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NBA Playoff Picture 2011: Hawks Punch Ticket To Dance, Knicks Faltering

It took an extra few days, but the Atlanta Hawks finally clinched a playoff spot with their win over the New Jersey Nets on Saturday night at Philips Arena. Atlanta will return to the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. And with eight games left in the season, it's looking more and more likely that the Orlando Magic will be the Hawks' first round opponent.

While it is possible that the Hawks (42-32) can be bumped to the sixth spot, with wins over the Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers over the weekend, Atlanta maintained a 4 1/2 game lead over the suddenly surging Philadelphia 76ers. Philly (37-36) is four games behind in the loss column. However, Atlanta's schedule is somewhat favorable to the club hanging onto their spot in the standings.

Yes, the Hawks have games against the Magic, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics left, but they also play four against the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats. Philadelphia has Boston and Orlando left on the schedule. So as long as Atlanta beats those four teams and Philly falters to those two teams, Atlanta will go into the playoffs against Dwight Howard's Magic (47-26).

Philadelphia has swarmed all over a struggling New York Knicks team that at this point may not even make the playoffs. The new Best Team Ever* has had all sorts of problems playing defense of late, the bench is not very deep and Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire have yet to find their groove together.

As a result, New York (35-38) has lost six straight and nine of their last 10 to fall into the seventh spot in the East. While it's likely they will survive and make it into the playoffs, the Knicks are indeed making it interesting.  They are just 4 1/2 games away from being out of the big dance.

The battle continues for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, which is turning into a three-team race between the Pacers (32-42), the Bobcats (30-42) and the Milwaukee Bucks (29-43). Only two games separate the three teams.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls (53-19) have given themselves a bit of separation at the top, posting a two-game edge over the Celtics (51-21) for the No. 1 seed in the East. Boston has its own battle to wage for the No. 2 spot. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been playing fantastic basketball the past week and as a result, Miami (51-22) has moved to within a half-game of Boston.

Here are the up-to-date Eastern Conference standings as of the games completed on Sunday, March 27.

1.  y-Chicago (53-19) -- 
 2.  y-Boston (51-21) 2.0 
 3.  x-Miami (51-22) 2.5 
 4.  x-Orlando (47-26) 6.5 
 5.  x-Atlanta (42-32) 12.0 
 6.  Philadelphia (37-36) 16.5 
 7.  New York (35-38) 18.5 
 8.  Indiana (32-42) 22.0 
 9.  Charlotte (30-42) 23.0 
10.  Milwaukee (29-43)

24.0

y- Clinched Division Title  x- Clinched Playoff Spot

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.