Examining the East’s race for eighth (and sixth)

Paul George and the Pacers are fighting for playoff positioning.

Two and a half games. That’s the current distance between the 6-seed and 10-seed in the Eastern Conference’s playoff race.

Your television will tell you that the most intriguing playoff race storylines involve the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers, or perhaps the 2016 silver medalist Golden State Warriors.

After all, LeBron James and his Cavs have indeed shown flaws of late, perhaps leading the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards to believe that the top seed is theirs for the taking. Likewise, the “Dubs” are hanging by a fingernail to the top spot in the West, with emotionless assassin Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs hot on their tails.

Sure, the chase for the 1-seed is always exciting, but don’t overlook the tussle occurring lower in the East standings. Below I’ll take a look at the five teams on the Eastern Conference bubble, and provide a few predictions as their playoff fate hangs in the balance.

(standings accurate prior to games played March 14)

  1. Indiana Pacers (34 – 32)

Paul George and the Pacers followed up a 7-game winning streak in early February with a 6-game skid thereafter. But enough about streaks and skids, people! Indy simply relies too heavily on George, illustrated by PG-13’s second-highest shot attempts per game this year (which is just behind last year’s mark with over 17 a contest).

Former Texas Longhorn Myles Turner looks very promising for a 20-year-old, but the lack of overall depth will remain the biggest issue in Indiana. The Pacers also own the lowest strength of schedule in the entire NBA thus far, which is why I think they’ll fade from the playoff race before long.

  1. Detroit Pistons (33 – 33) 

Despite being notorious for red-face-screaming at officials and looking like Ron Jeremy’s sibling, Detroit head coach Stan Van Gundy is also well known for getting the most out of his players. The latter couldn’t be documented any better than with this season’s scrappy Piston squad. When Reggie Jackson gets in his groove, look out. This is a tough team that doesn’t back down from anyone, having recently beat the Cavs after entering the fourth quarter down 7.

The Pistons have won 7 of their last 10, and look to translate this momentum into their second consecutive playoff berth. “DEEEEEEEETROIITTT BASKETBAAAAALLLLLLLLL!”

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (32 – 34)

I’ll be honest, I’m a little disappointed. Earlier in the year I found myself somewhat rooting for the Bucks, expecting big things from Jason Kidd’s guys this year. Maybe it’s because Milwaukee is the new home of former Cleveland Cavalier Matthew Dellavedova? Maybe it’s because Coach Kidd boasts an unorthodox lineup of dudes that are all about 7 to 9 feet tall? Or maybe it’s because the otherworldly talent known as Giannis Antetokounmpo is the new face of the franchise? I love you Delly, but my newfound Milwaukee fandom is assuredly deep-rooted in the fascination with the Greek Freak.

I envisioned this team as a true contender a few months ago, and now realize they are still a young bunch that is learning how to close out games. Winners of 10 of their last 14, the “Minnesota Timberwolves of the East” are still a lock to make the postseason and potentially create some early stress for a team like the Cavs or Celtics.

  1. Chicago Bulls (32 – 35)

“Disappointing NBA Teams for $1000, Alex”.

Wait, so you’re saying that a head coach known for spreading the court and shooting a bunch of threes isn’t meshing well with a starting lineup that all shoot around 30% or worse from deep? Truly stunning.

Dwyane Wade returning home was a nice preseason story, but the 35-year-old has too often appeared 35 years old. Rajon Rondo is probably the worst-shooting point guard since Eric Snow (there’s surely some stats to back that up, right?), and the Bulls solely rely on Robin Lopez, a grown man who routinely fights mascots, to be their intimidator in the post.

Losers of 6 of their last 10, Chicago will be on the outside looking in when the playoffs roll around.

  1. Miami Heat (32 – 35)

No Wade, no problem. After a truly wretched start to the season, Erik Spoelstra has managed to turn this hodge-podge team of ancillary parts into a potential upset threat in the first round of the playoffs.

Let’s review: On Friday, January 13 the Heat were 11-30. Miami then won 13 straight, and 21 of their next 26 ballgames. Dion Waiters – yes that Dion Waiters – has been a catalyst in Miami’s late-season surge, shooting over 45% and averaging 5 assists per contest in the process.

The Heat have done it on the defensive side of the ball as well, boasting the fifth-best scoring defense in the league, which ranks first in the East and third-strongest on the road. LET ME REPEAT: A team led by Dion Waiters is shooting efficiently and playing tough defense every single night. Spoelstra should really win some sort of Nobel Prize for this.

Christopher Kreider | @krydr1