It was bizarro night in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, as the Heat and Pacers both lost to significantly inferior teams. But such is life in the NBA right now, where the battle between rest and playoff positioning among contenders is a tangible one. The postseason landscape is beginning to take shape, making for what is sure to be an eventful final month of the regular season.
OK, what's the deal with the favorites?
The Pacers lost to the Knicks last night. As a single event, that's not all that crazy, given Indiana's level of comfort with its playoff situation and the fact New York is fighting tooth and nail to find a way into the postseason. But this isn't exactly an isolated incident. Indy is 17-11 over its last 28 games, only beating opponents by an average of 1.4 points per game. Not just that, but five of those losses came against teams with a losing record at the time. On the flip side, the Pacers have won 50 games and remain two games ahead of the Heat in the loss column, so not all is bad. But we're going on two months of a relatively poor level of play from a team that's supposed to be a title contender, and that's nothing to dismiss.
Miami isn't exactly forcing the issue, though. The defending champs, sans LeBron James, lost to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, failing to pick up any ground on the top-seed Pacers on what would've been a good night to do so. The Heat are 3-6 in their last nine games while allowing 106 points per 100 possessions over that stretch. That's terrible, in case you need clarification. I'm not sure what to make of the struggles of these two teams right now, but it's certainly something. Then again, without the presence of another team breathing down their necks, maybe they're just relaxing for a bit.
The crowded middle ground
While the Pacers and Heat
just kind of hang out and wait for the playoffs fight for the top spot, the middle of the Eastern Conference is all jumbled. Three games separate the Raptors and Wizards for the third and sixth seeds, respectively, with the Bulls and Nets sandwiched in between. And they're all playing well, with Brooklyn currently on a real run. The Nets are 25-10 since being demolished in San Antonio on New Year's Eve, the best record in the East during that stretch, and they're 8-2 over their last 10 games. Washington, Chicago and Toronto are all 6-4 over their previous 10 contests. There isn't nearly enough time for these teams to make up ground on the top two seeds, but all four teams are healthy for the most part, and playoff positioning is going to be important in what's shaping up to be n entertaining first round.
Started from the bottom now we're ... still here but we're cool with that
The Bobcats and Hawks are battling it out for who gets to play the Heat and Pacers in the first round. Yes, they both have losing records, but there's potential that might change. Charlotte and Atlanta are 6-4 and 5-5 over their last 10 games, respectively, and are gaining some sort of momentum at the right time. But one small threat still exists should either of these teams fall off: The New York Knicks are four back of the Bobcats in the loss column, and are currently on a seven-game winning streak. Keep that one in your periphery, because it could get fun if recent trends continue.
|1||x - Indiana||50||18||0.735||-|
|2||x - Miami||46||20||0.697||3|
Top of the West
There's still a month remaining, but the Spurs have a vice grip on the top spot at the moment, and the Thunder have declared they'll be sitting Russell Westbrook on back-to-backs down the stretch. Then news popped up that Westbrook will be a game-time decision against the Cavaliers on Thursday, which is not a back-to-back situation. Oklahoma City is just two games back of San Antonio in the loss column, but they're making it quite clear at the moment that their primary goal is to be as healthy as possible come playoff time, not to get the top spot in the conference. And with the Spurs playing the way they are, that might be difficult anyway.
Then again, the Spurs are gonna Spur at some point. It's never been a secret how much they value health going into the postseason, so you know Gregg Popovich is going to rest players along the way. They're currently riding an 11-game win streak, and the rest of their schedule in March is pretty tame outside of dates with Golden State and Indiana. But April gets a little nutty, which makes the cushion San Antonio is currently building all the more important. The final stretch should be interesting, but both of the top teams in the conference are comfortable playing on the road; and unlike their counterparts out East, the Spurs and Thunder are actually playing well.
Next in line
The picture of the three and four seeds in the West is starting to clear up. The Clippers and Rockets have recently set themselves apart from the slipping Trail Blazers. Barring a drop-off or another Portland surge, they'll likely be battling each other for those two spots behind San Antonio and Oklahoma City, which means home-court advantage in the first round. Los Angeles' recent 11-game winning streak came to an end in Denver on Tuesday, but the Clips are currently looking like real contenders in the conference. Blake Griffin is arguably playing the best basketball of his career, and Danny Granger and Glen Davis have made real contributions as midseason pickups. They're two games back of the Thunder and four games back of the Spurs, so anything better than a three seed is going to be difficult to come by. But the Clippers, with Chris Paul running the show and Doc Rivers at the helm, have all the experience they need to succeed on the road if they reach that point in the second or third round.
The Grizzlies are going to be an absolutely brutal first-round matchup for one team that's worked hard all season to grab the best possible seed. Realistically, Memphis is looking like a sixth or seventh seed with the potential to go as high as five if Portland drops even more. So congratulations, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers or Rockets, you've earned a first-round trip to the grindhouse for an opportunity to be punched in the face repeatedly for a seven-game series. Fun! And it's not like the Grizzlies are struggling as a bottom seed. They're just now finding their stride. They've got the third-best record in the NBA since the beginning of 2014, and they're back to playing that familiar brand of rough-em-up defense to which we're all accustomed.
On the outside looking in, Phoenix is on its last legs. So, good thing Eric Bledsoe is back. It's been a struggle as of late, but the Suns still have life. The Mavericks lost on Wednesday night to the Timberwolves while the Suns managed to handle the Magic rather easily, pulling them to within a game of Dallas in the loss column for the final spot in the conference playoff picture. Phoenix is now 3-2 in Bledsoe's return to the court, and there's light at the end of the tunnel. After Wednesday, it's even brighter.