Just two weeks remain to the NBA’s regular season, and the playoff race is heating up in both conferences.
As opposed to the Western Conference, where the race has tightened to nine teams, 11 teams are still in the picture in the Eastern Conference.
The top five seeds are basically locked in—the Atlanta Hawks have the No. 1 spot, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the No. 2 spot, the Chicago Bulls have the No. 3 spot, the Toronto Raptors have the No. 4 spot, and the Washington Wizards have the No. 5 spot.
These positions will most likely hold into the playoffs, although the Bulls, Raptors, and Wizards could shift positions in some way. The real excitement comes from the race for the last three seeds, which has gotten more and more interesting since the All-Star break.
Let’s take a look at the current standings:
6. Milwaukee Bucks: 36-37
7. Miami Heat: 34-39, 2 games back
8. Brooklyn Nets: 32-40, 3.5 games back
Boston Celtics: 32-41, 4 games back
Indiana Pacers: 32-41, 4 games back
Charlotte Hornets: 31-41, 4.5 games back
Milwaukee looked like it was in serious danger of giving up its long-held sixth spot, but earned crucial wins over the Heat and Pacers last week to create a little breathing room. Still, the margin of error is slim for the Bucks.
The head-to-head matchups between some of these teams will play a large part in determining which ones make the postseason and which ones go home early.
The Nets, for instance, kicked off their current three-game winning streak with a W over the Hornets. And the Heat recently bested the Celtics. Each of these games represents a two-game swing, and culminates in key tiebreakers which could make the difference.
Here’s the remaining head-to-head within those six teams.
Celtics @ Hornets, March 30
Pacers @ Nets, March 31
Pacers @ Celtics, April 1
Hornets @ Pacers, April 3
Bucks @ Celtics, April 3
Heat @ Pacers, April 5
Hornets @ Heat, April 7
Nets @ Bucks, April 12
Celtics @ Bucks, April 15
Bucks beat Celtics, lose to Nets, lose to Celtics
Heat lose to Pacers, beat Hornets
Nets beat Pacers, beat Bucks
Celtics beat Hornets, beat Pacers, lose to Bucks, beat Bucks
Pacers lose to Nets, lose to Celtics, beat Hornets, beat Heat
Hornets lose to Celtics, lose to Pacers, lose to Heat
Another huge factor in the race? When the teams vying for positions face a much better foe, like the Atlanta Hawks, that has already locked up their position and will be resting players.
The Hornets were fortunate in this regard, when Atlanta sat all of its healthy starters for rest in what turned out to be a win for Charlotte.
Here’s the rest of the matchups with teams that could very well rest at least one starter:
Bucks @ Hawks, March 30
Celtics @ Raptors, April 4
Hornets vs Raptors, April 8
Bucks vs Cavaliers, April 8
Hornets @ Hawks, April 10
Celtics @ Cavaliers, April 10
Nets vs Wizards, April 10
Heat vs Raptors, April 11
Celtics vs Cavaliers, April 12
Hornets vs Rockets, April 13
Pacers vs Wizards, April 14
Pacers @ Grizzlies, April 15
Bucks beat Hawks, lose to Cavaliers
Heat beat Raptors
Nets lose to Wizards
Celtics lose to Raptors, beat Cavaliers, lose to Cavaliers
Pacers beat Wizards, beat Grizzlies
Hornets beat Raptors, beat Hawks, lose to Rockets
Because of the rest factor, along with the fact that some sub-.500 teams–like the Utah Jazz–are playing much better than other teams, the strength of schedule is largely misleading at this time of the season.
The individual matchups present a better picture. For instance, the Hawks will probably rest players for most of the rest of the games, but likely not against the Nets. Why not? Because Atlanta gets to swap for Brooklyn’s first-round draft pick in the upcoming draft, so will want the Nets to miss out on the playoffs.
The Raptors, likewise, may feel compelled to rest a player or two in some of the games coming up, but not against the Nets, who have developed into one of their bigger rivals after last season’s bitter playoff loss. Some other games could potentially preview playoff matchups
Here’s some of the intriguing matchups left:
Heat vs Spurs, March 31
Heat @ Cavaliers, April 2
Nets vs Raptors, April 3
Nets @ Hawks, April 4
Hawks @ Nets, April 8
Heat beat Spurs, beat Cavaliers
Nets lose to Raptors, beat Hawks, lose to Hawks
Strength of schedule does still count for something, especially when we’re talking about teams like the Knicks, Magic, and 76ers.
Almost all of the teams in the running for the last three East playoff spots have at least one game left against the weaker teams in the conference, though it’s also worth noting that most of the teams have lost at least once to these weaker teams already.
Here’s the games against weak teams left:
Nets @ Knicks, April 1
Hornets vs 76ers, April 4
Bucks vs Magic, April 4
Bucks @ Knicks, April 10
Bucks @ 76ers, April 13
Heat vs Magic, April 13
Nets vs Magic, April 15
Heat @ 76ers, April 15
Bucks lose to Magic, beat Knicks, beat 76ers
Heat beat Magic, beat 76ers
Nets beat Knicks, beat Magic
Hornets beat 76ers
Outside of the games listed above in the categories, there are about a dozen other games on the slate.
A fair portion are against the Pistons. Detroit was in the running for a playoff spot but then played horribly for about two weeks. But they’re not in the weaker teams category because they’re playing well again and can definitely be a spoiler.
Other games include against the Bulls, which will likely not rest any players under Tom Thibodeau; the Thunder, which will likely not rest Russell Westbrook; and the Raptors, which could easily play most everyone in the last two games of the season if it means switching to a more favorable playoff matchup.
Here’s the other games left:
Pistons @ Hornets, April 1
Bucks vs Bulls, April 1
Heat @ Pistons, April 4
Nets vs Trail Blazers, April 6
Celtics @ Pistons, April 8
Heat vs Bulls, April 9
Pacers @ Pistons, April 10
Hornets @ Pistons, April 12
Pacers vs Thunder, April 12
Nets vs Bulls, April 13
Celtics vs Raptors, April 14
Hornets @ Raptors, April 15
Bucks lose to Bulls
Heat lose to Pistons, beat Bulls
Nets beat Trail Blazers, beat Bulls
Celtics lose to Pistons, beat Raptors
Pacers lose to Pistons, beat Thunder
Hornets beat Pistons, lose to Pistons, lose to Raptors
6. Milwaukee Bucks: 36-37 + 4-5 = 40-42 … gets sixth seed with 4-0 tiebreaker over Miami
7. Miami Heat: 34-39 + 6-3 = 40-42 … LeBron faces his former team
8. Brooklyn Nets: 32-40 + 7-3 = 39-43 … Brooklyn get a chance for revenge
Indiana Pacers: 32-41 + 6-3 = 38-44
Boston Celtics: 32-41 + 5-4 = 37-45
Charlotte Hornets: 31-41 + 3-7 = 34-48