NBA: Assessing the Playoff Picture
Last month, I told you that Boston would move up the standings and they have. The Celtics are 11-2 in March and both losses came by only three points each. They have the best point differential in the conference and #1 in the entire league in defensive efficiency. It will be interesting to see where Boston finishes, because I think a lot of people will be betting them to come out of the East. Statistically, they are the best team.
It’s a four-team race for first with the Celtics, Heat, 76ers and Bucks all separated by just one game in the standings. There’s never been a race that close involving so many teams. The Celtics did just lose their defensive anchor, Robert Williams III, to a knee injury and he’s out for the rest of the regular season, if not longer.
Boston has as many 20-plus point wins since January 23rd (12) as any other team from the East has all season!
I expect the current top four teams to be the conference semifinalists come playoff time.
Chicago and Cleveland, the league’s two biggest surprise teams in the first half of the season, have fallen. At the same time, Toronto has risen, already passing Cleveland and pulling into a fifth place tie with Chicago. Looking at some key numbers, the Bulls fall short of the Raptors and even the Cavaliers. As for which of these three teams end up out of the top six (and in the play-in round), I point to Chicago (although the list of injuries in Cleveland is growing). In addition to telling you Boston would rise last month, I did mention Chicago would falter.
Brooklyn, Charlotte and Atlanta will get the other play-in spots. Brooklyn is obviously the most dangerous from that group as Kyrie Irving is now eligible to play home games. The Nets are a league-worst 8-27-1 ATS in home games, but are the one team that could go from the play-in round and make a deep run in the playoffs. Atlanta has been playing better of late (7-3 L10) and is capable of winning two play-in games, if necessary.
Phoenix has already clinched home court advantage. What has been most surprising is the Grizzlies, now 18-2 this year when Ja Morant DOESN’T play, solidifying themselves as the second best team in the West. They’ve clinched a playoff berth and with a five game lead over third place Golden State, Memphis should be the #2 seed.
After that is where it gets interesting. The Warriors have lost three in a row and are without Steph Curry. They have a 1.5 game lead over Dallas, who just overtook Utah for fourth place. The Jazz have lost four in a row, going cold at the worst possible time. The Mavs and Warriors are two of the league’s very best defensive teams. The Under is 26-11-1 in Dallas home games. The Mavs have also won 18 of their last 22 home games, huge because right now they would be in line to have home court advantage over the Jazz in the first round. Those teams played four times in the regular season and the home team was 4-0.
You also can’t rule out Denver, who is sixth and sitting just a half game back of the Jazz. The Nuggets already have a franchise record 23 road wins this season.
Minnesota is worthy of moving up into the top six, but faces a two-game deficit with only six to play. The Timberwolves have a better point differential than either the Mavs or Nuggets. They also have the second best net rating in the league since the All-Star Break. At the very worst, the T’wolves should win their first play-in game to qualify for the playoffs.
The Clippers, even with five straight losses and no Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, seem to be safe for the play-in round. But I could see them losing twice and not making the final eight.
The Pelicans, Lakers and Spurs will compete for the final two play-in spots. With LeBron James’ ankle bothering him, the Lakers are in major trouble. I like the Spurs to jump either the Pelicans or Lakers for a play-in spot. It’s crazy that one of these three teams, or the Clippers, will be the 8-seed. Whoever it winds up being will be “mince meat” for the Suns in the first round.