The Cleveland Cavaliers, despite all of their internal drama, are the clear team to beat in the Eastern Conference. With that being said, the teams behind the Cavs in the conference are positioning themselves to challenge Cleveland in the conference finals. Of course, the best position to reach that series (aside from the one-seed) would be the two- or three-seed. The Toronto Raptors have all but wrapped up the second spot, but the race for the third spot is anything but over.
As the tightest playoff spot race in the entire NBA, four teams are within half a game of the East’s three-seed with only a handful of games left to play in the regular season. Earning this spot is important in order to not only have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but also ensure at least two series without facing the top-seeded Cavaliers, making the path to the conference finals much easier.
With the four teams (Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, and Boston Celtics) locked in a tight battle for third place in the conference, we decided to break down the remaining schedules for each contender to see which team will lay claim to the elusive spot.
Games remaining: 6
Charlotte currently sits in sixth place in the East, although their 32 losses are equal to the other three teams in contention for third place. The play of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, and even Jeremy Lin has elevated the Hornets to their first playoff appearance since 2014, but the team will have to endure some difficult tests on the road to end the season if they want to end up in third place.
With six games remaining, the Hornets will hit the road four times; two of those games will come against playoff teams. On Tuesday, they will travel to play the Toronto Raptors and next week they will head to Boston to play the Celtics. While the Hornets are capable of beating both of those teams, they are only a combined 1-3 against the two this season. Further, they are 0-2 against the Celtics, another team fighting for the third seed. Charlotte could easily go 4-2 in their last six games, but that might not be enough.
Games remaining: 5
The Atlanta Hawks were the top-seed in the East in last year’s postseason, reaching the conference finals before losing to Cleveland. People expected Atlanta to fall off this season, but the Hawks have held steady and have a great chance to end up with a high-seed once again. With just five games remaining, they are in the driver’s seat for the three-seed, but a difficult closing stretch to the season could see them fall in the standings before the playoffs begin.
In three straight games, Atlanta will play the Raptors, the Celtics, and the Cavs. While two of those games will take place in Atlanta, the Hawks are a combined 2-6 against those three this season. In fact, Atlanta has struggled all season against the best teams in the league, making it hard to fall in love with their case as a top-three team in the East. The team should win at least two of their last five games, but that won’t be enough to fend off the other contenders for this seed.
Games remaining: 6
The Miami Heat have a talented roster that includes Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, and others, making them an easy pick to face the Cavs in the conference finals. They have been inconsistent at times this season (see a recent loss to the lowly Los Angeles Lakers), but with a favorable remaining six games on their regular season schedule, it’s conceivable that the Heat could earn the three-seed.
A remaining slate that includes three home games and three road games is fair enough, but the Heat face a non-playoff team in the Orlando Magic twice, a fringe playoff team in the Detroit Pistons another two times, and a struggling Chicago Bulls team once to make a majority of their final contests very winnable. On the other hand, the season finale against the Boston Celtics will be telling. Boston is 2-0 against Miami this season and hosts this final game, giving them a slight edge, which could ultimately derail the Heat’s hopes of earning the three-seed.
Games remaining: 5
Even though they don’t have the easiest remaining schedule of the four teams in contention for third place in the East, the Celtics appear to have an edge in the race for the critical spot. Certainly, a recent road win over the Golden State Warriors is telling of this team’s potential, but the reason to like Boston’s chances spans beyond that clutch victory.
A balanced roster led by a rising star in Isaiah Thomas has been the driving force of this team’s rise in the Eastern Conference standings, and seeing as four of their five remaining regular season games will be played at home, the Celtics are in a good position. The team will have to play its final three games against fellow three-seed contenders Atlanta, Charlotte, and Miami, but they only have to play the Hawks on the road.
Furthermore, they own a combined record of 5-2 against those three clubs so far in 2015-16, showing that they know how to play them. It’s not hard to believe that the Celtics can win their final five games and surge to the three-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, where they’ll have a great chance to reach the conference finals.