If The NBA Playoffs Started Today: East
With about a month left in the NBA’s regular season, the Miami HEAT have a stranglehold on the top spot (23 consecutive wins will do that for a team) while the Milwaukee Bucks have a firm grasp on the eighth seed with a 33-32 record. The HEAT lead the second-place Indiana Pacers by 11.5 games while the Bucks hold an 8.5 game edge over the ninth-place Philadelphia 76ers.
As for seeds two through seven, anything can happen. The Pacers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics are all within 5.5 games of each other, which means home-court advantage is still very much in play over the season’s final few weeks.
Here’s a quick rundown of what the playoffs would look like if they started today, with some key remaining regular season match-ups that could have a direct effect on seeding.
No. 1 Miami HEAT (52-14)
Games Remaining: 16 (8 home, 8 away)
vs. .500: 6, vs. East: 14
No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks (33-32)
Games Remaining: 17 (8 home, 9 away)
vs. 500: 10, vs. East: 11
It’s hard to imagine the HEAT having an unfavorable match-up against any particular team, but they’ve only outscored the Bucks by a point over their three meetings so far this season. Milwaukee fell to Miami on Nov. 1 (113-106) and March 15 (107-94), but pulled off a 104-85 upset back on Dec. 29.
The big story of that game was Bucks center Larry Sanders, who finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks while holding Chris Bosh to just 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting.
The Bucks obviously boast a speedy backcourt duo with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, but as hard as they’ve been to defend this season, it’s difficult to envision the HEAT struggling to win in five games or less.
Key remaining match-ups: Miami has a difficult match-up with the San Antonio Spurs on March 31, but Erik Spoelstra should be able to rest his major contributors over the final two games of April (the 15th against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the 17th against the Orlando Magic). Milwaukee has a difficult three-game swing this week (two games against the Hawks and one against the Pacers) and they travel to Miami to face the HEAT on April 9.
No. 2 Indiana Pacers (41-26)
Games Remaining: 15 (7 home, 8 away)
vs. +.500: 9, vs. East: 10
No. 7 Boston Celtics (36-30)
Games Remaining: 16 (7 home, 9 away)
vs. +.500: 7, vs. East: 12
The Pacers have had chances to pull away from the Knicks and Nets recently, but they’ve been just as mediocre as everyone else in the Eastern Conference as of late.
Beginning with an 83-81 loss to the Celtics on March 6, the Pacers have gone just 5-5 in their last 10 games and have been mediocre on offense (104.3 points per 100 possessions) and defense (99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) over that time.
In fact, the Celtics blew out the Pacers 94-75 in their only other previous meeting, so they’ve already won the season series between the two teams with one left to play (April 16 at Boston). Of course, Rajon Rondo was healthy for the Celtics’ first win over the Pacers this season. His year has since ended because of an ACL tear.
The good news for the Pacers is that the Celtics could overtake Bulls, who have lost three straight to Frank Vogel’s team.
If Boston does move into sixth, they would likely face the Knicks (Boston is 1-1 against New York with two match-ups remaining in the regular season) or the Nets (1-2 with one left to play).
Key remaining match-ups: If Vogel prefers to face the Bulls in the playoffs, he could hold back his starters in Chicago this Saturday. Indiana also has key match-ups with the Nets and Knicks on April 12 and April 14, respectively. The second seed could be on the line over the final days of the regular season. The Celtics have an opportunity to gain some ground in April, as they begin the month with games against the woeful Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards. If that goes well, they could be resting their veterans in the season finale against the Toronto Raptors on April 17.
No. 3 New York Knicks (39-26)
Games Remaining: 17 (9 home, 8 away)
vs. +.500: 10, vs. East: 15
No. 6 Chicago Bulls (36-30)
Games Remaining: 16 (8 home, 8 away)
vs. +.500: 5, vs. East: 13
The battered Knicks should do everything in their power to avoid this match-up. New York has lost four of its last five because of knee injuries to Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire, but they dropped all three of their previous games against the Bulls when they were much healthier. In fact, all three of the Bulls’ wins over the Knicks came when New York was perceived to be an elite team. Obviously, that perception has suffered with their health over February and March.
The Bulls need to fight off the Celtics because they’ve done much better against the Knicks than they have against the Pacers this season. Luol Deng has been particularly tough on the Knicks, averaging 28 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting 54.5 percent from three-point range in the first three meetings of the season.
Obviously Derrick Rose’s status will play a huge factor, but regardless of whether he’s active or if Nate Robinson is still in the starting lineup, the Knicks don’t have much athleticism in the backcourt and will struggle to keep pace with Chicago’s speedy guards.
Key remaining match-ups: A win over the Bulls in Chicago would be a big boost for the Knicks’ confidence on April 11. New York’s schedule isn’t too difficult going forward (they play the Magic once and the Raptors twice over the rest of this week), but they still have to play the HEAT in Miami (April 2), the Thunder in Oklahoma City (April 7) and the Pacers at Madison Square Garden (April 14). Chicago has an easy road from here on out. Only five of their final 16 opponents are over .500 and 13 of those games will be played within the Eastern Conference. Their biggest games will be against the Pacers (March 23), the HEAT (March 27 and April 14), the Nets in Brooklyn (April 4) and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden (April 11).
No. 4 Brooklyn Nets (39-28)
Games Remaining: 15 (5 home, 10 away)
vs. +500: 6, vs. East: 9
No. 5 Atlanta Hawks (37-30)
Games Remaining: 15 (8 home, 7 away)
vs. +.500: 8, vs. East: 13
The season series ended in a 2-2 tie after the Hawks’ 105-93 win in Brooklyn on Sunday. The Nets struggled against the Hawks in recent seasons, but some awkward match-ups for both teams appear to have evened the playing field.
The undersized Hawks struggle to defend Brook Lopez, who has hit 52.5 percent of his shots against Atlanta to average 19.3 points per game this year, while the Nets have failed to contain Jeff Teague, who has averaged 16.8 points and 9.0 assists per game over the four match-ups.
The Nets are 1-2 against the Bulls and 2-1 against the Celtics, so it’s hard to argue that they would prefer another match-up than this. The truth is, they’re simply trying to make it to the postseason in one piece.
Deron Williams and Joe Johnson have played well when healthy this season, but that hasn’t always been the case.
The Hawks, meanwhile, are 2-1 against the Pacers with another game to play this season, so falling into the seventh seed wouldn’t be horrible. They lost their only match-up with the Knicks, but have two more games remaining, so it’s difficult to tell how they’d react to that potential match-up.
Key remaining match-ups: Brooklyn is currently on the longest road trip in franchise history, which includes difficult games against the Clippers (March 23) and the Nuggets (March 29), but their final three games of the season are all winnable: at Toronto to face the Raptors on April 14, at home against the Wizards on April 15 and at home against the Pistons on April 17. Williams and Johnson should get some rest over the final week of the season. Atlanta still has a lot of important teams to play, including the Pacers (March 25 in Indiana), the Celtics (March 29 in Boston), the Knicks (at home on April 3, in New York on April 17) and the Spurs (April 6 in San Antonio).