There are only a dozen or so games left in the NBA regular season, and the playoff picture is starting to become clear. While the Western Conference still has a couple of teams who could slip in if they stopped slipping up, the Eastern Conference is all but set with a few minor seeding issues to clear up. But before we get to that, let’s discuss the ever-changing format and structure of the NBA playoffs.

How Many Teams Will Be in the NBA Playoffs?

Before we can discuss format, we have to know how many teams will be involved. In the past, team selection has been controversial, thanks primarily to the attempted shift to four divisions a few years back, which led to top teams being seeded below weaker ones and being forced to play tougher opponents early. Luckily the league wised up and the format we are using now was created in 2016, with the top eight teams in each conference getting a chance.

How Are the Winners Determined?

Each series will face the highest remaining seed from each conference against the lowest remaining seed in a best-of-7 series. The higher seeded team will host the first two games and, if needed, the fifth and seventh, with the lower seed team hosting the third, fourth, and sixth. The 2-2-1-1-1 format was changed in 2013 to popular acclaim, as offering the lower seed 3 games in a row seemed to give them a better advantage than the more deserving higher seed.

What Teams Are in the 2018 NBA Playoffs?

As of March 19, only four teams have clinched playoff berths: the Toronto Raptors (52-18) and Boston Celtics (47-23) in the East, and the Houston Rockets (56-14) and Golden State Warriors (53-18) in the West. But the reality is that the East is pretty much set, unless something crazy happens the Cleveland Cavaliers (41-29), Indiana Pacers (41-30), Washington Wizards (40-30), Philadelphia 76ers (39-30), Miami Heat (38-33), and Milwaukee Bucks (37-33) will be joining the postseason. The Detroit Pistons (31-39) and Charlotte Hornets (30-41) are technically still alive, but with less than 12 games left and being behind at least 6 games, it ain’t happening.

The West is a little different. In addition to the two guarantees, there are a solid 8 other teams in the running. The Portland Trail Blazers (44-26) and Oklahoma City Thunder (43-29) are pretty safe, but the last four spots could see the San Antonio Spurs (41-30), Utah Jazz (40-30), New Orleans Pelicans (40-30), Minnesota Timberwolves (40-31), Los Angeles Clippers (37-32), and Denver Nuggets (38-33) all with a slot. Heck, even the Los Angeles Lakers (31-39) are still mathematically alive, but let’s get real, folks. Portland is surging with a 13 game winning streak, and the top 7 in the division have all shown signs of greatness. However, from the TWolves on down, teams seem to be unable to get out of their own way, all boasting losing streaks of at least 2 or 3 games.

Who Will Win the 2018 NBA Playoffs?

As you can probably imagine, nobody is really holding their breath in Denver or Los Angeles for a title this year. The real contenders boil down to a handful of teams…

Houston Rockets

The Rockets have been solid all season and, if they can stay healthy, are very well-positioned to take the championship.

Golden State Warriors

Don’t count out the defending champs though. A little streaky of late, they have nonetheless been in the Finals the last three years, winning twice.

Toronto Raptors

Though their style may appear lackadaisical to the uninitiated, they have a deliberateness that can wear down an opponent.

Portland Trail Blazers

Signs of greatness abound on this hungry team, who have shown the ability to dominate on both sides of the ball, but also to get dropped at inopportune moments.

Boston Celtics

Always in the running, the Celtics have a legit chance with Kyrie leading the charge.

Cleveland Cavaliers

They got LeBron. Obviously they’re in the running.

Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s possible that Carmelo could lift this team. Not likely, but technically possible.

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(Cropped image courtesy of Eric Wong via Flickr.)