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Eastern Conference Playoff Race Heats Up for Home Stretch

With 17 seconds on the clock and the signature No. 2 on his back, Rodney Stuckey knew there was a possibility that his number would be called with the Pacers down five in Boston on March 14. After all, just two nights prior, Stuckey put on what was arguably his best performance in a Pacers uni, scoring 25 points against Milwaukee in an OT win that continued to drive Indiana towards what it thought would be a likely playoff spot. Considering the fact that the Pacers had the best record in the NBA in the month of February, and that they had gone 10-2 prior to the Bucks win, the playoff picture began to look good for the Hoosier state.

Back to Boston, Stuckey was indeed called upon, and he answered that call with a three-pointer that brought Indy within two points of tying. But, almost anti-climatically, the Pacers fouled, Boston made its free throws, and Indiana lost the game. At the time, the game seemed almost insignificant to Indy. Boston was also fighting for a playoff spot at the time, but Indiana was in a position to fight for sixth, not eighth. They weren’t worried about what losing to Boston would do to them in that moment in time.

What the Pacers didn’t know is that the loss in Boston on March 14 would mark the beginning of a six-game skid that saw Indy’s playoff chances dwindle greatly. George Hill’s game-winning lay-in against the Wizards in Washington, though likely inspired by the presence of the GOAT Lionel Messi, helped stop the slide but only for a moment. Indiana dropped a tight contest with Milwaukee two days later after a monstrous and somewhat unexpected blow from Ersan Ilyasova, who outscored the Pacers in the first quarter:

After Milwaukee, the Pacers snuck out another close win against Dallas, but followed that up with losses against Brooklyn and Boston (again), two of their direct rivals for the final spot in the East. Two weeks ago, the Pacers were almost in a state of euphoria. Who knew they could go on such a run without their heralded king Paul George leading the line? Who expected them to get to a point where they were fighting for the No. 6 seed, even in the Eastern Conference? Were things too good to be true?

Apparently, yes:

The media circus surrounding Indiana’s basketball sweetheart and newly-branded PG13 has been nothing but a whirlwind of supposed practice and debut dates, many of which have deflated the hopes of Pacers fans and the team, too. At the beginning of the year, I had the Pacers winning no more than 35 games and no less than 25. Right now, Indiana sits 11th in the conference (2 games back) at 32-43 with seven games to play, including a home game against the Hornets on Friday night. Is it possible to still get in the playoffs? Yes. Is it likely? Well, that’s up to the rest of their eighth-seed competitors, like Charlotte.

To me, Charlotte is an entirely different case. Last season, the Bobcats (weird, right?) came to at the end of the year and were able to scrap their way into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed with a date against the Heat in the first round. The addition of Al Jefferson in free agency helped spark a team that needed bigs, and despite being swept by LeBron James and the Heat in the first round, things looked good for the newly labeled Hornets heading into the offseason. However, the offseason acquisitions of Marvin Williams and Lance Stephenson haven’t been as productive as Hornets fans would have hoped.

This has especially been the case for Stephenson. Lance had been the center of controversy and drama in Indiana in the year leading up to his free agency, and his unorthodox methods of guarding James caught plenty of media attention and quickly became an internet sensation. With the Hornets, Lance is averaging just over eight points per game, with a horrid 37/16/62 shooting line. Not exactly the deal Charlotte was bargaining for. Lance blames Charlotte’s system, while Charlotte’s fans blame Lance.

Overall, this year was supposed to be better for Charlotte than it has been. Recently, the Hornets have been bouncing back and forth between wins and losses, but they still have plenty of work to do to get into the playoffs. Friday’s game against the Pacers means the winner gets to keep their chances of the No. 8 seed, while the loser might as well pack it in and call it a season, something fans of both teams are already calling for:

Charlotte is currently 10th in the conference standings at 32-43 (1½ games back), with a chance to move even closer with a win over Indy. Ahead of them? The Celtics.

The current holder of ninth place in the Eastern Conference is a team that damn near deserves a medal for the work they’ve put in this year considering the talent in place. In Boston, Brad Stevens is Basketball Jesus, and that’s a fair claim considering their leading scorer Isaiah Thomas has only played 15 games in a Celtics uni after getting out of Phoenix just before the trade deadline. The Celtics have played 22 different players this season and traded both Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, but that hasn’t stopped them from making this charge. Stevens has done an excellent job managing minutes and has been able to get the most out of guys like Evan Turner and Marcus Smart, even if their roles are a work in progress.

To many in Boston, Stevens has been more than a savior.

To many in Boston, Stevens has been more than a savior.

One of the key things for Boston has been the ability to get something out of every position on the roster. At guard, Thomas and Avery Bradley have run the show alongside Turner, who has notched three triple-doubles this season. Jae Crowder has stepped up as the starting small forward with Green gone. Jared Sullinger was productive before going down with an injury, but the big man is making a surprise return to the court after being ruled out for the season. Brandon Bass, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller have stepped into their respective roles just fine in the frontcourt.

Schedule wise, Boston faces a playoff team every game from here on out except for one meeting with Detroit on April 8. The Celtics play Toronto and Cleveland twice before ending the season against Milwaukee on the 15th. If the Celtics end up beating the Bucks on Friday, it’s entirely possible that they find a way to get all the way up to sixth with the help of some results against the teams above them. (Heat, Nets, Bucks) It won’t be easy, though, as Brooklyn and Miami seem entirely determined to hold its spots, even if Milwaukee can’t.

The Heat are another team that deserves a ton of respect for the way they’ve been able to bounce back following last season’s Finals loss in combination with the loss of the best player in the world, LeBron James. There have been plenty of storylines for the Heat this year, with many of them surrounding the departure of James and whether or not the team could return to the playoffs without the biggest of their big three. What was unforeseen was Chris Bosh’s unthinkably sorrowful experience with blood clots on his lungs, joined by Dwyane Wade’s season-long battle with injury as his body continues the fight against Father Time.

NBA: JAN 08 Heat at Trail Blazers

The addition of Goran Dragic before the trade deadline has helped Miami, but Dragic hasn’t been the answer to all of the problems in South Beach. How could he be? When you lose the league MVP, who you count on every night, it’s not exactly an easy void to fill. But Dragic and Wade have helped the Heat stay afloat even with James gone and Bosh hurt, and role players like Luol Deng have helped. The emergence of Hassan Whiteside has surprised many, and his physical presence down low has been crucial in their push for the playoffs.

Despite all of this, though, Miami is limping into the last part of the season just hoping the playoffs will still be there in two weeks time. They’ve lost five of their last seven games and Wade is again hurt, putting their hopes on hold until his prognosis is fully determined. Thursday night, the Heat dropped a tough one in Cleveland, 114-88, behind a 23/8/7 game from King James and 23 points and five assists from the white-hot Kyrie Irving.

The Heat still have plenty of potential playoff teams to play (Indiana, Charlotte, Toronto, Chicago), but first must get past Detroit on Saturday night. Miami holds the No. 8 spot right now with a 34-41 record, but without Wade, things look gloomy in an otherwise bright South Beach.

Not too far ahead of Miami is seventh-seeded Brooklyn. Coach Lionel Hollins has produced some golden quotes along the roller coaster ride that has been Brooklyn’s season, but the team nonetheless find themselves in a decent position with just eight games to play. The Nets haven’t had a .500 record or above since Jan. 2 when they were 16-16, but they’ve kept fighting through the continuous obstacles thrown at them:

Brook Lopez has been good this season, and despite almost getting dealt to OKC in February, has still remained in good faith with the team through injury trouble. Joe Johnson has played more “Iso Joe” this season than I’ve ever seen, but something has to be working, because the seven-time All-Star has started all 72 games this year and maintains an average of nearly 15 points per game.

The Nets, like the rest of the teams fighting for a spot, have plenty of playoff teams still to play before the end of the season. In fact, excluding the last game of the season against Orlando, Brooklyn plays a near-guaranteed playoff team every night. First up is the Raptors in Brooklyn, but the Nets will need more than just a win on Friday to keep their spot. They may need wins in six of eight, at least.

The final team still “fighting” for a spot is the Bucks, who currently sit in sixth place at 37-38. With that record, the Bucks are pretty safe, but still have to keep their eye on those lurking for that specific spot. The exit of Brandon Knight has hurt Milwaukee, as the Bucks have gone just 7-15 post-All-Star break. It has taken some time for Michael Carter-Williams to get acclimated, and the bench has been dismal of late.

But despite some of these woes and the early injury to Jabari Parker, credit the Bucks and head coach Jason Kidd for being in this spot after Milwaukee held the worst record in the league last season.

Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports

While the Bucks have struggled of late, they’ve gotten key wins over the Pacers and the Heat in the last couple of weeks, and following losses against Golden State and Atlanta, picked up a solid 95-91 win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday. Milwaukee plays Boston on Friday night with the potential to almost lock up that sixth spot, but there’s still games against Cleveland, Brooklyn and another against Boston remaining, leaving questions as to whether or not the Bucks can truly place their claim on a first-round matchup against either Toronto or Chicago.

With all these teams battling it out for these last few spots, the playoff race in the Eastern Conference is highly entertaining. Sure, these teams are all under .500 and may not be more playoff-worthy than Western Conference teams with better records like the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns, two teams not in the playoff picture in the West. But this East race is tight, and it’ll only get tighter as the next two weeks unfold, which should make it an exciting finish.

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