Heading into Monday night, the Chicago Bulls had the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference. At 35-33, they were even with the Detroit Pistons (36-34) and 1.5 games ahead of the the Washington Wizards (34-35). But a 109-102 win over the Sacramento Kings didn't change the standings -- the Pistons and Wizards picked up wins, too.
With less than 15 games remaining, these three teams -- separated by 1.5 games -- are locked into what should be a fascinating playoff race for the final spot in the East. (And don't forget about the seventh spot. The Indiana Pacers, who beat the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, lead the Bulls and Pistons by only a half-game at 37-33.)
Monday didn't change the standings, but it set the stage for each team's remaining schedule.
The Wizards picked up the most impressive win, shooting lights out against usually staunch defense of the Atlanta Hawks in a 117-102 win. John Wall had 27 points and 14 assists as the Wizards shot 51 percent from the field and 52 percent from deep against a Hawks team that gives up 98.9 points per 100 possessions, second in the NBA to the San Antonio Spurs.
Wall and the Wizards have won five in a row. Of their remaining 12 games, seven of them come on the road, five come against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today -- including one against the Golden State Warriors and one against the Pistons.
Those Pistons, meanwhile, nearly gave up a game on Monday. But thanks to a tip-in from Andre Drummond with 2.1 seconds left, they were able to keep pace with a 92-91 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Drummond had 14 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Pistons, who came back from a 17-point deficit to pick up their third win in a row. The Pistons have 11 games remaining. Eight will come against playoff teams, seven will be at home and they'll get a chance to face the Bulls and Wizards once each.
The Bulls weren't phenomenal on Monday, using a fourth-quarter rally to beat a Kings squad that can't find its identity. Derrick Rose led the Bulls with 18 points and Pau Gasol had 14 points and 14 rebounds as the Bulls won their third straight.
Of the Bulls' final 12 games, six are against playoff teams and five are at home. They will also take on the Pistons and Pacers once apiece.
The Pacers aren't in the clear quite yet, either, even with an easy win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday. They have to face only four playoff teams in their remaining 12 games, seven of which come at home.
With at least 11 games left, each team controls its own destiny. The Bulls and Wizards have playoff experience -- the Pacers do, too, but this team is very new compared to the squads that used to challenge LeBron James in the playoffs. The Pistons face what looks like the toughest schedule and have never been in the playoffs.
Each team, however, is trending in the right direction and making the Eastern Conference respectable.
Depressing fact -- last season Pistons record would be good enough for sixth seed. Currently 9th seed and outside of playoffs.— Detroit Bad Boys ☠ (@detroitbadboys) March 22, 2016
Buckle up, the race for the eighth playoff spot is going to be fun -- and maybe they'll even give the top seed a run for their money.
2 other things we learned
Beware Eastern Conference: the Charlotte Hornets have no quit in them
The Spurs jumped out to a 28-7 lead at the end of one quarter against the Hornets and looked like they would coast to an easy win, but the Hornets don't give up. Behind Jeremy Lin, they slowly chipped away at the Spurs' lead and outplayed the Spurs down the stretch to pick up an improbable 91-88 win. Lin had 29 points while shooting 4-of-4 from deep as the Hornets erased a 23-point Spurs' lead to pick up their 40th win of the season, while keeping the Spurs from winning their 60th.
The Hornets were able to pull of the victory because their defense locked down -- holding the Spurs to 16 points in the fourth quarter -- while the offense erupted. After the dismal seven-point first quarter, the Hornets dropped 29 and 31 in the second and third quarters, respectively, against the NBA-best Spurs defense.
The win moved the Hornets to 40-30, which is sixth-best in the East. They're only a half-game out of third place, too. There's a logjam for the eighth seed out East, but it's just as crowded for the No. 3 to No. 6 spots. Since falling to 22-25 on Jan. 29, the Hornets are 18-5. The win over the Spurs proved what they've been proving since the end of January: these Hornets are for real.
Stephen Curry and the Warriors need some rest
The Warriors picked up a win in Minnesota over the Timberwolves to move to 63-7, but it wasn't pretty. Draymond Green had to lead the way for the Warriors -- and he did so with 24 points, nine rebounds and six assists -- because Curry and Klay Thompson had one of their unusual off nights. Curry had 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting and 11 assists and Thompson had 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting.
The win ended a three-game road trip that included the loss to the Spurs, and the Warriors looked spent. With 12 games remaining, the Warriors still have a great shot at 73 wins thanks to nine home games. With how exhausted the stars looked on Monday, some rest might be more important for a championship run than breaking the regular season win record.
Play of the night
Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't care if there are five defenders and he's running a one-man fast break -- he likes his chances.
4 fun things
Jusuf Nurkic blocked LeBron James. Then he stared him down. (The Cavaliers won by 33 and James had a triple-double with 33 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds.)
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Beating the Odds: Texas A&M pulled off the greatest NCAA comeback ever
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