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NBA AM: Playoff Hunt Teams Peaking Or Slumping?

Some teams are hitting their stride closing in on the playoffs while others are plummeting fast.

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Updated 10 months ago on
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Peaking at the right time or falling off a cliff?

The NBA playoffs begin in less than a month. Some teams are peaking at the right time, while others are in a free fall in the hunt for a playoff berth (or positioning).

Let’s take a look at what teams are hitting their stride and which are stumbling toward the finish line.

Milwaukee Bucks (35-36)
Current Position: Sixth, Eastern Conference
Last 10: 3-7

Credit to the Bucks for even being in the position to make the playoffs just one season removed from a 15-victory campaign and occupying the league’s basement. The team has maintained despite a season-ending injury to rookie Jabari Parker, Larry Sanders’ retirement drama and a chemistry altering trade deadline deal.

But there’s no doubt the team hasn’t been playing its best ball of late , posting a woeful 5-13 mark since the All-Star break. But luckily for Milwaukee, the team had a bit of cushion in the playoff chase to accommodate this decline.

Golden State Warriors (58-13)
Current Position: First, Western Conference
Last 10: 9-1 (Won seven in a row)

The Warriors are peaking at the right time and running roughshod on the league. The squad appears to be virtually unbeatable at home (34-2) and is one of the league’s best road teams. Chemistry is also strong in the locker room and the team has largely been able to avoid the dreaded injury bug.

The team’s latest streak includes double digit victories over Atlanta, Washington and Portland – three franchises essentially locked into playoff berths. Impressive.

Indiana Pacers (30-40)
Current Position: Tenth, Eastern Conference
Last 10: 4-6 (Lost six in a row)

Right after the All-Star break, momentum was building for the Pacers. The team got hot, inserted themselves into the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture and prepped for the return of injured All-Star forward Paul George.

Now the Pacers are losers of their last six games, find themselves on the outside looking in of the playoffs and there has been no timetable set for George’s potentially epic return. You have to respect the Pacers for even being in the playoff mix after a disastrous summer, but there might not be enough fuel left to defy the odds and reach the postseason.

Portland Trail Blazers (44-25)
Current Position: Fourth, Western Conference
Last 10: 4-6 (Lost five in a row)

The season-ending injury to unheralded shooting guard Wesley Matthews has impacted the club on both sides of the ball and has undoubtedly led to some of the pain Portland has felt recently. The team recently wrapped up a tough road stretch with losses to Washington, Miami, Orlando and Memphis, then followed that up with a double digit home loss to league-leading Golden State.

The Blazers now head out for a quick two-game road trip versus Utah and Phoenix. On paper, the Blazers should get those wins but the Jazz and Suns have been playing inspired ball as of late so the Blazers’ slide could potentially worsen.

Atlanta Hawks (53-17)
Current Position: First, Eastern Conference
Last 10: 5-5 (Lost three in a row)

Even the most optimistic Hawks fan didn’t expect a campaign in which the team would flirt with 60 victories. But the Hawks currently sit atop the East standings and in all likelihood will secure home court advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

However, the Hawks haven’t looked like the same dominant team from earlier in the campaign and there are multiple reasons why. Defensively, the team has been in a funk as of late and part of that can be linked to the absence of veteran Thabo Sefolosha, other injuries and the decision to rest guys at certain intervals heading into the playoffs, which ultimately doesn’t allow for on-court cohesion.

Still, the Hawks should be considered the favorites in the East based on their overall play throughout the course of the season. But it is a bit concerning the team has yet to find the same rhythm post All-Star break.

Los Angeles Clippers (46-25)
Current Position: Fifth, Western Conference
Last 10: 6-4 (Won four in a row)

All-Star forward Blake Griffin is back in the lineup after missing extended time due to injury and the team has put together a solid winning streak. Better news for the Clippers is that their next three contests are lottery bound New York and Philadelphia and the improving but still sub .500 Boston Celtics.

San Antonio Spurs
Current Position: Sixth, Western Conference
Last 10: 7-3

Don’t look now but the old, wily defending champion Spurs have hit their stride and will enter the playoffs looking to secure their first repeat. It won’t be easy and Father Time may prove to be too much of a hurdle to overcome, but San Antonio has found a rhythm as of late.

Oklahoma City Thunder (41-30)
Current Position: Eighth, Western Conference
Last 10: 7-3 (Won four in a row)

The fact that the Thunder, in the midst of an injury riddled campaign, are even in the playoff hunt is a testament to the greatness of All-Star guard Russell Westbrook, who has strapped the franchise to his back. The team appears to be headed to a first round showdown with Golden State, but without reigning MVP Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in the fold an upset seems unlikely.

James Harden won’t have to change his game to accommodate Dwight Howard’s return

All-Star guard James Harden thrust himself into the MVP award race by his play without three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard in the lineup. Howard, who hasn’t played since January 23 due to knee issues, is set to return to the rotation this week.

However, Harden, who ranks second in the league in scoring this season, has no plans on altering his game when Howard finally returns to action after a conversation with the former All-Star center.

“He said, ‘I’ll be returning soon, but I don’t want you to change your game,'” Harden said, according to Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports.”He said, ‘I don’t want you to do anything different. Just go out there and do what you do, and do it at a high level every single night.’ He said, ‘I’ll adjust to you,’ and that right there gave me confidence to just play, and play my game and not worry about anything else. Once you hear that from your other leader, then you know you can just go out there and play the way that I’ve been playing.

“I definitely needed to hear that, and he told it to me. So right there that gave me all the confidence in the world, not to try to force it to get him into a rhythm or try to do anything forceful. I can just play my game. Him telling me that just gave me the green light to just go out there and just be the James Harden that I’ve been being all season.”

Obviously having a low-post presence like Howard back in the fold will take pressure off of Harden and add an extra dynamic to the Rockets’ offensive attack.  But having the veteran center take a step back in role is the sort of selfless act that could enhance team chemistry even more as the playoffs loom on the horizon.

“I’m excited to have him back,” Harden. “He’s definitely a key part of our team and where we want to go. I think while he was out, we were just trying to stay above water and try to just maintain, try to give other guys an opportunity to play. And we’ve done that, so just to get him back would be great for us for these last 12 games so we can get some chemistry and some camaraderie going into the postseason.”

The Rockets travel to New Orleans, who are fighting for their playoff lives, on Wednesday night. Howard is expected to be in the lineup.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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