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NBA Daily: Race to the Eastern Conference Playoffs

With only seven days remaining, the Eastern Conference Playoff picture remains murky. Drew Maresca examines the situation for each of the four teams still fighting for a spot.

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The race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference will be decided in the final week of the regular season, as will much of the conference’s seeding. But the final three playoff spots (along with the ninth spot, which, of course, doesn’t qualify) can shift dramatically over the final week as only one game separates the sixth place Detroit Pistons and the ninth place Miami HEAT in the loss column.

Let’s examine the remaining schedles, results from recent games and successes (and failures) of each of the four teams against the top three teams in the East, since that’s who they’ll end up facing if they qualify for the 2019 Playoffs.

As it stands today, the Pistons are alone in the sixth spot at 39-39 and would play the 76ers in the playoffs were to start immediately. The Nets and Magic are tied for the seventh spot at 39-40. And the HEAT are in ninth place with a 38-40 record.

Each of the four teams contending for the final three spots were in action on Wednesday, so we’ll start by examining how they fared in their most recent outings. The Magic defeated the Knicks, while the Pistons lost to the Pacers, Nets dropped a close game to the Raptors and the HEAT were outclassed by the Celtics.

Looking beyond last night, the Magic are 8-2 in their last 10 games – the best record over that span of all four teams. The HEAT are 6-4 in their last 10, while the Pistons are 4-6 and the Nets are 3-7.

But the Magic have more than momentum going for them; they also have the 11th easiest remaining schedule in the NBA according to Tankathon.com with games against the Hawks, Hornets and Celtics. The Pistons have an even easier go of it, with the fourth easiest remaining schedule in league and games against the Thunder, Knicks, Grizzlies and Hornets.

Conversely, the Nets have the fourth hardest remaining schedule in the league with games against the Bucks, Pacers and a head-to-head match-up with the HEAT. The HEAT also have a challenging schedule (eighth hardest remaining) with games against the Raptors and 76ers, Timberwolves and Nets.

According the ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Pistons have a 94.8% chance of making the playoffs as of Thursday evening. The Magic have an 89.5% chance of qualifying, whereas the Nets have a 69.8% chance and the HEAT have only a 39.3% chance.

But basketball is a game decided on the court. And despite all of the momentum against the Nets, they are nearly at full health – a state in which they haven’t operated since November (Caris LeVert tallied his first 20 point game since his November leg injury on April 1). Allen Crabbe is the only Net listed on the team’s injury report.

Pistons’ star Blake Griffin, on the other hand, is recovering from a knee injury he suffered last week. Griffin has missed the Pistons’ past three games, in which time the team is 1-2. If Griffin doesn’t play, the Pistons’ odds of winning games are severely inhibited.

Unlike the Nets and Pistons, the HEAT are dealing with a number of injuries. Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, Ryan Anderson and Derrick Jones Jr. are all listed as day-to-day. Richardson’s injury is most damaging of all and will keep the talented forward sidelined for as many as two weeks – past the end of the regular season. Richardson returned from a heel injury Wednesday against the Celtics but injured his groin in the loss.

Conversely, the Magic are mostly healthy – or, at least as healthy as they’ve been for the past few months. Mo Bamba remains sidelined due to a stress fracture (diagnosed on February 7) and Markelle Fultz continues to rehab from thoracic outlet syndrome. But all of their top nine players in minutes per game are healthy and available and Orlando just signed Michael-Carter Williams for the remainder of the season.

With the Bucks, Raptors and 76ers clinging to the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference, any celebration in winning a playoff spot will likely be short lived. The Nets are probably the most prepared team of the four to go head-to-head with an elite team, but even they will be lucky to take any of the top three teams past a sixth game. The Nets lost all three of their games against the Bucks this season. Additionally, they are 2-2 against the 76ers and are 1-3 against the Raptors.

Similarly, the Magic are 1-2 against the Bucks, 2-2 against the Raptors and 2-2 against the 76ers.

The Pistons are 0-4 against the Bucks, 3-0 against the Raptors and 1-3 against the 76ers.

And finally, the HEAT are 1-3 against the Bucks, 0-3 against the Raptors and 0-2 against the 76ers.

The first-round of the playoffs may not be the round that attracts the most attention, but the run-up to it will be a nail-bitter in the East. The HEAT may look like the most vulnerable of the four, but they’re also probably the team most people want to see given that it would be Dwyane Wade’s swan song. Further, with Griffin’s uncertain status thanks to a knee injury, the likelihood that the Pistons qualify hinges squarely on their star’s ability to return to the court quickly and effectively.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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