan has appeared to unlock the talents of Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is averaging 21.6 points per game while shooting 50.4 per cent from the field and 51.5 per cent from deep (on 8.3 attempts) over his last eight games.
This run Atlanta’s been on has vaulted it up the Eastern Conference standings to fourth place, with an outside shot to catch the Bucks for third in the East.
Celtics getting out of their funk?
Could the Boston Celtics finally be turning things around? They staged an epic 31-3 run to come back against a very good Denver Nuggets team to win the fifth of their last six games, including a game that saw Jayson Tatum go off for 53 points.
Boston hasn’t seemed right all season long despite boasting some major top-end talent. This has mainly been because the team’s defence hasn’t been right, but over its last six games, the Celtics are only allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions, a defensive rating that would be tops in the league if stretched out over a full season.
This is a positive sign for the Celtics that they’re getting back to what made them successful in the first place.
Zion is a certified monster
Just a reminder that Zion Williamson is an absolutely incredible player.
The second-year man is averaging 26.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season on ridiculous 62 per cent shooting.
Right now, his New Orleans Pelicans are just one game back of the Golden State Warriors for 10th in the Western Conference and we can only hope they’re able to make it into a play-in tournament spot by the end of the season. More Williamson can only be seen as a good thing.
Fight for 10th in East keeps slogging on
The Toronto Raptors still remain just two games back of the Chicago Bulls for 10th in the Eastern Conference, but with the way both teams play it feels like a battle of who wants it least.
They each have only won thrice in their last 10 games, with a sort of significant win from Chicago over Toronto last week.
We just say “sort of” because it feels like the Bulls are willing to give the Raptors every opportunity to overtake them in the standings, something Toronto has been unable to do thus far, injured as the team has been.
However, Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup Sunday and the Raptors appear to have found some legitimate centre help with the additions of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie so maybe -- just maybe -- the Raptors will finally walk through that opening the Bulls seem to keep giving them down the stretch here.
Orlando charging hard towards the bottom
The Detroit Pistons actually made their way out of the bottom of the list this week, and that ultimately might be to their detriment because the Orlando Magic are plummeting down and looking to take their coveted bottom-three spot in the league alongside the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves.
If a team finishes in the bottom three of the overall league standings then that club gets a 14 per cent chance of landing the first-overall pick in the draft. The Magic have lost their last five straight and hold just a 1.5-game lead over the Pistons, who are a pretty respectable 4-6 in their last 10.
The Magic held a fire sale at the trade deadline so dropping down into a bottom-three spot seems like it would be something of a priority for the team to try to jumpstart a rebuild.