Here’s the reward if your team sneaks into the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 8 seed: a first-round date with LeBron James, whose clubs have won the past six conference titles. Let’s break down the teams fighting for the final spots in the East.
It’s all but a lock that the top four teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs will be Cleveland, Boston, Washington and Toronto. The Cavs, who already have clinched a postseason berth, would have to collapse to not finish with the top seed. The next three could realistically finish in any order. I have trouble seeing Toronto climb from its current No. 4 spot without injured All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.
The final four spots in the East are still very much up in the air. Entering this week, the Hawks were No. 5 but only 3.5 games ahead of No. 9 Miami. One five-game losing streak, and Atlanta could find itself on the outside looking in. It has the longest active playoff streak in the East at nine consecutive seasons.
For purposes of this article, I’m going to assume Atlanta holds on to a spot. That leaves five teams battling for three spots. Here’s a breakdown of those teams’ remaining schedules and where they stood as of Monday.
The Pacers were 35-34 as of Monday and sixth in the East but just 1.5 games ahead of No. 9 Miami. Indiana has seven home games and six road remaining. It has been an awful team away from Indianapolis with an 11-24 record (13-22 ATS on NBA odds). Even the terrible Orlando Magic have been better on the road. Indiana’s remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of 51.4. That includes likely losses in Boston, Memphis, Toronto and Cleveland. The other two road games are winnable in Orlando and Philly. The regular season concludes April 12 vs. Orlando.
Prediction: Pacers get in as No. 6.
They were 34-35 as of Monday and seventh in the East, a half-game ahead of No. 9 Miami. The Bucks have eight road games and just five at home. Milwaukee is 14-19 on the road (12-21 ATS on NBA picks). Its remaining foes have a winning percentage of around 49. The Bucks are done with the likes of Cleveland, Toronto and Washington, but have the Celtics twice – both in Boston. That’s where they close the season.
Prediction: Bucks miss out.
Coach Stan Van Gundy’s crew is 34-36 and holds the final spot via a tiebreaker over Miami. That’s because Detroit leads the season series 2-1, but the teams play in Auburn Hills on March 28. That will be big. So, likely, will be Wednesday’s trip to Chicago. The Pistons would take the season series with a victory there. Detroit’s remaining opponents have a winning percentage of just 45 percent. That’s among the easiest in the East. No Cleveland or Boston. Four total against sorry Brooklyn and Orlando, where the Pistons close the regular season.
Prediction: Pistons get in as No. 7.
The Heat are 34-36 and ninth in the East. They have been playing better than anyone in the East since mid-January with six losses and back-to-back defeats only once. The Heat did lose for only the second time in their past 17 home games Sunday as a 6-point betting favorite against Portland. Miami’s remaining opponents have a winning percentage of 52. Six are home and six away (two three-game road trips). The conclusion of the regular season is very tough with trips to Toronto and Washington and home games vs. Cleveland and Washington (to close the regular season). Maybe those teams have nothing to play for by then.
Prediction: Heat get in as No. 8 (won season series vs. Bucks -- that will be the difference).
The Bulls are 33-37 and 10th in the West, one game behind No. 8 Detroit. When Dwyane Wade was lost for the season last week, that pretty much killed Chicago’s playoff chances. On the bright side, the Bulls’ remaining opponents have a winning percentage of just 42, easiest in the East. Their final six games are all against teams with losing records: at New Orleans, at NY Knicks, at Philadelphia, at Brooklyn, vs. Orlando, vs. Brooklyn. The problem is that Chicago tends to play to its opponents’ level.
Prediction: Bulls miss out.