NBA: What Does the Eastern Conference Playoff Chase Look Like?
With just under a month left in the regular season, the Eastern Conference has found itself bunched in the middle and toward the bottom of the playoff seeding. There are four teams that could stake a claim on the No. 3 spot in the conference, with the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, and Charlotte Hornets currently only separated by a half game. This slim margin means the difference between landing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and avoiding the Cleveland Cavaliers until the Eastern Conference Finals or not.
Then there are the four teams that are fighting just to make the playoffs. The Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, and Washington Wizards are separated by three games in the standings, and only two of them will continue playing into the postseason. Let’s take a look at what lies in the road ahead for each team to get a better idea of who might show up to the draft lottery come the end of April.
Games left: 14 (9 home, 5 away)
Games versus teams: .500 or better: 5
Out of any of these teams, the Pacers have the greatest shot of actually making it to the playoffs. They have the best current record and the least amount of quality opponents remaining. They also will have the tiebreaker over the Wizards and Pistons, but would need to beat the Bulls in their final matchup to have a chance at holding that tiebreaker.
The Pacers have been a streaky team this year, starting 12-5 and looking like a possible contender in the East behind a resurgent Paul George. However, since then, they’re just 24-26 and are trying to hold onto their tenuous position in the playoffs. The biggest test they have remaining will be games against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cavs — both at home. They’ve already beaten the Thunder on the road this year, which is a positive for them, but on the season they’re 0-3 against the Cavaliers.
Games left: 15 (7 home, 8 away)
Games versus teams: .500 or better: 7
The Bulls are in the eighth spot as of today, holding a half-game edge over the Pistons. The Pistons currently have a 2-1 series edge, which gives them the tiebreaker, but if the Bulls win their final matchup in Chicago next month that will turn the tide a bit. The next tiebreaker is divisional record, and the Bulls have the advantage there. If the Pistons lose to the Bulls, the only way they can maintain their tiebreaker edge is if they beat Cleveland on the road while the Bulls lose to the Pacers and Cavs.
Chicago has been a mess in most senses of the word — certainly on the court and in the trainer’s room. They’ve seen significant injuries to Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic, and Mike Dunleavy, while nagging injuries have restricted the playing time of Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, and Derrick Rose. At one point, the Bulls were 22-12, meaning they’ve gone just 12-21 since then. Their health is starting to return, though, and the next five games — all against sub-.500 teams — will be telling as to whether or not the Bulls make the playoffs.
Games left: 14 (10 home, 4 away)
Games versus teams: .500 or better: 8
The Pistons have the most favorable schedule in terms of home games remaining. If they’re going to make the playoffs, they may need to solidify that spot in the next few games. Their next four games are all at home against non-playoff contenders, but after that it gets really tough (games against the Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, Thunder, Mavericks, Bulls, and Heat). In all, the Pistons finish with eight of their final 10 games against .500 or better opponents, and one of those two non-.500 teams is the Wizards, who are chasing a playoff spot, too.
As previously mentioned, the Pistons really need to take their final remaining game with the Bulls. If they can’t, they’ll likely be staring at a situation where they’re unable to tie (meaning a one-game lead in the standings is really a two-game lead). If the Pistons and Bulls are still close in the standings at this time next week, with all the easiest games checked off the schedule, the Pistons could be in trouble.
Games left: 14 (6 home, 8 away)
Games versus teams: .500 or better: 7
The Wizards have by far the toughest route to the playoffs of any team remaining. They are already a game-and-a-half out of the eighth spot, have more road games left than home games, and have to play half their games against quality opponents. The good news? At least they have the tiebreaker against both the Pistons and the Bulls, which could be really important as the standings get closer down the stretch.
Washington has also been a fairly streaky team, having just won three games in a row following a five-game losing streak—which came on the heels of a four-game winning streak. The Wizards’ quirky schedule has them still playing three remaining games with the Hawks, who are one of the better teams in the East and beat the Wizards 114-99 in their only other matchup this season. They still have to embark on a five-game West Coast road trip as well, which includes games against the Clippers and the Warriors.
As it stands, all of these factors make it look like the Pacers and the Bulls could have the best chances at making the playoffs. The Pistons can’t be discounted either, and the Wizards will be involved despite having an uphill battle ahead of them. Any of these teams could realistically make it, so it’ll be interesting to watch how it shakes out over the next month.
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