Eastern Conference Playoff Race

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With just under three weeks before the NBA postseason, the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference is extremely competitive throughout, but particularly at the bottom half of the race. In which, teams are in a tight battle to achieve the 5th, 6th, 7th, or 8th seed in the eastern conference playoffs that begins on April 15.

Atlanta, Indiana, Miami, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago are all jockeying for position and none of them are guaranteed safe passage. For the vast majority of these teams, this season has been disappointing internally, but maybe not so surprising for outsiders. Breaking down each team’s remaining schedule gives us some insight on their potential to reach the playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks

At first glance, the Hawks seem poised to keep their playoff positioning as the highest seeded team of this crop currently. But late season difficulties have started to develop, as they’ve lost 6 straight games and are dealing with injuries to Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore. This isn’t a team that can simply rely on the next man up approach, especially considering the drop off between Millsap and his backup Ersan Illyasova.

Atlanta has 6 of their final 10 games against teams under .500. That’s the good news, but the other 4 games include 1 game against the Celtics, 2 with the Cavs, and the season finale against the Pacers who are right on their heels. They probably won’t drop out of the playoff picture, but they could potentially fall from their 5th seed positioning. Down to the 6th or 7th seed amongst this crop.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers haven’t lived up to the lofty expectations many had for them, but they’ve done enough to stay in the lower-middle section of the playoffs conversation. Paul George has regressed and has seemed like a malcontent for a good quarter of the season. Still, George is an elite talent and might be the best player that any of these teams have.

Indiana hoped to have a high-powered offense bringing in Jeff Teague and other pseudo-athletes to play alongside George (minus Al Jefferson). That was a mistake as Coach Nate McMillian has never proven himself to be an offensive guru. The result has been a team ranked 18th in offensive rating. The silver lining is that since the All-Star break, their defense has picked up ranking 7th. An improved defense should prove valuable during the stretch run they’ll face.

Only 4 of their final 10 games will come against teams under .500, with an even split of 5 games at home and on the road. But the Pacers have been atrocious on the road at just 11-25. If this team stumbles, then look for the Paul George trade rumors to be a hot topic of discussion in your social media feeds this summer.

Miami Heat

We’ve discussed the amazing basketball played by the Miami Heat here on Basketball Gods. And this is a team determined to not only get in the playoffs, but they want to and have the ability to upset a team in the first-round. While that may be a very real possibility, they must utilize the focus on one game at a time approach, as their schedule won’t do them any favors.

Miami will play 4 teams under .500 in their final 10 games, including a massive game against the Pistons and a home-and-home with the Knicks. Those are must win games. Boston, Cleveland, Toronto and Washington (twice) also remain on their schedule. The irony of those matchups can’t be overstated, as each could represent a first-round opponent in various playoff scenarios.

Milwaukee Bucks

The fact that the Bucks are still breathing life into their post-season hopes with all their injuries is nothing short of freakish. Giannis Antentkounmpo has been the mainstay all season, and with solid play from Malcom Brogdon and Greg Monroe, this team has stayed competitive. Khris Middleton’s return can’t be overstated and has been key to helping Antentkounmpo stay fresh down the stretch in the wake of Jabari Parker’s season-ending injury. The Bucks have been 15-6 since Middleton’s return and Parker’s unfortunate demise.

Much like the Pacers, the Bucks have improved defensively since the All-Star break. Moving up in defensive ranking from 20th overall to 11th since mid-February has greatly improved their playoff outlook. Six of their final 10 games are on the road, but they also play 6 teams under .500 during that time. If they get in, this is probably one of the scarier teams for the higher seeds to contend with due to their length.

Detroit Pistons

Detroit’s season seems destined for the lottery and that might not be a bad thing. The sum of all parts for this team no longer seem cohesive and Coach Van Gundy is still searching for rotations that make his team the most effective. Think about this for a second. We are 70 plus games into the season, the Pistons don’t have significant injuries and this team still doesn’t know who should be on the court every night.

They’ve lost three straight games including games against the Nets and the Magic. It just feels likes there is no oil left in the Motor City engine. Four of their final 9 games will come against teams under .500. Unfortunately, they will play a hellacious stretch which will put them against all the above .500 teams remaining on their schedule in a row. Look for changes in Detroit over the summer as well.

Chicago Bulls

Many wish the Bulls would just go away with all the turmoil their organization has endured this season. If this team were to get in, it would be in spite of themselves and really at the detriment of a more deserving team. But Jimmy Butler is an ultra-competitor who won’t give in just because his running mate Dwyane Wade is now finished for the regular season.  The problem now is Fred Hoiberg is caught in limbo trying to develop his young guns while vets like Butler, Rajon Rondo, and Robin Lopez yearn for the playoffs.

Chicago’s remaining schedule is favorable should one of the teams in front of them stumble. Only 3 of their 9 remaining games are against teams above .500 and they will play those consecutively. The Bulls will close the season against 6 straight teams under .500, but there is a four-game road trip mixed into that 6 that could detrimentally affect their playoff hopes, if they don’t find a way to score consistently.

As this season ends, each game will carry intense pressure that will determine seeding and ultimately the fate of the Eastern conference elite as well. Miami and Milwaukee have been the best of this bunch since All-Star break and represent the biggest threat to upset a higher seed. But they must get in and all of that still remains to be seen.

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