With six nights of regular season NBA basketball remaining, there is still plenty of movement in the standings on the horizon. The battle for both the third and sixth seeds in the East and the last three spots out West are tighter than the league’s new sleeved jerseys. All 30 teams will take to the court next Wednesday to play game number 82. Whatever happens between now and then will shape the postseason in a big way. Here is all you need to know about the fight for Eastern Conference playoff positioning.
1. Indiana Pacers (54-25)
The Pacers have lost eight of their last 12 games. They suffered their most recent blowout loss at home against the Atlanta Hawks. If the season ended today, these teams would meet in the first round. The Pacers rested all of their starters against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday but still managed to squeeze out a 104-102 win. Because the Miami Heat lost that night, the Pacers gained a half-game lead over them for the top spot in the East. Should Indiana continue to coast the rest of the way, they will relinquish the first seed. That would set the Pacers up on a first-round date with either the Washington Wizards or the Charlotte Bobcats. The Pacers won two out of three regular season games against both teams. They’re probably better off sliding to second place despite head coach Frank Vogel’s preseason announcement that his team’s goal is to finish atop the Eastern Conference.
2. Miami Heat (53-25)
The two-time defending champions have been resting Dwyane Wade for the last seven games. Since March, the Heat have a record of 12-11. Based on ease of remaining schedules, the Heat are the favourite to come out on top of the Eastern Conference. They would face the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, who they have beaten three of four times this season. In the semi-finals, they would face the winner of the 4-5 series. That could be either the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, or Brooklyn Nets. They would want to avoid the latter. The Nets are the only team to sweep the Big Three Era Heat in a four-game series. After Miami’s 88-87 loss to Brooklyn Tuesday night, TNT’s Craig Sager asked LeBron James if the Nets are the Heat’s “biggest challenge” in the conference. “Get outta here, Craig,” James replied. He has a point. Three of those games were decided by a point. If the ball bounced a different way, Miami could have won it 3-1. They split their regular season series with the Bulls 2-2. Their ideal matchup? The Raptors, who haven’t won a single game against the Heat since Chris Bosh jumped ship.
3. Toronto Raptors (46-32)
The Raptors are riding a four-game winning streak. Their four remaining games are against non-playoff teams. Toronto needs either one more win or a Nets loss to clinch the Atlantic division title. Toronto is tied with the Chicago Bulls for the third spot, and own the tiebreaker. Toronto needs it more. They split the season series with the Nets, which isn’t terrible. Terrence Ross said he wants to face the Nets in the first round. However, his team’s lack of playoff experience will hurt them in a series against Brooklyn, a team that boasts many veterans, some who have won championships. Should the Raptors finish third, they’ll face the Charlotte Bobcats or the Washington Wizards in the opening round. Charlotte has swept the three-game regular season series against the Raptors. It wouldn’t be impossible for the Raptors to advance against them, as the Bobcats won each game by an average of three points. Washington is the preferred matchup for Toronto, because the Wizards are just as inexperienced as the Raptors. Toronto has triumphed over Washington in three out of four games, with their only loss coming with four of their starters out in triple-overtime.
4. Chicago Bulls (46-32)
The Bulls are neck and neck with the Toronto Raptors in the race for the third seed. Both teams are on winning streaks. The first team to lose a game will host the Brooklyn Nets in Round One. That’s hardly a threat for the Bulls, who won the regular season series against the Nets 2-1, winning by an average margin of 17 points. A third-place finish would see them host the Washington Wizards, whom they only beat once in three tries. The other potential opponent for the Bulls is the Charlotte Bobcats. While they’ve swept the Bobcats in three games so far, their wins came by an average of 4 points. The series will be a battle. These teams will meet for the last time during their regular season finale next Wednesday at Time Warner Cable Arena. The match could foreshadow the first-round series.
5. Brooklyn Nets (43-35)
The Nets are 33-14 in 2014, second best in the East. They have leap-frogged over several teams and now sit in the fifth spot, threatening to move up to third or fourth in the conference. Should they drop even one of their final four games, they can say goodbye to nabbing home court advantage in the first round. For them, that’s a bigger concern than matchups. The Nets only trail the Heat and Pacers in wins at home, but struggle on the road. At 16-24, they’re a lower echelon team away from the friendly confines of the Barclays Center. The Nets will face either the Bulls or the Raptors. They’ve been blown out twice by the Bulls. In Brooklyn’s defence, one of those losses came before the team remembered how to play basketball (they had the league’s third-worst record at the end of 2013). The last time they contested the Bulls, they won handily 96-80 and tied the series with the Raptors. Should they advance to round two, chances are the Bulls will meet the Heat and give them a run for their money. It is still statistically possible for Brooklyn to finish sixth or seventh, but still unlikely. Their remaining four games are against sub-.500 conference rivals.
6. Charlotte Bobcats (40-38)
The Bobcats are on a five-game win streak and have just tied the Washington Wizards for sixth place. This is where Charlotte wants to finish. A seventh-place finish will pit them against either the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat. Previously, Charlotte lost the regular season series against the Pacers 2-1 and were swept by the Heat 4-0. If they manage to hold on to the sixth seed, they’ll either battle the Toronto Raptors or the Chicago Bulls in the opening round. They want Toronto, whom they have beaten all three times this season. On the other hand, the Bobcats haven’t tallied a single win over the Bulls in three attempts. The games were closely contested and decided by an average of four points.
7. Washington Wizards (40-38)
When they lost to the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday night, the Wizards relinquished sole possession of the sixth seed. They’ve dropped their last two games, both against fellow Eastern Conference playoff teams. If the Wizards stay put in the seventh spot, chances are they will meet the Indiana Pacers in the first round. Washington lost the season series 2-1, but thumped the slumping Pacers two weeks ago, 91-78. Nene returned on Wednesday after being sidelined for over six weeks and may help the Wizards end the regular season on a high note. Washington is 27-23 with Nene and 13-15 without him. Should they finish sixth, they will face either the Toronto Raptors or the Chicago Bulls. They’ve dropped three of four games against the Raptors. The Wizards won the regular season series against the Bulls, 2-1. However, Washington’s only loss to Chicago came in the most recent tilt and serves as the best measuring stick for the current state of both teams. Chicago visited the Verizon Center last Saturday and beat the Wizards by 18 points.
8. Atlanta Hawks (35-43)
Thanks to a recent six-game losing streak, the Hawks cannot move up from the eighth seed. Luckily for them, they aren’t going to fall out of the playoff picture. Any combination of two Atlanta Hawks wins and/or New York Knicks losses will clinch Atlanta’s postseason spot. Their remaining schedule is tough (Brooklyn, Miami, Charlotte) but it ends with the Milwaukee Bucks, who are riggin’ for Wiggins. Atlanta will get smacked in the first round by the Miami Heat, who lead their regular season series 2-1.
9. New York Knicks (33-45)
Ah, the Knickerbockers. Their tragic number is two. With four games left against the three teams left in their conference battling for home court advantage, the Knicks are destined to finish in no man’s land.