The Best of the Rest Series continues with the Eastern Conference.
The East is a much more interesting puzzle trying to piece itself together than the West. Cleveland is stumbling to the finish, losing five of their last ten and trying to protect their 2.5 game lead over Boston while also trying to rest their stars in time for the playoffs. The sixth and ninth places are separated by just a game and a half, with just over a dozen fixtures still to play – anything can happen.
3. Washington Wizards
After a slow start to the season, the Wizards have come home strong and are making a serious push for their first conference finals appearance in 38 years. A big part of the Washington’s resurgence is the improved play of guard combo John Wall and Bradley Beal. Both are enjoying career-best campaigns, averaging career-highs in points and assists. Wall is second in the league for the latter at 10.8 per game to go with his 23 points. Meanwhile, Beal leads the team in scoring, albeit barely, with 23.1 points along with 3.5 assists.
The franchise is one of the higher scoring teams in the NBA through efficient scoring that results in 108.9 points each fixture. Combined with 47.3% shooting, they rank fifth and third in the league respectively, despite having just the eleventh-fastest pace.
Right now, the 42-27 Wizards are sitting a game and half back from the second-placed Celtics and just four back from Cleveland’s top spot. Yet they cannot rest on this lofty position, sitting just a game and a half ahead of Toronto.
With encounters against Boston, Cleveland and Golden State to come, it’s important for the Wizards to take advantage of what they have left against the weaker teams if they are to improve their seeding before season’s end.
4. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are an interesting prospect. With many expecting the side to fall further down the standings in the absence of injured point guard Kyle Lowry, their 41-29 record has them in fourth and 3.5 games clear of Atlanta. DeMar DeRozan has been critical in keeping Toronto in the running for home-court advantage in the first round. He’s averaging a career-high 26.9 points and 5.4 rebounds.
The absence of Lowry remains an issue as the Canadian outfit tend to lean on DeRozan too much offensively. His usage rate is up around the same level as Isaiah Thomas and James Harden, while his points account for more than a third of their total scoring. That is not unusual for a team with an offensive superstar. The serious problem for the Raptors is a league-worst 18.3 assists per game, making for a stagnant offence that too often forces DeRozan to create his own shot.
Toronto’s No. 4 seed looks to be safe, but they could possibly swipe the No. 3 seed from Washington if the Wizards aren’t careful. With Lowry likely returning in time for postseason, they could be a tougher matchup for teams in the second round than their seeding suggests.
5. Atlanta Hawks
On paper, the Hawks look to be a relatively average team. They rarely outscore their opposition (rank 20th) at 103.6 points and concede more than they score at 104.5. The apsect that makes Atlanta dangerous is the way they play as a team with ball movement and spacing, something that coach Mike Budenholzer brought with him from his time as an assistant coach with San Antonio. They assist on 61.5% of their field goals, which is up there with teams like Boston and Houston and share the load offensively, with six players averaging double digit scoring.
Atlanta has a solid mix of veterans like Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard to go with a group of young players, including two guards playing the best basketball of their careers in Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. Schroder has relished the opportunity of becoming Atlanta’s starting point guard after the departure of Jeff Teague and is averaging career-highs in points, assists and rebounds. Meanwhile, Hardaway has come into his own in his fourth season, averaging a career-high 13.9 points after managing just 6.4 last season.
At 37-32, the Hawks are 3.5 games back from Toronto in the No. 5 seed, but just two games ahead of Indiana and will need to be careful not to slip at the last hurdle with just 3.5 wins separating fifth from ninth.
6. Indiana Pacers
Statistically, the Pacers aren’t setting the world on fire this season. Ranking in the bottom half of the league in points scored, points allowed, rebounds and assists. Paul George’s numbers have suffered alongside the Pacers with his averages dipping in the same three categories compared to last season.
Indiana are just a game over .500 at 35-34 to be sitting at No. 6 seed. That is two wins behind Atlanta, but just one ahead of Milwaukee in a very precarious position. Ninth-placed Miami are breathing down their necks to be 1.5 games in arrears. The Pacers are lining up for a likely matchup with either Boston or Washington, unless they’re caught by one of the three sides hot on their trail.
7. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks weren’t expected to make waves this soon in their development. Despite having one of the younger rosters in the league, they’ve proven an ability to hang over the course of the season. The key for the Bucks has been the play of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has become one of the league’s emerging superstars. Playing almost positionless basketball, the Greek Freak leads Milwaukee in every statistical category, averaging 22.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.9 blocks. Antetokounmpo even took it to LeBron James with 34 points in a win over the Cavs early in the season.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, Antetokounmpo’s partner in crime Jabari Parker went down with a torn ACL in February which really severely impacted the team. If Parker was apart of their plans, Milwaukee was shaping for a challenge for a higher seed in the playoffs and potentially a deeper run.
The Bucks are a game below .500 at 34-35 and only half a game ahead of eighth and ninth, so will have to be extremely careful to not drop out at the last minute. Fortunately, the rest of their schedule is favourable and will make for a tough chase for Detroit and Miami.
8. Detroit Pistons
It will be a very interesting finish to the season for Detroit. The Pistons currently hold the last playoff spot in the East but only by a fraction. They are one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league to record a fifth-worst 101.7 points.
Detroit’s asset is rebounding and defence. The Pistons rank fifth in rebounding and sixth in points allowed, mostly thanks to Andre Drummond who has become one of the NBA’s better young big men. The 23-year old leads the team in rebounds with 13.9 to be second in the league combined with blocks and steals.
The 34-36 Pistons are looking to make the playoffs for a second consecutive year for the first time since 2002-03. Just a half game behind Milwaukee and tied with ninth-placed Chicago, it won’t be long before every remaining game is a do-or-die fixture for Detroit.
9. Miami Heat
In their first season since the departure of Dwayne Wade, the Heat are surprisingly still in the playoff race. They have the same 34-36 record as Detroit but are still on the outside looking in thanks to a tiebreaker. The Heat do have momentum on their side, winning seven of their last ten and making a serious run at sneaking in at the death.
After Wade left, Miami turned to youth and it has paid dividends with Hassan Whiteside becoming one of the league’s premier rim protectors. The centre leads the league in rebounds with 14.2 and is third in blocks with 2.1.
One problem facing the Heat is their tough schedule to close the season. They have two meetings each with Toronto and Washington as well as games against Boston and Cleveland. Hopefully for the Heat faithful, that momentum can carry them though.