With the end of the regular season fast approaching, the race for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference is really heating up. We have a pretty good idea of which teams will get the top six seeds, although the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards haven’t been spectacular as of late. However, the seventh and eighth seeds are still firmly up for grabs. There are a number of teams in the running, barely separated in the standings. Now, let’s take a closer look at which of those teams has the best chance of extending their season.
7. Indiana Pacers
Games Remaining: 17 (8 Home, 9 Away)
Games Remaining vs +.500 Opponents: 10
Games Remaining vs other Eastern Conference teams in the hunt: 5 (Nets twice, Celtics, Hornets and HEAT)
Over the last month, the Pacers have been one of the hottest teams in the East. They were an afterthought at one point, but now appear to have a very real chance to play in the postseason. Their stingy defense has been the catalyst behind their late season climb. The Pacers rank seventh in the league in defensive efficiency and are third in the league in points allowed, giving up just 96 a night. They have been especially good as of late, holding opponents to just 90.2 points per game in 11 games since the All-Star break. During that stretch the Pacers have gone 9-2, thrusting themselves into the playoff picture.
The Pacers will be challenged down the stretch as they face a number of playoff teams. Over their last 17 games, they still have to play the Raptors, Bulls, Wizards (twice), Cavaliers, Rockets, Mavericks, Thunder and Grizzlies. Even more important than those games will be a four-game stretch where they play the Nets, Celtics, Hornets and HEAT in consecutive games. How they fare against their main competition for last two spots in the East will play a major role in the Pacers’ postseason chances.
8. Charlotte Hornets
Games Remaining: 18 (7 Home, 11 Away)
Games Remaining vs + .500 Opponents: 8
Games Remaining vs other Eastern Conference teams in the hunt: 4 (Nets, Celtics, Pacers and HEAT)
Despite playing without point guard Kemba Walker for an 18-game stretch from January 24 to March 9, the Hornets have clawed their way into the eight seed. While Walker has been out, the Hornets have relied on newly acquired Mo Williams to fill the void. Williams has done an incredible job since joining the Hornets, averaging 21 points and 7.9 assists with a true shooting percentage of 56.3 percent. Now, as Walker works his way back into the lineup, and with Williams, Gerald Henderson and Lance Stephenson around him, the Hornets have will rely on their backcourt and Al Jefferson to hold onto that final playoff spot.
Looking ahead, the Hornets begin a five-game road trip tonight, with four of those five games coming against Western Conference opponents. This could pose serious problems as they are only 7-18 versus the West and 13-17 on the road this season. With only a half-game lead over the HEAT in the standings, it will be crucial that the Hornets are able to pull out a win or two during their upcoming road trip. After that five-game road trip, 12 of the Hornets’ 13 remaining games will be against Eastern Conference opponents. The Hornets have done much better in conference, going 22-17, so this should give them the chance to really finish the season strong.
Outside Looking In:
Games Remaining: 17 (9 Home, 8 Away)
Games Remaining vs +. 500 Opponents: 9
Games Remaining vs other Eastern Conference teams in the hunt: 3 (Celtics, Pacers and Hornets)
When the HEAT landed Goran Dragic at the trade deadline, they appeared a near lock to land one of the final two playoff spots in the East. However, losing Chris Bosh for the season has made things much more difficult in Miami. Even with the emergence of Hassan Whiteside, at the moment the HEAT have fallen out of the playoff picture.
Over their final 17 games, the HEAT will have the chance play both of the teams ahead of them in the standings. In fact, they will travel to Indianapolis to take on the Pacers on April 5 before heading home to take on the Hornets just two nights later on April 7. The HEAT will, at the very least, need to split those two games and, depending on how they play over the two weeks prior, may need to win both.
Games Remaining: 17 (8 Home, 9 Away)
Games Remaining vs + .500 Opponents: 9
Games Remaining vs other Eastern Conference teams in the hunt: 4 (Nets, HEAT, Hornets and Pacers)
Like the Pacers, the Celtics have been one of the more surprising teams in the East over the last couple months. Many thought the Celtics were in rebuilding mode after parting ways with Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo, but the arrival of Isaiah Thomas has given the team new life. They have gone 9-5 since the All-Star break and are now right in the thick of the playoff race.
The Celtics will play 14 of their last 17 games against Eastern Conference teams, including two games versus the Pistons and one each against the Sixers and Knicks. However, their three remaining games against the West won’t be easy, as they face the Spurs and Thunder on the road and the Clippers at home. The Celtics will have the chance to help their own cause with games against the HEAT, Hornets, Nets and Pacers from March 23 through April 1. The Celtics will have a great opportunity to move up in the standings if they can continue their strong play of late.
Games Remaining: 18 (11 Home, 7 Away)
Games Remaining vs + .500 Opponents: 10
Games Remaining vs other Eastern Conference teams in the hunt: 4 (Pacers twice, Celtics and Hornets)
The Nets have been on the more disappointing teams in the East the season. Despite their massive payroll, the team has failed to live up to expectations for much of the year. Now, with only 18 games left to play, they are running out of time to turn things around. Since the start of January, they have a record of just 11-22 and have tumbled down the Eastern Conference standings.
With 10 of their last 18 games coming against teams currently above .500, it seems highly unlikely that the Nets will be able to make one last playoff push, especially when you consider they are 9-25 in such games thus far on the season. While the Nets are only three games back of Charlotte as things stand, their play has offered little reason to believe they can close the gap. Of the teams in the East with playoff aspirations, the Nets have to be viewed as the least likely to get in.
It seems almost certain the race for the seventh and eighth seeds in the East will come right down to the wire. None of the teams in contention have looked capable of separating themselves from the pack, and with a number of head to head games left they’re all still very much alive. It will be interesting to see which of these teams can finish the season strong and prove themselves worthy of a playoff berth.
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