Title contenders setting themselves apart with playoffs looming

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With only a week remaining in the lockout shortened 66-game sprint there are still many positional races from top to bottom in the standings.

The top seed in the Western Conference is up for grabs as the Spurs have made a run at the Thunder, after OKC has seemingly held that spot for the entire season. At the other end of the standings, the Jazz, Suns, Rockets and Nuggets are already in playoff-mode, fighting for the last two tickets to the postseason.

The Chicago Bulls are in good shape to claim the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive season. In a battle for the fourth seed in the East the Celtics, Magic and Hawks are all within a game of each other heading into the final stretch.

With so many teams still scrapping for position there are no set matchups for the first round of the playoffs, which get underway next weekend. There are at least four teams in each conference to consider as legitimate threats to make a run at the championship in what will likely be a surprised-filled post-season.

Chicago Bulls (47-15)
The Bulls are close to clinching the best record in the league despite playing a third of their games without last year’s MVP, Derrick Rose. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s team kept finding ways to win, mainly in part to their league-best defense. If Rose reaches his top form in the playoffs, it’s hard to pick against this team in any series.

San Antonio Spurs (45-16)
Gregg Popovich’s men find themselves atop the standings again and look like deeper team than the one that was upset by the surging Grizzlies in last year’s playoffs. Led by Tony Parker’s MVP-caliber play, the Spurs are loaded at every position and have the athleticism to compete with the Thunder and Grizzlies of the world.

Miami Heat (44-17)
Like the Spurs, the Miami Heat bring an even more well-rounded group into this season’s playoffs. Adding Shane Battier and talented rookie guard Norris Cole to the rotation, the Heat addressed a couple holes that left them as last year’s runner-ups. LeBron James has answered last year’s finals failures by putting together his greatest individual regular season to date. The problem is that the Heat must complete the process and win the championship or else their season will be considered a failure.

Oklahoma City Thunder (45-17)
The Thunder’s youth and athleticism got them off to the races and they have never really looked back in this shortened season. Durant, Westbrook and Harden have continued their flashy playmaking that had them in the Western Conference finals last season. The Thunder still have a lack of interior scoring and can be vulnerable if they are matched up against a smarter and more experienced team.

Los Angeles Lakers (40-23)
Mike Brown has done a nice job of utilizing his big men and few teams have found a way to contain Andrew Bynum and Paul Gasol. Coming off of a winning stretch without Kobe Bryant, the Lakers displayed some of the toughness and playmaking that won them two straight championships from 2009-2010. Dealing with the Lakers size in a 7-game series will be a daunting task for any opponent.

Boston Celtics (37-26)
Sporting a mediocre 15-17 record at the All-Star break the aged Celtics seemed destined for a rebuilding season. Instead Rajon Rondo has accepted his leadership role and has taken his game to an MVP-type level. With Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen all peaking at the right time, this version of the Celtics could have one final championship run left in them

Dallas Mavericks (35-28)
The defending NBA Champions were counted out by most before they even raised their Championship banner. Many questioned this team’s defensive ability once they lost their defensive anchor Tyson Chandler to the Knicks, yet they have the second best defensive numbers in the Western Conference. The Mavs are finally at full strength for the first time all season at the most opportune time. Rick Carlisle’s veteran coaching and Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki will be challenging assignments for even the most talented teams in the West.

Indiana Pacers (40-21)
The Indiana Pacers have peaked their way into the third seed in the East with a 9-1 stretch that includes a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Pacers lack a true superstar, but have received major contributions from a handful of players on their way into the championship conversation. Center Roy Hibbert and a trio of forwards give them the length to compete with the Bulls and Heat.