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by Free Picks USA - 3/23/2022 8:28 AM

The Los Angeles Lakers have had a strange season in the NBA, with the team suffering mightily and perhaps missing the playoffs. Meanwhile, up-and-comers like the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers are making waves. On the other hand, before the defeat to Brooklyn, NBA MVP contender Joel Embiid and his new running companion, James Harden, had Philadelphia on a roll. It has the Eastern Conference's third-best record.

While these two teams are the talk of the town back east, the Miami Heat are staying out of the headlines and playing as well as they can on the floor. Miami has won 14 of 19 games, led by Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro (yes, that's a thing), and Bam Adebayo. Even a recent defeat against the Milwaukee Bucks sparked debate.

The reigning champion Bucks are still a formidable opponent. However, Giannis Antetokounmpo and his teammates have been significantly more inconsistent this season than last. Before a six-game winning run, the Bucks had lost four of their previous seven games.

Cleveland has spent most of the season among the Eastern Conference's top four teams. Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen have just returned from their first All-Star games. Evan Mobley is a strong contender for Rookie of the Year. Caris LeVert's addition to the mix at the NBA trade deadline was crucial. However, Cleveland's current decline, which has seen them lose eight of their last thirteen games, may cause worry. This includes a recent 21-point defeat to the Hornets.

Boston seemed to be on its way to the play-in tournament for the second year in a row for the better part of the first half of the season. But that's when the defense stepped up a notch, helping the squad to a 17-3 record in its last 20 games. Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are finally gelling on the wing. Tatum averages 30.1 points per game over his previous 20 games, including a 54-point performance.

On the other hand, the Raptors have made a significant turnaround thanks to players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and standout youngster Scottie Barnes. The Raptors are 23-13 in their last 36 games, including a back-to-back sweep of the Nets. Back east, the Nets above, and Hawks make it out of the play-in round.

The reigning Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns' season was on the verge of being derailed when Chris Paul suffered a thumb injury. However, that hasn't been the case since he was injured, with the Suns going 7-4 in that time.

The problem for Phoenix this season is the point guard performance behind Paul. It's one of the reasons the franchise made a deadline deal for Aaron Holiday. So what's the good news? Out west, they have some breathing space ahead of the Warriors, Grizzlies, and Jazz. This will be the squad to defeat in the West if Paul, Booker, and Deandre Ayton are on the floor in the playoffs.

Golden State has won four straight games before a humiliating defeat to the Boston Celtics. So what's the good news? Draymond Green is expected to return from injury next week, while Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga are playing as they've never played before. In March, Poole, 22, averaged 22.0 points on 53% shooting from a distance. This month, Kuminga, 19, is averaging 15.2 points and shooting 43% from the three-point range. In the previous game versus Boston, Stephen Curry was unfortunately injured.

The Memphis Grizzlies will provide a challenge for Phoenix and Golden State when it comes to the playoffs. Since a shaky start to the season, the club has won 33 of 45 games, led by Ja Morant. In addition, Jaren Jackson Jr. is back to his old self after two seasons marred by injuries. Meanwhile, Desmond Bane seems to be a rising star.

The remainder of the Western Conference is intriguing since each team has a chance to make a long playoff run. Despite reports of a feud between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz has bounced back to their early-season form following a rough January (12-5 past 17 games). Luka Doncic is playing some of the finest basketball in the NBA right now, and Dallas is on a 16-game winning streak.

The youthful Timberwolves have also piqued interest. This season, Minnesota has a top-10 record when Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D'Angelo Russell suit up, with Towns scoring 60 points last week.

There isn't much to say about LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers that hasn't already been said. This group is a certain hot mess. The Western Conference's top-heavy nature is the sole reason it will make the play-in tournament.

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