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Examining the Race for the Final Few Eastern Conference Playoff Spots

Whereas the Western Conference has seven surefire playoff teams and the rest are fighting for eighth (or ping-pong balls), the Eastern Conference boasts a six-team sprint for the sixth, seventh, and eighth seeds.

Heading into Wednesday’s slate of games, the top five teams in the Eastern Conference are essentially locks to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight estimates the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks (33-26) will finish 44-38, giving them a 95 percent chance of making the playoffs. After that, the Chicago Bulls (30-30) and Indiana Pacers are both projected to finish with .500 records that net themselves 77 and 75 percent shots at reaching the postseason, respectively.

Given that the Bulls and Pacers held onto Jimmy Butler and Paul George at the trade deadline, it makes sense that they would be favored to earn two of the three spots apparently up for grabs–assuming Atlanta doesn’t fall apart. However, FiveThirtyEight also estimates 40 wins from Detroit (58 percent), 39 from Miami (49 percent), and 37 from the Hornets (24 percent) and Bucks (20 percent). In other words, it’s going to be quite a race to the finish line unless Chicago and Indy start rolling.

Team Record vs. opponent w better record B2B vs. opponent w < 1 percent playoff odds vs. one of these other five teams
6. Indiana 31-29 10 4 4 6
7. Chicago 30-30 10 4 8 4
8. Detroit 29-31 11 7 9 5
9. Miami 27-33 11 4 6 4
10.Milwaukee 26-32 14 5 4 6
11. Charlotte 26-34 17 4 5 7

With only 5.0 games separating the sixth-seeded Pacers from the 11th-placed Hornets, a few streaks could potentially flip the standings upside down over the final 22 games. One caveat with the above chart is that the Kings and Pelicans should probably be  swapped (in my opinion), as Sacramento has a seven percent chance of making the playoffs while the Pelicans are in the <1 percent group (with the Knicks, Magic, Lakers, 76ers, Suns, and Nets), per FiveThirtyEight. Also, it’s never a bright idea to count chickens before they hatch, so wins against Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks, a young scrappy upstart like the Sixers, or an Orlando team with lesser expectations but better spacing are far from guaranteed.

Charlotte is 23-18 when Cody Zeller suits up this season, and he made his return to the lineup last night in a win over the Lakers. While Milwaukee recently lost Jabari Parker to injury, they regained Khris Middleton and actually own the sixth-best point differential (-0.0) in the Eastern Conference–ahead of the Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, Pistons, and Heat–but not better than the Hornets (+0.4). Meanwhile, Miami’s double-digit win streak was something no one could’ve predicted, and we’d be fools to count them out now. This is a strong group of underdogs that could shake things up.

Despite holding onto their franchise players, the Pacers and Bulls should still be weary of losing their place in the playoff picture. Chicago’s schedule is fairly friendly, but Indiana’s isn’t, and they are just 3-7 in their last 10 games. Both have been unpredictable, improbable, and incredibly inconsistent. Then there’s Detroit, where backup point guard Ish Smith is playing better basketball than handsomely paid starter Reggie Jackson. Furthermore, the Pistons have the most back-to-backs among these six teams.

It’s unlikely that any of these teams would be able to beat Cleveland, Boston, Washington, or Toronto. Nevertheless, with so many teams still vying for a playoff spot in both conferences, the months of March and April might be a bit more exciting than usual. That likely all depends on what happens in the next couple weeks. If the Heat, Bucks, and Hornets lose enough games in the near future, they could shift their focus to the future, rest the veterans and play the young guns more, and tank for a higher draft pick. Often times the last month or so of the regular season is a good opportunity for hoops lovers to turn their attention to the NCAA tournament. But this year might be different. This season might force us to keep our eyes on the NBA, even amidst the Madness.

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