Top of the East
As was predicted on this site last Monday, the Chicago Bulls would soon take over the top spot, which they just did. Their schedule down the stretch is looking like a cakewalk with the remaining teams on the docket having a collective 43% winning percentage, second-lowest/best in the entire NBA. Over their remaining 16 games, the tough ones are the temperamental Celtics and Magic in early-April, and then a smattering of a could-be-tricky-but-they-should-definitely-win games like Atlanta next Tuesday, Memphis next Friday, and the Sixers the following Monday. They also have a bunch of crap like New Jersey twice, Indiana, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toronto, and Cleveland. Add in the fact that they will shortly have the whole team together finally, and Chicago is sitting pretty to hold that spot and avoid a second-round bloodbath.
That bloodbath would likely be between the #2 and #3 seeds, which would fall to Boston and Miami if either one can’t edge back into the top spot. The Boston Celtics currently sit only half a game behind the surging Bulls, but their remaining 17 games provide many more possible landmines. Ten of those contests are on the road, including at San Antonio (Mar. 31), at Chicago (Apr. 7), and at Miami (Apr. 10). Their list of tricky games could be a little troublesome for a team that’s still refinding/redefining its identity after their trades and before Shaq comes back: at Houston (Friday), at New Orleans (Saturday), Memphis (next Wednesday), at Atlanta (Apr. 1), and Philadelphia (Apr. 5). That’s a lot of hurdles for a team on the mend.
I’m still not counting the Miami Heat out of this race simply because they have the artillery to make up 2.5 games if Chicago doesn’t coast through the rest of their schedule. The Heat just handled the Lakers down the stretch before clubbing the Grizzlies and Spurs to death in overwhelming fashion (by 33 and by 30). The remaining teams on their schedule have a 45% winning percentage, not that much harder than what Chicago is facing. Sure they got Boston at home on Apr. 10, but their only “tough” road games left are two in Atlanta, and the rest are Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Toronto. Their sorta toughies at home are OKC, Denver, Philly, and Houston, and only the Nuggets are on the second night of a back-to-back. We saw LeBron, Wade, and company go 21-1 over a stretch earlier this year, so they could pull this off.
Likeliest Scenario: The Bulls’ easy schedule and the rejoining of frontcourt forces Boozer and Noah will be enough to hold off a determined Heat squad, who will get the #2 spot and home court advantage over the Celtics in round two (assuming neither one gets clipped by the Sixers in round one).
Final Spot in the East
Three small-market clubs are duking it out for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East: the Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Bobcats, and Milwaukee Bucks. The Pacers currently have a half-game hold on the spot with their 29-38 record. They’ve been bad of late, losing 8 of 12 since Mike Dunleavy broke his thumb. Those losses included ones to the inconsistent Jazz and Suns, and to the terrible Timberwolves (by 26 points no less) and Raptors. If I were to break their schedule down into certain losses, likely losses, 50-50 games, and likely wins, I got 5 certain losses (Boston twice [one road], Chicago, @NO, @Orlando), 3 likely losses (@Memphis, Atlanta, NY), 5 toss-ups (@NJ, @Charlotte, Detroit twice [one road], Milwaukee), and 2 likely wins (Sacramento, Washington). If I was a betting man, I only see 4 wins there, maybe 5.
Right on their heels are the Bobcats, who are 28-38. Somehow 4 of their last 7 wins are against the Blazers, Lakers, Hawks, and Celtics, but they also just had a 6-game losing streak. Their final 16 games are evenly split at home and on the road, but the road ones look nearly impossible (Houston, OKC, SA, Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, Miami, NJ); they should beat the Cavs and have a chance with the Nets, but I’m calling that over/under at 1.5 wins. They get the Pacers and Bucks at home, which is good for this race, plus NY, Cleveland, Washington, and Detroit all look winnable in Charlotte. They also get Orlando and Atlanta at home. I’m seeing 6 wins on the remaining schedule, even with Gerald Wallace gone.
Sitting only 2.5 games behind Indy right now are the Bucks, who are slowly but surely getting most of their injured players back. Not only that, 6 of their 8 remaining home games look winnable: NJ (Friday), NY (Sunday), Sacramento (Mar. 23), Philly (Apr. 2), Cleveland (Apr. 9), and Toronto (Apr. 11). Outside of Orlando and Miami in early-April, their road schedule provides plenty of opportunities to make up some ground, most notably in Charlotte (Mar. 28), in Toronto (Mar. 30), in Indy (Apr. 1), and in Detroit (Apr. 8). The only aforementioned games to fall on the second night of a back-to-back are Philly and Cleveland at home, a pair that should still result in at least one win. I see a lot of reason for hope on Milwaukee’s final stretch.
Likeliest Scenario: I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Bucks get in and get to deal with what the Bulls have to offer in round one. They have the most legit star of the trio in Andrew Bogut (in case you missed it, he’s leading the league in blocks at 2.7 bpg) and some of their top scorers are shooting better recently, which can only push their league-worst offense in one direction. The Paces are a real wild card with their style of play, but I’m leaning Bucks here.
Spots 5 through 8 in the West
Currently the bottom half of the West’s playoff picture looks like this: Denver at the #5 spot, Portland and New Orleans are 2 games back, Memphis is 3.5 games back and in the #8 spot, Utah is 2 games back of Memphis, Phoenix is 2.5 back, and Houston is 3 out.
The Denver Nuggets’s remaining schedule is averaging a 51% winning percentage and contains 8 games on the road (out of 15 total), most of which look really tough. Their home schedule looks pretty simple outside of the Spurs next Wednesday, plus they’re looking better overall since dumping Melo.
The Portland Trail Blazers have the toughest remaining schedule in the league in terms of opponents’ winning percentage, which sits at 56%. Thankfully 9 of their remaining 15 games are at home, although those include SanAn, OKC, Dallas, LAL (on the second night of a back-to-back), and Memphis. I’m expecting them to win about 6 at home but probably only 2 on the road (at LAL [again the second night of a back-to-back], at OKC, at SA, at NO, at Utah, at GSW.
The New Orleans Hornets also face opponents who have won 56% of their games and also have a majority of remaining games at home (8 of 13). This is the team that’s most likely to simply blow up and win 9 of 10 at some point (look at Mar. 24 through Apr. 11), but they face a ton of teams that are also fighting for a playoff spot or obviously have more talent. They are Phoenix, Boston, @Utah, @Phoenix, @LAL, Portland, Memphis, Indiana, Houston, Phoenix, @Memphis, Utah, and @Dallas. Did you notice that was literally all of their remaining games? That’s not good.
The Memphis Grizzlies currently occupy the West’s final playoff spot, and they’ve done pretty well recently for a team that’s missing one of its top players (Rudy Gay) and who have faced a tremendously difficult group of teams to start the month. Over their final 14 contests, the Grizzlies get 8 at home, most of which look winnable, and only one back-to-back (@Portland and @LAC to finish the year). Their offense has been humming and there aren’t many teams on that home schedule that look like a certain L.
The Utah Jazz haven’t been playing well since the Deron Williams trade, almost all of their remaining 7 road games look unwinnable, and their home schedule includes NO, Dallas, LAL, Portland, and Denver.
The Phoenix Suns have 17 games remaining, the most in the NBA. Nine of them are on the road, including a killer 5-game stretch in early-April (SA, Chi, Min, NO, Dal), and plenty of talented clubs are still headed to Phoenix. There definitely aren’t many chances available for the Suns to put together a 3- or 4-game winning streak on the schedule.
The Houston Rockets have the most ground to make up, currently sitting 3 games behind Memphis. They’ve been playing reasonably well recently, and 2 of their remaining 5 road games are in NJ and in Minnesota. Not only that, the home schedule looks reasonably manageable to finish the season.
Likeliest Scenario: I see Denver retaining the #5 spot and Memphis creeping past Portland and NO into the #6 hole. I suspect Portland and the Hornets will stay in the playoffs simply because Utah and Phoenix aren’t looking for real, and Houston might be too far back (4.5 games behind both) this late in the season. If Houston did catch one of the two, I’d say it’s NO. So I got Portland at #7 and NO at #8.