The NBA's most vulnerable playoff teams, plus predictions for the play-in field

The NCAA tournament may be at its conclusion, but the NBA's play-in tournament is right around the corner. Which teams will complete the field? And which of the top playoff contenders are looking vulnerable to a first-round upset? Our writers weigh in with a week to go in the regular season.

1. How do you see the East's play-in field shaking out?

Dan Devine: The Pacers, who own head-to-head tiebreakers over both the 76ers and Heat, hold onto sixth. The Sixers, undefeated since Joel Embiid’s return, win out. The Heat get within arm’s reach of seventh by beating red-hot Dallas on Wednesday … only to stumble against the Raptors, allowing Philly to host the 7-vs.-8 game.

Vincent Goodwill: Who wants it the least? It seems like whenever the Miami Heat get a chance to make real inroads, the opportunity slips. Philadelphia desperately wants to get out of the crosshairs of the Celtics for Round 1, and probably isn’t fazed by any other potential matchup should last year’s MVP Joel Embiid be rounding back into shape. And after skimming by the Spurs, that might’ve been the close battle the Sixers needed to boost them. Two gimmes against Detroit and Brooklyn loom, and only a game behind the Pacers for sixth.

Ben Rohrbach: The Bulls and Hawks are locked into the Nos. 9 and 10 seeds (in no order), and the Pacers own the tiebreaker against both the Sixers and Heat, so the East's play-in field is all but locked into Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago and Atlanta. If the Sixers and Heat emerge from the play-in tournament, as they should, the East's four contenders — Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami — will face each other in the first round, leaving ajar a conference finals berth to Orlando, New York, Cleveland or Indiana. This could be the impetus we need to allow the top three seeds to pick their first-round opponents.

Jake Fischer: Can the Hawks claim the 9th seed from the Bulls? That storyline will run through the Pacers, Heat and Sixers’ battle for 6th being that both Indy and Miami see Atlanta. The schedule breaks just right for Philadelphia, with games against the lowly Pistons and disappointing Nets sandwiching a tough battle with Orlando. Joel Embiid can seemingly control his own destiny, and I’m going with Philly to escape the play-in altogether.

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2. How do you see the West's play-in field shaking out?

Goodwill: It feels like the Lakers and Warriors are on some collision course at the old folks’ home, destined to play two games against each other in the next couple weeks, starting with Tuesday. Sacramento is the wild card here, and having a final game against Portland on Sunday could be the difference that keeps them on the 7-8 line and away from the win-or-go-home 9-10 line. Don’t be surprised to see the play-in have all the aging top-10ers: LeBron, Steph and KD.

Fischer: What has gone down in New Orleans has come up all season long. We have seen the Pelicans bounce back in the nick of time, every time, to reemerge into what looks like a bonafide contender in the West. No wagering person should feel confident in NOLA turning this latest tide, but with games against the Trail Blazers and Kings — who have presented a strong matchup for the Pelicans all year — and then a finale against an aging Golden State team that will have incentive to rest guys, give me Zion and BI with the 6th seed.

Devine: The Suns survive their “toughest closing slate in the NBA” schedule to squeak into sixth, dropping the Pelicans into seventh … where, in a silver lining, they face the Kings, whom they’ve beaten four times this season by a combined 84 points. We get Lakers-Warriors for the third postseason in four years, and the second time in the play-in; we talk about it more than every other series combined.

Rohrbach: Injuries to Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter have left the Kings reeling, and they should soon join the Lakers and Warriors in the West's play-in field. The Suns and Pelicans are tied at 46-32, and while Phoenix owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, its four remaining games (Clippers twice, Kings and Wolves) are a gauntlet. My bet would be on the Suns as the West's fourth play-in team, meaning Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry could soon face elimination, and one or more of them will watch the playoffs from home.

3. Which current top-4 seed is the most vulnerable to a first-round upset?

Fischer: The latest slide from Milwaukee has certainly raised alarm bells about the Bucks. And it’s been particularly noteworthy to see how Milwaukee struggled without Damian Lillard in the lineup. The Bucks have too much at stake after last year’s first-round flameout. That pressure has to be seeping into Fiserv Forum once again, as Milwaukee enters the postseason far from playing its best basketball.

Rohrbach: If I had to pick just one from a broadly vulnerable group, it would have to be the Magic, whose youth and playoff inexperience make it all the more difficult to win a series. Orlando's 24th-rated offense in crunch time is awfully worrisome. But if I had to pick one contender to lose in the opening round, it would be the Bucks, whose bottom is falling out. The healthy Sixers or Heat likely await the chance to send them home.

Goodwill: The Milwaukee Bucks aren’t vulnerable in any one particular matchup, they’re vulnerable to themselves. The call is coming from inside the house, folks. Their schedule shook out for them to get right, but they’ve squandered six of seven. Now they have the bouncy Magic for two of their last four? They may not even stay in the top four by week’s end. This is really tenuous for the most win-now team in the East.

Devine: Based on current form: The Bucks, who’ve dropped four straight and six of their last seven, sending Doc Rivers on a search for answers … that seems to be focusing on an audit of the traveling party? Based on potential opposition: The Clippers, even though they’ve righted the ship with three straight wins, because man, would I not want to be staring down Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving and the Mavericks in Round 1.

Bonus question: What's your One Shining Moment from the NBA's regular season?

Rohrbach: While I would love to listen to Luther Vandross laid over a comedy of errors from Jordan Poole's season, one moment more than any other reminded us why we love basketball: Max Strus' 59-foot buzzer beater to defeat the Dallas Mavericks in late February. Cleveland had no timeouts, 2.6 seconds and the length of the court to go in a game it trailed by one, and Strus is just fringe enough to make him an even unlikelier hero.

Devine: Anthony Edwards nearly decapitating himself to make a game-saving block and ice a win against the Pacers hours after the Wolves learned that Karl-Anthony Towns was about to spend an extended period on the shelf with a torn meniscus. Rarely has a player so literally ascended into superstardom.

Fischer: I’ll take Anthony Edwards’ poster dunk on John Collins, where even Ant wasn’t able to fully react to the highest he’s ever jumped, because he dunked so hard he dislocated his finger. For all the noise about Edwards having next this season, he has delivered. He’s helped deliver the Timberwolves a pivotal top seed in what will be a grueling Western Conference playoffs. And how he finishes this campaign will have further impact on Minnesota’s burgeoning contender.

Goodwill: It’s the sign of the future from here, Victor Wembanyama. In a league where parity will rule the day, only so much can stand out. But yes, someone on a bottom-feeding team makes the moment. He’s been so much better than the hype and the hype was outsized. Going head to head with the presumptive three-time MVP for a near quadruple-double, and giving the New York Knicks 40-20, it’s a fun time to look ahead to what will come, while appreciating the nonsense we’re seeing now. Beware, folks.