If the NBA season ended today, the 3rd seeded Boston Celtics would be separated from the 10th seeded Washington Wizards by just seven games, which means that any extended slump, losing streak, or injury could severely hamper any teams’ playoff chances. In recent years, the West has been the more competitive conference. However, this year the roles are reversed. The East is as competitive as it’s been in years; every game is just as important as the next. Now that we are at the home stretch with a month left, teams must separate themselves in the tight NBA East playoff race, because two very playoff-worthy teams will be undeservingly sent home in April.
A year ago today, March 6th, 2015, the 3rd seed lead the 10th seed by twelve games. The playoff picture was mostly settled; the only spots that were up for grabs were the 7th and 8th seeds. Before the season, NBA experts predicted the standings. You can see how close the race was bound to be. To this point, it has not disappointed. The Cavaliers and Raptors seem to have the 1 and 2 seeds locked up, but after that, it’s anyone’s game. Since the standings are so close, wins against other teams ranked between 3rd and 10th are extremely crucial, because it’s not hard to imagine the final rankings being decided by a tie-breaker or two.
The Celtics currently hold the 3 spot, at 38-26. Lead by Brad Stevens, they are on a good stretch right now, and have proven that they deserve to be in the playoffs. On January 22nd, the Celtics were 22-21 and looked like they were in danger of falling out of the playoff race, with the Knicks (22-22), Magic (20-21), and Wizards (20-21) right behind them. Since then, the Celtics have gone 16-5, while winning twelve straight at home. The Celtics have separated themselves from the rest of the pack over the last month-and- a-half, but they still have games against the Hawks, Heat, Hornets, and Pacers-who are all right behind the them in the standings- remaining. The Celtics need to beat these teams, or they could drop from the 3rd seed in a hurry.
Behind the Celtics are the Miami Heat, who have been in the playoff picture all season. After missing the playoffs last year, Dwyane Wade is hungry to win again. “We’re going to be better. I know that,” Wade said in an interview with ESPN’s Michael Wallace. “Knock on wood, you stay healthy, I think we’re a good team. I like our chances.” [http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/13190175/dwyane-wade-returns-miami-heat-one-year-deal].
The Heat have gotten major contributions this year from Wade, Chris Bosh, and center Hassan Whiteside, who is averaging a league best 4 blocks per game. They are currently 36-26 and are ahead of the 5th seeded Atlanta Hawks by two games. On the downside, Bosh’s season is in jeopardy due to the blood clot issues that ended his 2014-15 season. Without Bosh, an All-Star big man, the Heat could struggle the rest of the season, with games against Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, San Antonio, and Boston still remaining. However, if Bosh gets healthy, the Heat could be a threat to LeBron and the Cavs in the playoffs.
After the Celtics and Heat things start to get interesting. Only 4.5 games separate the 5th seed and 10th seed.
The Atlanta Hawks are 35-28, good for 5th place, but didn’t distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack in February, as they’ve only gone 8-6 since February 10th, but are 4-1 in their last five. The Hawks debated whether or not to blow up their team at the deadline, but ultimately decided to stand pat:
Sources: Atlanta’s expressing its intentions to rivals that Hawks plan to keep team intact at deadline, holding onto Horford and key guards.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) February 18, 2016
The Hawks are talented and experienced, and will surely get into the playoffs. However, it’s hard to see them advancing past the second round, since their likely matchup would be the Cavs.
Just a half game back of the Hawks sit the Charlotte Hornets, who went on a great run over the past month. The Hornets were 23-25 on February 1st, and 9th in the East. The Hornets then turned it up to go 10-3 in February, with wins over the Cavs, Bulls, and Pacers twice, and are 8-2 in their last ten. A big part of their success is Kemba Walker, who put up 22 points a game in February.
The Hornets have a good combination of younger players (Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminksy, Cody Zeller) and veterans (Nicolas Batum, Al Jefferson), which makes them an intriguing team. The Courtney Lee trade showed that the Hornets are serious about competing. With a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, and showing no signs of slowing down, the Hornets could play into late April and early May.
The Pacers, Pistons, Bulls, and Wizards are currently in a fight for the last two spots. The Pacers have been right there in the middle of the pack since January, because the last time they won more than three games in a row was December 14th-18th. It would be a huge shock if a redeemed Paul George doesn’t will his team to the playoffs in his first year back from injury, so expect to see the Pacers playing past April 13th.
The Bulls are in 8th place right now, and are just 5-10 since February 1st, when they were 26-20. A big part of the Bulls’ struggles is the absence of All-Star Jimmy Butler, but he had a triumphant return last night against the Rockets, leading the Bulls to victory. Nikola Mirotic is also close to returning, which should help down the stretch. Now that their best player in Butler is back, the Bulls should pick up the slack and make a very dangerous 7/8 seed come playoff time.
The Pistons are another young team who are hanging on by a thread in the playoff race. They had a very mediocre February, going 6-6. At the trade deadline, the Pistons let it be known they are ready to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009 by trading for Tobias Harris. Since the trade, they are 4-4, which won’t cut it in such a tight race. The Pistons need to win their remaining games against good conference opponents if they want their playoff spot: @Charlotte, vs. Atlanta twice, vs. Charlotte, @Chicago, and a home and away vs Miami.
Unlike the three teams in front of them, the Washington Wizards are playing well. They are 6-4 in their last ten, and it doesn’t look like John Wall, who averaged 22 points a game in February, is going to let his team miss the playoffs after making it the past two years. However, they just dropped a one point game to the Pacers at home, which is a game that has tie-breaking implications.
This is the most competitive the East has been from top-to-bottom in years. Anything can happen over this final month and a half, so buckle up, because the best part of the season is about to take off.