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Playoff Sleepers in the Eastern Conference

The Magic, Celtics and Hornets are teams that could sneak into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

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The quarter mark of the NBA season is here and we are beginning to see which teams are alive in the playoff chase. In the Eastern Conference, there hasn’t been any one squad that has identified itself as the top team, as the top five are all within four games of each other. The Hawks and Cavaliers have been two of the hottest teams in the league as of late, as the Hawks have won nine out of their last 10 and the Cavaliers have won eight of their last. It appears to be a safe bet that some combination of the Raptors, Wizards, Hawks, Bulls and Cavaliers will make up the top five seeds in the East, leaving the last three spots up for grabs.

Currently the Bucks, HEAT and Nets occupy the six-through-eight spots in the East with the Magic, Celtics and Pacers right behind them. The Bucks have been one of the biggest surprises in the league thus far as they’ve won 12 games after winning just 15 all of last season. Given their youth and inexperience, it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to keep up their strong start so they could fall out of the picture at some point. The HEAT, meanwhile, are battling injuries with Josh McRoberts possibly missing the rest of the season and Chris Bosh out indefinitely with a calf injury. They’ve won just three out of their last 10 games and have one of the worst defenses in the league and are quickly falling in the standings.

With that being said, here are three teams that could sneak into the playoffs:

Orlando Magic (10-16), 9th Place:

Heading into Monday’s games, the Magic are just two games back of the eighth-place Brooklyn Nets and are coming off of a buzzer-beating win over the Hawks on Saturday night. The Magic have battled through injuries to several key players, including Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic and Kyle O’Quinn. This has caused them to play a number of different lineups and rotations (which led to inevitable inconsistencies).  Tobias Harris has emerged as the team’s go-to scorer in clutch situations as he’s now hit two buzzer-beating shots this season and is the team’s second-leading scorer at 18.5 points per game. Newcomer Evan Fournier is proving to be a real scoring option at 14.6 points per game and is converting nearly 40 percent of his shots from long distance.

Despite being six games under .500, the Magic have shown flashes of what they can become as they continue to gain experience and get fully healthy. Already this season the team has proved to be able to win games on the road and win close games, which were struggles for this squad last year. The team’s seven road wins already tops last season’s total of four and the team recently had a six-game road trip where they went 3-3. In games decided by five or fewer points, the team has gone 6-4, which shows some growth from the young group of players. Given the uncertainty surrounding some of the other teams in the playoff hunt, the Magic could sneak in.

Boston Celtics (7-14), 10th Place:

The Celtics are another team that has a chance to be in the thick of the playoff race come the end of the season. The Celtics are sitting just two and a half games out of the last playoff spot going into Monday night’s game against the 76ers. Jeff Green has led the attack for the Celtics, averaging 20 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. In addition to Green, the Celtics rely heavily on Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and, of course, Rajon Rondo. With Rondo running the show, the Celtics are tied for first with the Warriors in pace, averaging 100.4 possessions per game. Rondo is averaging 10.8 assists per game to help the Celtics lead the league in assists at 25.8 per game.

The Celtics will need players like Sullinger and Rondo to step up even more for them to have a chance of sneaking into the playoffs. Sullinger is averaging 14.1 points per game, but has a total of just 10 points in the Celtics’ previous three games. Rondo, on the other hand, is averaging just 6.1 points in the month of December after scoring nine points a game in November. Rondo is arguably at his best while he’s distributing the ball, but his offense must pick up for the team to succeed. The Celtics have a chance to get back on track as their next five opponents all have records below .500.

Charlotte Hornets (6-17), 12th Place:

There is unanimous agreement around the league that the Hornets have been one of the most surprising teams in the league given their 6-17 start. The team was supposed to be considered a lock for the playoffs, not a team clawing to find their way in. The Lance Stephenson experiment has not worked out and it’s no coincidence that the team has reportedly put him up on the trading block. The Hornets were a team last season that made the playoffs and were on the right track to improve upon that mark this season, but they’ve been a major disappointment.

The idea of trading Stephenson away seems like it could be addition by subtraction. Stephenson has reportedly been a cancer to his team on and off of the court. He’s a player that needs to have the ball in his hands and looks lost and uninterested when he doesn’t have the ball. The Hornets still have a good core of players in Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Gary Neal and Cody Zeller so they’ll be looking to add some proven players that can help them win now and help the defense get back to where it was last season when it was ranked sixth in the league in efficiency. The team still has plenty of time to turn their season around, especially since they play in the Eastern Conference.

The path to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference is far easier than it is over in the Western Conference. The Magic, Celtics and Hornets are all teams that can take advantage of playing in the weaker conference to make the playoffs. The good thing for these teams is that it might only take about 35 wins to make it in. The Hawks proved last season that 38 wins is enough to make it in and that anything can happen as they nearly upset the Pacers in the first round by taking them to seven games.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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