By Vivek Jacob
The season is winding down, with teams jockeying for playoff position or fighting for their playoff lives. LeBron James has put aside the notion that the Cleveland Cavaliers are vulnerable in the Eastern Conference.
Here is a breakdown of the playoff races:
Cleveland Cavaliers (45-22).
Despite the attention the Boston Celtics received after they defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, the top spot in the Eastern Conference is Cleveland’s to lose. LeBron James has been on an absolute tear since the All-Star break, averaging 27.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 9.1 assists, giving no reason to believe that even some tightness in Kyrie Irving’s left knee will cause some slippage.
The Cavaliers will also have a chance for some revenge against the Celtics on April 5, and will have that date marked down as a potential clinching date for the top seed.
BATTLE FOR HOME COURT ADVANTAGE IN THE SECOND ROUND
Boston Celtics (43-25). Washington Wizards (41-26).
The Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards appear to be locked in a battle for second that should go down to the wire. However, considering the Celtics’ remaining games, it’s hard to see them relinquishing their position.
I’m not sure how much this matters, since the Wizards have been excellent on the road over their last few playoff appearances. There was the sweep of the Toronto Raptors a couple of seasons ago where they took both games in Toronto, and also the year before that where they took both games in Chicago before winning in five.
The Wizards received a scare against the Dallas Mavericks when John Wall hit the floor clutching his left foot. Despite losing the game, the Wizards would have been relieved to see Wall return for the second half and show no ill-effects. They’ve been far better at home this season than on the road, and will be tested down the stretch with 10 of their final 15 games on the road.
Worth noting however, is that after a wretched start to the season away from home, they’ve won 10 of their last 12.
BATTLE FOR HOME COURT
Toronto Raptors (39-29). Atlanta Hawks (37-31).
The Raptors have been able to keep their head above water in the absence of Kyle Lowry. Both Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker have transitioned seamlessly to their new team, and have revitalized a defence that had fallen off the rails from last season.
They’ve needed it as well, since the Raptors’ three-point shooting has fallen off a cliff with the double-loss of Lowry and Terrence Ross.
Currently shielding a two-game lead for home court in the first round, time is both their best friend and worst enemy. There are only 14 games to play, hurting the Hawks chances of leapfrogging them. What that also means is that Toronto is quickly running out of time to acclimate Lowry to their trade deadline acquisitions, leaving more questions than answers regardless of where Game One of their postseason is played.
The Hawks have historically been very good at home in the postseason, and will look to do everything they can to wrestle home-court away from the Raptors. They’ll be hard pressed to do it though, with games still to come against Boston, Washington, and Cleveland twice.
What they shouldn’t be perturbed by is having to play eight of their final 13 games on the road. They sport a 19-16 record at home and 18-15 record away, either proving that the Philips Arena doesn’t provide much of a homecourt advantage, or that they’re just that consistent. I’d go with the former.
Indiana Pacers (35-33)
The Pacers have been as perplexing as anyone. They won seven straight from Jan. 26 – Feb. 6, lost six straight between Feb. 8 – Feb. 16, and have flip-flopped wins and losses over 11 games since.
They have put on a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde show depending on where they’re situated, going 24-10 at Conseco Fieldhouse, but a miserable 11-23 on the road. They play seven games each at home and on the road down the stretch, and so the safest bet would be for them to win half those games. That should put them at 42 wins; likely enough to secure a playoff berth, but probably not enough to move up to fifth.
Milwaukee Bucks (33-34)
The Bucks picked up what may turn out to be a crucial win in Los Angeles against the Clippers on Wednesday night, and have now won seven of their past eight games.
They are peaking at the right time, and Jason Kidd has found a formula for success in the absence of Jabari Parker. Malcolm Brogdon has picked up his level of play once again, and if the Bucks can maintain this surge, he should garner serious consideration for ‘Rookie of the Year.’
They are in the midst of a six-game west coast swing where they are 1-1, and should at least defeat the Lakers and Kings over the remaining four. After that, their two toughest games come against the Celtics twice, a potential first-round preview.
Detroit Pistons (33-35)
Much like the Pacers, they are equally delightful at home, as they are disastrous on the road. Reggie Jackson has had a disappointing year, but Ish Smith has prevented the ship from capsizing. Marcus Morris has struggled for consistency of late, and that could be an X-Factor for them at the tail end of the regular season.
Despite eight of their final 12 games being on the road, only two will be against teams over .500. Four of them are against sub .400 teams. Five games before their season finale will determine their fate, when they face Milwaukee, Toronto, Houston, Memphis, and Washington.
Miami Heat (33-35)
At 22-5 since Jan. 13, they should be a lock for at least the eighth seed, shouldn’t they?
They have a manageable stretch of games till April 5, but it’s those final four games that could spell doom for them. They play the Raptors, Cavaliers, and Wizards (x2), and so may look to do everything they can to take care of business before that final stretch.
It’s interesting that the schedule plays out this way, as it could just be a case of seeing which of the two teams (Miami and Detroit) incur less damage over their brutal stretches to close the season.
Chicago Bulls (33-35)
The Bulls are slumping out of the playoff race and hanging on by a thread. Despite currently being in a gridlock with the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons, the Dwyane Wade injury could be the final nail in the coffin for a team that has now lost six of their last seven.
They are now depending on Rajon Rondo to help them salvage their season, and wildcard bets don’t get much bigger than that.
I’m intrigued by how the Bulls might respond to the injury. There have been reports of discontent in the locker room among the younger players over his preferential treatment and unwillingness to practice (due to his age), and so having that out of their heads may have a positive impact.
One thing that does work to their advantage is their final stretch compared to Detroit and Miami. They close the season with games against the Pelicans, Knicks, Sixers, Nets, Magic, and the Nets again. If they can survive their next eight games where seven of the opponents are currently in the playoff picture, there is still reason to believe the season is salvageable (as much as a potential first-round sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers can be considered that).