Five Games to Watch Down the Stretch

In the past 10 days, All-Star Weekend and the trade deadline have come and passed. By this point, we know who's good, who's bad, who's tanking and who has a realistic title shot. And with many playoff positions and spots up for grabs, some games in the final third of the season will take on greater importance than others. Here are five to watch, in no particular order, which will help define the playoff picture.

Miami at Indiana, March 26

I've talked about Miami and Indiana at some length on this site, and for good reason. All season, they've been two of the top, if not the top two teams, in the league by record. And furthermore, I can't ever remember a potential late-round clash that seems as inevitable as Pacers/Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals does this season.

The kings of the East will play once more after this game, on April 11, but by the last week of the season, both teams might be into rest-for-the-playoffs mode. The Pacers, to me, were slight favorites in a seven-game battle with the Heat even before the trade deadline, but Evan Turner's acquisition from the 76ers changes the equation. With Turner in the lineup, the Pacers can bring instant offense off the bench, give Lance Stephenson more rest and run with Miami's smaller lineups if need be.

Also, there's the issue of who will get home court in the playoffs between the two teams, and possibly for the NBA Finals. Miami has been looking up at Indiana in the standings all season, but there were only two games between the teams as of the start of play Sunday. Still, with Dwyane Wade's injury issues, overtaking the Pacers seems like a tough task for the Heat to achieve.

Chicago at Washington, April 5

As in every year, there's going to be seven playoff series in the Eastern Conference this year, even if one of the most mediocre top-to-bottom conferences in NBA history might not deserve eight championship contestants. Two of those seven series must be won by teams not named Indiana or Miami. These two teams, despite their offensive struggles and overall .500-ness, have just as good a shot as any of becoming a playoff series winner this season.

While Chicago was just a half-game back of Toronto for the third seed in the East before Sunday, the Bulls also face Indiana, Miami and the West's best more down the stretch than the Raptors or Wizards. Of course, given what the amazing Tom Thibodeau has already done with the Bulls after the loss of Derrick Rose and trade of Luol Deng, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Bulls somehow end up ahead of younger and more dynamic teams like Washington and Toronto.

Dallas at Memphis, April 16

In the past few weeks, with a blowout loss at the also-surging Bobcats aside, the Mavericks have been playing about as well as anyone in the league. As is their identity this season as one of the league's highest scoring teams, they've won shootouts regularly, but also can win rock fights like an 81-73 win over Indiana Feb. 12. Monta Ellis has been the star acquisition, but Jose Calderon hasn't gotten enough accolades for his 3-point prowess and stellar ability to hang on to the ball.

Yet, Dallas is still only two games ahead of Memphis as of Sunday for the last playoff spot in the ultra-deep Western Conference. Memphis is also playing better basketball of late, and has been back to its "Grit and Grind" style after being uncharacteristically bad on defense for periods of the first half of the season. Tony Allen returned for the Grizzlies Friday in Memphis' win over the Clippers, so their defense should improve that much more. The April 16 game falls on the final day of the season, and could determine the final playoff spot, or crucial seeding

Clippers at Phoenix, April 2

Phoenix has had a truly incredible season so far. Sometime this week or next, the Suns will double their projected Vegas over/under win total with over 20 games left in the season. However, the final chapter of the season could go either way for Phoenix. As of the start of play Sunday, the Suns are only 2.5 games away from being in ninth and out of the playoffs, but also 2.5 from overtaking the Clippers for the Pacific Division lead and the No. 4 seed. Goran Dragic is having an All-NBA-caliber season, the Morris brothers have improved a lot and the Suns will get Eric Bledsoe back soon.

For the Clippers, I can't shake the feeling when I watch them that they are Oklahoma City's biggest threat to win the West, but that their second unit will cost them greatly in the playoffs. Chris Paul is back, and is the best player in the league not named Durant or LeBron. Blake Griffin has been amazing as well. Yet, they haven't been particularly strong against the teams they'll have to get by to win the West, and they've lost a few games they should have won. It's very possible that those missed opportunities could cost L.A. home-court advantage in any round of the playoffs.

San Antonio at Houston, April 14

You may wonder why I haven't mentioned Oklahoma City at much particular length in this piece. That's because, despite the Thunder being only three games ahead of the Spurs for the top spot in the West, I struggle to see how OKC will be overtaken, what with Russell Westbrook having returned Thursday night against Miami and Tony Parker out indefinitely for San Antonio.

Yes, it's a mistake to really ever count the Spurs, but winning the Southwest Division over the younger, faster-paced, three-point-bombing Rockets would nevertheless be quite an achievement considering that just about everyone of consequence for the Spurs has been sidelined at some point this season. And that division race, and a possible No. 2 seed, could be up for grabs in the April 14 meeting. With Houston, point guard is the biggest worry of any spot, but Patrick Beverley looks like the best option going forward. Most of Houston's recent 8-game winning streak coincided with Beverley starting, and the Rockets have better efficiency numbers with him on the court than Lin.

Many, many more games in the season's last two months could have made this list. Of course, any game with a team in playoff contention has playoff implications. However, these five games feature some of the most compelling teams in the league, and have implications for some of the most crucial playoff spots available.

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