Handicapping the Race for Eighth in the East

It’s nearly April, and several teams are fighting for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Sure, these teams have sub-.500 records, but the playoff push brings out the best in teams late in the season, especially in head-to-head matchups. The Brooklyn Nets are among the teams vying for this position, alongside the Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, and even possibly the Miami Heat. With so many teams in the hunt, it’s sure to be a crazy last couple weeks.

 

Brooklyn Nets (32-40, –)

Stephen Dunn / Getty Images
Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Mason Plumlee and company dropped a pivotal matchup with the Boston Celtics on March 23, threatening to end their playoff hopes this season. However, they followed it up with a win over the Charlotte Hornets, which also secured a head-to-head tiebreaker over Charlotte.

The Nets then shocked the Cavaliers in Brooklyn by etching out a surprising 106-98 win in Brooklyn. The impressive win included a 27-19 advantage in the final quarter as the Nets closed out the game well, something that’s been rare as of late. The unexpected win improved the Nets playoff odds a great deal with only ten games to play. The Nets then pulled out a win against the lowly Los Angeles Lakers.

These ten games include winnable games against the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic, as well as a virtual must-win head-to-head game with the Indiana Pacers. The Nets will also have to face the likes of the Portland Trailblazers as well as the Atlanta Hawks, twice. With some tough games on the schedule, the Nets need to consistently beat inferior competition in the final stretch.

With Thaddeus Young potentially missing games due to injury, newly signed Earl Clark may actually have a chance to make an impact. In his first NBA action in nearly a year, Clark scored seven points on three-of-five shooting. He showed a little rust, but his build and skillset could look to replicate what Young brought to the team as somewhat of a stretch four.

Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, and Deron Williams will also have to carry the team in the final stretch as the established veterans on the court.

The Nets have the ability to make the playoffs and control their own destiny if they wish to extend their season.

(Google Images)
(Google Images)

Boston Celtics (32-41, 0.5 GB)

The most unlikely of these candidates a mere month ago, the Celtics have gone 12-10 since the acquisition of point guard Issiah Thomas, including a five game winning streak which propelled them into playoff contention. The Celtics actually just held the final playoff spot, as well as a tiebreaker over the Nets and a 2-1 series edge over the Pacers with one game to play. The recent win over Brooklyn was huge and could prove as what ultimately gets them into the playoffs.

However, unlike the Nets, the Celtics have no “easy” wins on paper. The most winnable matchups include two matchups each with the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, and a slight breather against the Detroit Pistons. There are also two games against fellow playoff competitors, in Charlotte and at home against the Pacers. If the Celtics can win these two games, the playoffs will be very much in sight.

The Celtics also play tougher foes, such as the Cleveland Cavaliers twice. Although if Cleveland locks up the #2 seed in the East with no chance to rise or fall, they may start resting their stars as these games take place in the season’s final week. If this is the case, the Celtics can definitely beat a Cavaliers squad without LeBron James or Kyrie Irving.

An advantage the Celtics hold right now is they haven’t relied on a recent crazy win streak to propel themselves in the standings. Going 12-10 as mentioned since the trade deadline as well as 5-5 in their last ten games, the Celtics aren’t performing at a level that they can’t replicate. If other teams falter, the Celtics consistency could earn them a playoff berth.

Will Paul George return for a playoff push? (Reuteurs)
Will Paul George return for a playoff push? (Reuteurs)

Indiana Pacers (32-41, 0.5 GB)

A few weeks ago, the Pacers were surging and with the imminent return of Paul George, could have made a run at the Eastern Conference’s sixth or seventh seed.

Instead, Indiana has cooled off and Paul George has still not returned to the court. A return by the star small forward would definitely bolster the squad that has lost seven of their last nine games.

After hosting and narrowly defeating the Dallas Mavericks, the Pacers play four straight games against teams in similar positions to them, at home taking on the Hornets and Heat, and on the road battling the Nets and Celtics. These four games will undoubtedly make or break the Pacers the season.

The Pacers must win at least two of these games simply because it would also bury head-to-head competitors. Indiana follows up this stretch with two winnable games against the Knicks and Pistons. The Pacers playoff fate should be pretty much sealed by April 10. If not, perhaps Paul George will join the team for the final three games set against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, and Washington Wizards.

One thing Indiana has going for them is experience. Aside from the departure of Lance Stephenson, a lot of the key pieces remain from a strong Pacers team last year. Roy Hibbert and David West need to translate this experience into a must-win mentality at the season’s end.

(Yahoo! Sports)
(Yahoo! Sports)

Charlotte Hornets (31-41, 1.0 GB)

After beating the Nets earlier in March, the Hornets blew a huge chance by dropping a home game to the Nets 91-88 in a tight matchup.

It’s funny how the NBA schedules work out so nicely though, with head-to-head matchups for playoff spots littering each team’s April schedule. For the Hornets, this includes games against the Celtics, Pacers, and Heat.

The Hornets looked impressive with a 115-100 win over the Atlanta Hawks on March 28, but it can’t be overlooked that the team lost eight of its last eleven games heading into that matchup.

Obviously, the Hornets are just as in it as any team in this race, with matchups against the Philadelphia 76’ers as well as the Pistons providing some solace on the schedule. However, they also meet the Raptors twice, the Houston Rockets, and travel to Atlanta. If the Hornets can down the Hawks again, and win the head-to-head games, they can easily qualify for the postseason.

But the Hornets have sputtered down the stretch and haven’t shown the consistency to win key games. In addition, the Hornets don’t have much veteran leadership experience or again, consistency, to win games when the matter in the final run.

Despite all this, missing the playoffs may not be a huge step back for the team that made it last season. Charlotte is still a young, growing team with potential. However, despite one of the softer schedules, they simply don’t have what it takes to get it done this season.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Miami Heat (34-39, 1.5 GA)

Despite holding the seventh seed, the Heat are only 1.5 games ahead of the Nets and 2.0 ahead of the Pacers and Hornets. Simply put, the Heat are guaranteed nothing and could quite possibly miss the playoffs altogether.

It wasn’t supposed to be this bad for the Heat this season. After re-tooling after LeBron’s departure, the Heat looked like a contender for a top-five seed, in the same tier as the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, and Washington Wizards.

But Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts were both declared out for the season, and Dwyane Wade simply cannot be counted on to play consistently with his nagging knee problems, even though he did drop 40 points on Sunday night. After beginning the season 9-7, a pace that would’ve put them comfortably in a playoff lock, the Heat have sputtered to 33-39.

However, since the trade deadline passed, which saw Norris Cole and others on the way out and the arrival of the Dragic brothers, the Heat have enjoyed ten wins and nine losses. Keeping around this .500 pace is all the team should need to maintain it’s seventh seed, and at worst the eighth seed.

But the Heat can’t be complacent. Say the Heat lose to the superior San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, two potential finals teams. Suddenly, the Heat are on a losing streak and fighting for their playoff lives.

Even if this is the case, the Heat have a chance to bounce back, with final games including head-to-head games with the Pacers and Hornets and safety net games against the 76er’s and Magic.

The Heat are poised to maintain the seventh seed but must stay alert and beat their Eastern Conference brethren.

Prediction

  • 7th: Miami Heat
  • 8th: Brooklyn Nets
  • 9th: Indiana Pacers
  • 10th: Boston Celtics
  • 11th: Charlotte Hornets
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