NBA Playoff Picture Update: The East goes through Atlanta

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DeMarre Carroll has reason to smile. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)
DeMarre Carroll has reason to smile. (Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

With just a few weeks remaining until the NBA postseason, every night can impact the standings. NBA Playoff Picture keeps you up to date on all the most important news for all 16 berths and seeds.

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Hail to the Hawks: The Atlanta Hawks' 99-86 win over the Miami Heat combined with the Cleveland Cavaliers' 106-98 loss to the Brooklyn Nets to clinch the No. 1 seed for the Hawks (on 2 Chainz Night, no less!). The result has seemingly been a foregone conclusion since Atlanta took control of the conference several months ago, but it's a meaningful accomplishment nonetheless for a squad that barely made it into the postseason last season and was tapped by some (including me) as a lottery participant this October. Starting forwards DeMarre Carroll (24 points) and Paul Millsap (21 points) both shot 8-of-12 from the field to lead the Hawks.

With 10 games left to play, Coach of the Year favorite Mike Budenholzer will need to find a balance between resting key players and getting the team into championship shape in advance of the postseason. The good news for the Hawks is that they should be fine in the opening round regardless of how they fare in games 73 through 82. Sometimes it pays to play in the East.

The Golden Horde: The Golden State Warriors haven't clinched the West's No. 1 seed yet, but they're a single victory away after a 107-84 road thrashing of the Memphis Grizzlies. Stephen Curry (38 points) and Klay Thompson (28 points) outscored the Grizzlies starters by 19 on their own. The conventional wisdom all year has been to say that the West playoffs will come down to matchups and seeding, but the Warriors are the clear favorite at this point — they're deep, versatile, and without any glaring weaknesses when healthy.

Balking in Memphis: On the other side, the Grizzlies won't be so confident after their second consecutive home blowout loss to a championship contender. Wednesday's dismissal at the hands of the Cavs was not pretty, but it's easy enough to explain away a single terrible performance. A similarly ugly loss to a Warriors team the Grizzlies usually play pretty well is not going to inspire confidence, particularly when these teams are theoretically their peers as title contenders. Sunday's matchup at the San Antonio Spurs suddenly looms large.

To make matters worse for the Grizzlies, the third-place Houston Rockets moved to within a half-game of the No. 2 seed with a 120-110 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. The victory officially clinched a playoff berth for Houston, who saw Dwight Howard go for 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting in his second game back from the knee injury that kept him out for two months. James Harden led the way with 33 points as all five starters (and Corey Brewer) scored in double figures.

Texas Justice: The San Antonio Spurs handled the Dallas Mavericks 94-76 in a rematch of a game the Mavs won just three days prior. That result allowed San Antonio to open up a 1 1/2-game lead on Dallas for sixth place, but the biggest news of the night concerned Mavericks guard Monta Ellis, who had 38 in Tuesday's win. Ellis played just 23 minutes before leaving midway through the third quarter with an injured calf after taking an inadvertent knee. He left the arena on crutches, although there have not yet been updates on his status.

Notorious billionaire entrepreneur, tech guru, and outspoken owner Mark Cuban brought Ellis into the spotlight for other reasons, though. After one non-call, Cuban took to Twitter to complain about his leading scorer's inability to get to the free-throw line:

Cuban added to that take with several comments relayed by Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com. Ellis shot zero free throws on Friday and was at the center of similar complaints from Warriors fans during his time in Oakland, so Cuban may have a point here. He is probably going to receive a hefty fine from the NBA for his comments, but he's certainly no stranger to paying those.

Eight or Die: The race for the No. 8 seed in the East continues to be the league's most glorious trainwreck, with four teams vying for one spot in a race that seems likely to come down to who loses least rather than who wins most. Given that context, the Nets appear to have made a big move with a surprise home win over the Cavs in which the resurgent Brook Lopez went for 20 points and nine rebounds. The victory vaulted Brooklyn over the idle Indiana Pacers into ninth place.

However, they did not gain ground on the eighth-place Boston Celtics, who won 96-92 at Madison Square Garden to bring the New York Knicks one game closer to the league's top lottery odds. It wasn't all depressing for New York, though, because Walt Frazier celebrated his 70th birthday. Mike Breen even wore this garish jacket in his honor (via SB Nation):

We can only guess that no one told Breen to come prepared, because his shirt and tie are way too similar to the coat.

The only real losers in this race on Friday were the Charlotte Hornets, who allowed John Wall to tie the game at the end of regulation on their way to a double-overtime loss to the Washington Wizards. Charlotte is now 1 1/2 games out of the playoffs but in 11th place, so they have their work cut out for them.

LMAVP: The Portland Trail Blazers pulverized the Phoenix Suns in the fourth quarter to complete an 87-81 win at the Phoenix Suns. They can thank LaMarcus Aldridge for it — the star power forward shot 8-of-8 from the field in the final 5:07 to seal the win:

The Blazers are virtually guaranteed to finish no worse than the No. 4 seed by virtue of winning the Northwest Division, but they still need to have a better record than the eventual No. 5 seed to keep homecourt advantage in the series. That team is currently the Los Angeles Clippers, who stayed a game ahead with a comfortable 119-98 road win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Spencer Hawes only scored seven points for the Clips, but he did receive this thoroughly confusing tribute from the Sixers to commemorate nearly four seasons of decent but ultimately forgettable play:

Quickly: The Toronto Raptors beat the Los Angeles Lakers 94-83 to stay two games ahead of the Wizards for the No. 4 seed. ... The New Orleans Pelicans chomped up the Sacramento Kings 102-88 to swap places with the Suns, although they seem a long shot to pass the Oklahoma City Thunder for the West's final spot at three games back.

Saturday's Most Important Games

Just five games as the NCAA Tournament starts to decide its Final Four. Still, two on the NBA slate stand out:

Hawks at Hornets: Charlotte is the only one of the four eighth-seed contenders with a game, so they can move to within a game of Boston by beating an Atlanta team that could be feeling a post-celebration hangover.

Warriors at Bucks: Golden State can clinch the West with a win and turn their final nine contests into extended playoff prep. Milwaukee appears locked into the No. 6 seed at this point but can maintain that position and get back to a win over .500 after a dip in form.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!