With all due respect to the MVP chase and the hunt for the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed, perhaps the most competitive race right now in the NBA is the one taking place at the bottom of the Eastern Conference Playoff bracket.
As it stands right now, the standings are as follows:
|Seed||Team||Record||Games Remaining||Games Back|
|Chasing the No. 6 Seed|
|Chasing the No. 8 seed|
Milwaukee’s spot in the playoffs seemed safe for the majority of the season, but since the end of February, the team has been in a state of free fall that has even the most loyal Bucks supporters questioning how safe their 3½-game lead over the No.9 seed Celtics is. Milwaukee is 3-13 since beating the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 20, and while the schedule in that time has been pretty difficult, that’s still a far cry from the 31-23 they were going into that stretch.
Meanwhile, the Heat, who’ve been written off more than a few times this season, seem to be finding their stride at the right time. Dwyane Wade had 25 points in seven straight games before scoring 22 against Denver last Friday and just 12 in an 18-point loss to the Thunder on Sunday.
Boston, Indiana, Charlotte and Brooklyn have been buried even more times than Miami. Indiana started the worst of the bunch, falling to a season worst 17-32 on Jan. 31 before winning 13 of its next 16 … And then proceeding to drop the next five, a losing streak that’s still going.
Brooklyn looked like it was out of the race after losing five in a row over the course of a week, only to rattle off four of the next five, including wins over the Bucks and Pacers.
Charlotte rebounded after losing five of six to beat Minnesota on Sunday, but the Hornets’ schedule doesn’t get any easier in the near future. They play four playoff teams in the next five games, and the only non-playoff team is the Nets, who’s currently just a game behind the Hornets in the race for the No. 8 seed.
And finally, the Celtics won seven of eight immediately following a 31-point beat down at the hands of the Cavaliers in the beginning of March. They limp into this week, however, having dropped three straight, including an overtime loss to the struggling Pistons at home. They need Isaiah Thomas back sooner than later if they want any shot at the postseason.
Here are my game-by-game predictions for how this thing will play out:
|3/24 vs. Miami: LOSS||3/24 @ Milwaukee: WIN||3/23 @ Chicago: LOSS|
|3/26 vs. Indiana: LOSS||3/25 @ Boston: LOSS||3/25 vs. Brooklyn: LOSS|
|3/28 vs. Golden State: LOSS||3/27 @Atlanta: LOSS||3/27 @Washington: LOSS|
|3/30 @ Atlanta: LOSS||3/29 vs. Detroit: WIN||3/28 vs. Atlanta: LOSS|
|4/1 vs. Chicago: LOSS||3/31 vs. San Antonio: LOSS||3/30 vs. Boston: WIN|
|4/3 @ Boston: LOSS||4/2 @ Cleveland: LOSS||4/1 vs. Detroit: WIN|
|4/4 vs. Orlando: WIN||4/4 @ Detroit: WIN||4/3 @ Indiana: LOSS|
|4/8 vs. Cleveland: LOSS||4/5 @ Indiana: WIN||4/4 vs. Philadelphia: WIN|
|4/10 @ New York: WIN||4/7 vs. Charlotte: WIN||4/7 @ Miami: LOSS|
|4/12 vs. Brooklyn: WIN||4/9 vs. Chicago: LOSS||4/8 vs. Toronto: LOSS|
|4/13 vs. Philadelphia: WIN||4/11 vs. Toronto: WIN||4/10 @Atlanta: LOSS|
|4/15 vs. Boston: LOSS||4/13 vs. Orlando: WIN||4/12 @ Detroit: WIN|
|4/15 @ Philadelphia: WIN||4/13 vs. Houston: LOSS|
|4/15 @ Toronto: LOSS|
|3/23 @ Brooklyn: LOSS||3/23 vs. Houston: LOSS||3/23 vs. Boston: WIN|
|3/25 vs. Miami: WIN||3/25 @ Washington: LOSS||3/25 @ Charlotte: WIN|
|3/27 @ New York: WIN||3/26 @ Milwaukee: WIN||3/27 vs. Cleveland: LOSS|
|3/29 vs. Clippers: LOSS||3/29 vs. Dallas: WIN||3/29 vs. Lakers: WIN|
|3/30 @ Charlotte: LOSS||3/31 @ Brooklyn: WIN||3/31 vs. Indiana: LOSS|
|4/1 vs. Indiana: LOSS||4/1 @ Boston: WIN||4/1 @ New York: WIN|
|4/3 vs. Milwaukee: WIN||4/3 vs. Charlotte: WIN||4/3 vs. Toronto: LOSS|
|4/4 @ Toronto: LOSS||4/5 vs. Miami: LOSS||4/4 @Atlanta: LOSS|
|4/8 @ Detroit: WIN||4/8 @ New York: WIN||4/6 vs. Portland: LOSS|
|4/10 @ Cleveland: LOSS||4/10 @ Detroit: WIN||4/8 vs. Atlanta: LOSS|
|4/12 vs. Cleveland: LOSS||4/12 vs. OKC: LOSS||4/10 vs. Washington: WIN|
|4/14 vs. Toronto: WIN||4/14 vs. Washington: WIN||4/12 @Milwaukee: LOSS|
|4/15 @ Milwaukee: WIN||4/15 @ Memphis: LOSS||4/13 vs. Chicago: WIN|
|4/15 vs. Orlando: WIN|
- Miami Heat (40-42)
- Indiana Pacers (38-44)
- Milwaukee Bucks (38-44)
- Boston Celtics (36-46)
- Brooklyn Nets (36-46)
- Charlotte Hornets (34-48)
* If Milwaukee and Charlotte weren’t struggling so much entering this stretch, some of their predictions might be a little different – unfortunately, neither of them are finding ways to win right now and I worry that may stretch throughout the rest of the season.
* Brooklyn has a healthy Brook Lopez and a healthy Deron Williams and they just picked up two huge wins. They may catch some breaks at the end with Washington and Chicago resting players, but it may not be enough to get them over the hump.
* Boston catches a tough break, having Cleveland in back-to-back games in the last week of the season. They really need the Cavs to rest players (which they may well be doing) to pick up those wins to feel safe in the No. 8 seed.
* Milwaukee is one bad loss away from dropping out. They absolutely have to win the games against bad teams remaining on the schedule, because if they don’t, they’ll likely find themselves on the outside looking in.
* Things could change for Indiana depending on how Paul George plays when (if?) he comes back. I currently have them losing to Boston on April 1 and Miami on April 5, but those could really go either way, especially if George is playing at even a fraction of his normal high level.
No matter what happens the rest of the way, the East playoff race is sure to be one of the more entertaining story lines in the league as we come down the stretch. These six teams have a large number of games remaining against each other that’ll surely make the race even more interesting. I’ve been wrong about basically every prediction I’ve made this season (No, YOU said there was a 99.999 percent chance the Heat wouldn’t trade for Goran Dragic. Gosh.), so make sure to enjoy the remainder of the season and try not to be too harsh when I’m wrong.