As we inch closer and closer to the end of the regular season, we’re starting to see teams separate themselves from the pack. For the most part, we can project what teams will be playoff bound and what teams will have some extra time off to scout lottery picks. However, there are still a number teams whose playoff hopes hang in the balance. Over the next month and a half, we will see which of these teams rise to the occasion and which teams fold under the pressure.
With that said, let’s take a look at the teams in each conference that are vying for a playoff berth down the stretch.
Games Remaining: 24 (14 Home, 10 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 12
Despite being eight games below .500, the HEAT are currently in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They were aggressive at the trade deadline, landing arguably the biggest name moved in Goran Dragic. However, they also lost a key piece for the remainder of the season, as Chris Bosh will be out after doctors discovered blood clots in his lungs. The absence of Bosh clearly hurts their chances, even with the addition of Dragic, although the emergence of Hassan Whiteside will help lessen the blow of losing Bosh.
While Dragic is without a doubt an upgrade at the point guard position, the HEAT are still a work in progress. In their five games played with Dragic, the HEAT are just 2-3 and those two wins have been less than impressive coming against the Sixers and Magic. Eight of the HEAT’s next 10 games are at home before heading on a four-game trip, so it will crucial that they can string together a few wins over their next stretch of home games.
Games Remaining: 23 (13 Home, 10 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 12
Even while playing without star wing Paul George for the entire season, the Pacers find themselves eighth in the Eastern Conference with only 23 games remaining. They have battled all year long despite playing shorthanded for long stretches and are starting to get hot at the right time. In fact, over their last 10 games, no team in the East has a better record than the Pacers’ 8-2 mark, which is why our own Joel Brigham recently wrote that Indiana could be a scary eight seed.
Their improved play as of late isn’t the only good news coming out of Indianapolis. In addition, Paul George may still take the court this year. It’s tough to predict how George would play after coming off such a significant injury, but at the very least his return should provide a morale boost during the last few weeks of the regular season. The Pacers will have the chance to really help their own cause over the next few weeks. They have two games against the Nets, one against the HEAT and one against the Hornets before the season wraps up. If they can take care of business in those contests and continue their strong play, holding onto the eight seed becomes a very realistic goal.
Games Remaining: 25 (16 Home, 9 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 13
With the talent on the Nets roster, combined with the history of success of coach Lionel Hollins, the Nets were expected to have little trouble making the playoffs in the East. That has not been the case. Deron Williams’ play has been spotty at best and fallen well short of his pay-grade. Likewise, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson have been inconsistent and that’s played a major role in the Nets’ disappointing season. Although the Nets haven’t been great thus far, they are still right in the thick of the race for one of the final playoff spots in the East.
If they hope to make to the postseason, they will have to play much better down the stretch at home. Up to this point, the Nets are just 10-15 at the Barclays Center. After being on the road since February 7, they return home tonight to take on the Warriors. This will be the first of their 16 remaining home games to close out the season, the most remaining home games of any team in the NBA. This is something that should really work in the Nets’ favor, even with their uninspiring home record thus far.
Games Remaining: 25 (12 Home, 13 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 11
The Hornets went out and made a splash this offseason when they signed Lance Stephenson. The addition of Stephenson to a young team coming off a playoff appearance made the Hornets one of the more intriguing teams in the East. Well, it’s safe to say that Stephenson hasn’t worked out in Charlotte nearly as well as the team had hoped. He has been absolutely atrocious shooting the ball, hitting just 36.5 percent from the field and 14.8 percent from three. In addition, Kemba Walker has missed 15 of the last 17 games and it’s no surprise the Hornets have struggled.
On the bright side, the Hornets’ remaining schedule includes 18 games against teams in the Eastern Conference. On the year, the Hornets have fared well in conference games – going 18-16. Walker is also getting close to returning, which should provide them with a nice lift. In his absence newly acquired guard Mo Williams has been playing exceptionally well, averaging 23.4 points and seven assists per game since joining the Hornets. The Hornets certainly have the talent to make a late push and will be a team to watch as the season wraps up.
Games Remaining: 25 (11 Home, 14 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 12
Surprisingly, the rebuilding Celtics still have a realistic shot at sneaking into the playoffs this season. They are just a game behind Indiana, Brooklyn and Charlotte even after trading away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. The Celtics have gone 6-4 over their last 10, due in large part to the play of their recent acquisition Isaiah Thomas, who recently chatted with our own Alex Kennedy about the trade. The diminutive guard has provided instant offense off the bench for Brad Stevens’ club, averaging 21.8 points per game since joining the team. Although Thomas has given the team a boost, it’s hard to imagine the Celtics keeping up their improved play. They have 12 games remaining against teams above .500, which doesn’t bode well for their chances, especially considering they are just 6-23 against teams with a winning record thus far. While only one game back, the Celtics are still somewhat of a long-shot to make the postseason.
Games Remaining: 23 (9 Home, 14 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 10
After finishing December with a record of 8-23, there wasn’t much hope for the Pistons. However, the departure of Josh Smith brought the team together and they have been much improved since. Unfortunately, their resurgence took a hit after losing Brandon Jennings for the season to an ACL injury. The Pistons were busy at the trade deadline, sending Jonas Jerebko, Luigi Datome, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler packing and landing Reggie Jackson and Tayshaun Prince. The trade gives Jackson the chance to start on a regular basis, an opportunity he has been pining for.
Fourteen of the Pistons’ 23 remaining games will be played on the road, including seven of their next nine. They have been alright on the road thus far, going 11-16 in 27 games played. However, that stretch of road games includes four against Western Conference opponents. On the season, the Pistons are just 9-15 in out of conference games. How they play on the road over the next couple weeks will likely decide their playoff chances.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Games Remaining: 22 (14 Home, 8 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents:
This season certainly hasn’t gone as planned in OKC. The Thunder have been decimated by injuries for most of the year, yet have managed to climb back into the playoff picture. Kevin Durant has played in just 27 games thus far, and is currently sidelined with a foot injury. Russell Westbrook, who also missed time earlier in the season, was on a tear, putting up incredible numbers (31.2 points, 11.5 assists and 9.7 rebounds since the All-Star break). However, he suffered a facial fracture in last Friday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. A timetable for his return hasn’t been provided and Westbrook will be reevaluated later this week.
It goes without saying, if the Thunder hope to hold onto the eight seed in the West they are going to need Westbrook and Durant healthy down the stretch. Durant has been going through light on-court workouts and appears to be getting closer to returning. Westbrook will almost surely miss the next few games, but after that it’s hard to project. The Thunder play 14 of their remaining 22 games at home, where they have a 19-8 record on the year, including five of their next six. This will certainly help their chances as they eagerly await the return of their stars.
New Orleans Pelicans
Games Remaining: 23 (11 Home, 12 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 14
Much like the Thunder, the Pelicans have also suffered crippling injuries over the last few weeks. Star forward Anthony Davis re-injured his right shoulder, which forced him to miss time prior to the All-Star break. This injury has kept Davis out since February 21. Not only have the Pelicans been without Davis in their frontcourt, but sharpshooter Ryan Anderson has been sidelined with a sprained knee. Davis was given a one-to-two week timetable to return at the time of his injury and Anderson a two-to-four week timetable. Jrue Holiday has also been out due to a leg injury and a timetable for his return is unknown.
You would think that without Davis, Holiday and Anderson the Pelicans would be in big trouble. Unexpectedly, they have won five straight and remain just a half game back of the Thunder for the eighth and final spot in the West. While the Pelicans have been great over their last five games, they will need their core players to make a final push for the eighth seed. Fortunately for them, the Thunder are in the same boat without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In the end, it may just come down to which team gets their key contributors back first.
Games Remaining: 22 (11 Home, 11 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 15
The Suns went through a major shakeup at the trade deadline. Most notably, out went point guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas and in came young scoring guard Brandon Knight. Knights’ shooting numbers have dipped a bit since joining the Suns, but his ability to score from the perimeter should complement Eric Bledsoe nicely.
It will be an uphill battle for the Suns to jump both the Thunder and the Pelicans for the final spot in the West. They still have 15 games left against above .500 opponents, which will be a challenge, especially as they adjust to the roster changes. The Suns are just 12-19 in games against above .500 teams on the year. Even though the Thunder and Pelicans have been hit hard by injuries, the Suns’ inability to consistently beat winning teams makes it unlikely that they will make it to the postseason.
The East has a number of teams that are still in the playoff hunt, with a chance to make a move down the stretch. There hasn’t been one team that has been able to separate themselves from the pack thus far, but that may change in the coming weeks. The West on the other hand has a smaller pool of teams competing for one spot. Injuries will play a major factor in the chances of both the Pelicans and Thunder. Elsewhere, if the Suns want to return to the playoffs they will have to learn on the fly and prove they can beat some of the better teams in the NBA. No matter how things shake out, it will surely be exciting to watch.
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