Only 16 teams can make it to the National Basketball Association Playoffs, and competition at the top is getting tougher and tougher. The difference between playing in the playoffs and watching them at home can be marginal for NBA players — one game, one shot, one moment can be the difference it takes. This season, there have been quite a few notable headlines and surprising developments. Some teams have met expectations while others have collapsed under the pressure. 

In the Eastern Conference, three main front-runners have appeared — the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers. The Bucks currently hold an NBA-best record of 53-21, and with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the helm, it will be tough for any eastern opponent to take down Las Vegas’ title favorites. Following the Bucks in the title odds are the Celtics. Led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics have been one of the most exciting teams across the association. Ranking third in offensive and fourth in defensive efficiency, the Celtics have been able to get the job done on both ends of the court. Rounding out the third seed in the Eastern Conference is the 76ers. Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ leading big man, has been nabbed by Vegas as the favorite for the Most Valuable Player award. Averaging 33.3 points per game with 10.2 rebounds a game, Embiid has stepped up his game exponentially. However, the playoffs have always been an Achilles’ heel for Philadelphia — making it to the past five NBA playoffs but never even reaching a conference final. Each of these teams have already secured a spot in the postseason, yet the playoffs are where true champions are made. 

Outside the three top dogs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat look to be some of the next best competition in the east. After losing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to trades during the regular season, the Brooklyn Nets are hanging on to their six seed playoff spot by their fingertips. 

Shifting focus to the Western side of the bracket, the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies have already claimed a spot in the playoffs. Following some serious controversy and the suspension of star guard Ja Morant, the Grizzlies have been able to find their footing once again — winning their last six games. If Morant is able to produce the same mid-season magic we saw this year in the playoffs, the Grizzlies will have a great shot at making the finals. However, standing in their way is two-time MVP Nicola Jokic and the Nuggets. Sporting the best record in the Western Conference, the Nuggets have been an absolute powerhouse all season long. The Sacramento Kings are on the verge of their first playoff berth since 2006 — to give you an idea of how long ago that was, iPhones didn’t even exist yet! The defending champs Golden State Warriors recovered from their earlier season mishaps and are attempting to lock up the six seed in the West. 

Although the most interesting storyline in the west may be the play-in tournament — the play-in tournament was introduced in the 2019-20 season and showcases the seven through 10 seeds playing against each other for the final two playoff spots. This year the race to the play-in tournament is fierce — the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Dallas Mavericks are all in contention for the tournament. The most notable teams from the list are the Lakers and Mavericks — the Mavericks reached the conference finals last year and added Kyrie Irving to their elite line-up this season. Irving and Luka Doncic haven’t been able to find their rhythm with one another, and Maverick fans are fearing the worst as they sit just outside the play-in tournament at 11. The Lakers, on the other hand, have been playing some of the best basketball following the trade deadline. Even with Lebron James on the sidelines nursing a foot injury for the majority of March, Anthony Davis and the Lakers’ supporting cast have been able to re-enter the playoff discussion. Now with James back in the line-up, the Lakers are looking to make a serious push for a higher seed. 

The first round of the NBA playoffs is set to begin on April 15. Only a few teams have punched their ticket to the postseason, so the race to the finish line will be intense. At the end of the day these are the best basketball players in the world — anything and everything is possible. Specifically, keep an eye out for the Western Conference play-in tournament; some of the NBA’s best talent may be on the verge of missing the NBA’s biggest stage.