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Data Dimes: Thunder, Hawks are heating up as playoffs approach

The NBA playoffs are right around the corner, and teams are headed in separate directions, with some heating up and others cooling off. 

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In sports like baseball and hockey, getting hot at the right time can trigger a deep playoff run. The L.A. Kings snuck into the postseason back in 2012 as a No. 8 seed, then promptly upset the No. 1 Vancouver Canucks to start an improbable run to the Stanley Cup on the shoulders of Jonathan Quick’s electric goalie play.

In 2014, the San Francisco Giants continued their even-year magic by winning the wild card play-in game against the Pittsburgh Pirates before storming to their third World Series title in five years.

Despite the low seeding, both teams won their respective sport’s biggest prize. The NBA seldom functions in the same way, as top seeds rarely falter in the quest for glory. However, a handful of teams are playing their best basketball at the most ideal time of year, while others have sputtered and even fallen out of the playoff picture.

This week’s Data Dimes will cover teams in the playoff hunt who are either catching fire heading into April, or stumbling at the worst possible time. Since the Warriors and Spurs have been scorching hot all season, we opted not to include them.

Note: Stats referenced in this article are accurate entering games on March 30.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network.

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Heating Up

Atlanta Hawks

The uncertainty surrounding the Hawks leading up to the NBA trade deadline, when just about everyone on the roster was dangled in trade rumors, appears to have abated. ATL has rattled off four wins in a row in addition to going 9–1 over its past 10 contests.

The key to the turnaround has been defense.

Prior to the All-Star break, the Hawks were allowing 99.8 points per 100 possessions. Post-All-Star—20 games in which they’ve posted a 14–6 record—their improved defensive rating of 96.1 is the best in basketball (yes, including the Spurs). Couple that defensive lock-in with an increase of two points scored per game, and it’s no surprise Atlanta is winning the majority of its games.

Acting as the catalyst on defense throughout the season has been All-Star forward Paul Millsap.

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League Leaders in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (2015-16) | PointAfter

Among players qualified for the minutes per game leaderboard, Millsap ranks fourth in defensive box plus/minus (DBPM). Only Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Rudy Gobert have superior marks to Millsap this season.

Additionally, according to the Total Points Added metric (TPA) created by Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal, Millsap has saved the second-most points on defense behind only Draymond Green.

Even though Millsap has made the All-Star team for three years running, there’s substantial clout to the argument that the former second-round pick remains one of the game’s most underrated players. He’s anchoring the NBA’s best defense since All-Star Weekend, and the Hawks are competing much like they were a season ago as a result.

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Charlotte Hornets

Heading into All-Star festivities, the Hornets held a lackluster 27–26 record and were poised to send a grand total of zero All-Stars to Toronto.

The season-ending dislocated shoulder injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—the right shoulder he had surgically repaired last year—appeared likely to take the wind completely out of Charlotte’s sails in the second half. MKG was playing brilliantly during his short stint back on the court, as he averaged 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds on 54.1% shooting in seven games. All the while, Hornets opponents were vastly inferior offensively when Kidd-Gilchrist was on the court defending.

Hornets Opponents Struggled with MKG on the Floor | PointAfter

But while losing MKG for the season seemed like a death knell to Charlotte’s playoff hopes, the Buzz have played extremely well without the defensive-minded wing since the All-Star break.

Every minute counts for Blake Griffin and the Clippers

In fact, Charlotte’s 16–5 record and subsequent winning percentage of 76.2% since the break is the third-best in the entire league during that span. That mark is behind only, you guessed it, the Spurs and Warriors.

The Hornets have been dialed in since mid-February, and the dynamic duo of Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum leads the charge. Combined, Walker and Batum are averaging 41 points, 12.3 assists and 10.8 rebounds in March. Batum has made 39.6% of his threes during the month, while Walker has converted 41.2% of his triples over the same span.

They’ve been putting up video-game-esque numbers of late, and could make Charlotte a tough out in the playoff atmosphere even without Kidd-Gilchrist in the picture.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Western Conference is very much a two-horse race at the moment … and yet, there’s a third horse on the track a few lengths behind that’s gaining steam.

Now, while I don’t believe the Thunder can upset both the Warriors and the Spurs in the postseason—something they’d almost certainly need to do to reach the NBA Finals as the current No. 3 seed—I can’t completely overlook Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co.

The Top 3 Seeds Out West | PointAfter

Offensively speaking, OKC can compete with anyone. It’s the defensive end that remains an issue for the Thunder compared to the West’s two juggernauts.

The Thunder haven’t been lighting it up since the All-Star break (12–9 record), but they did win eight straight games from March 14 through March 28. Included in that streak were wins against the Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics, Spurs and Toronto Raptors, so it’s not as if Oklahoma City was merely beating up on cupcakes.

Westbrook has been on an absolute tear, piling up eight triple doubles since scoring 31 points in this year’s All-Star Game. That brings his league-leading season total to 16.

Russell Westbrook: The Triple-Double Machine | PointAfter

Nevertheless, basketball remains a team game. And right now, the Warriors and Spurs remain the best teams in the West, even though OKC is playing at a very high level.

Cooling Off

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies are more battered and broken than that drone you bought for Christmas. The season isn’t even over yet, but Memphis has already been forced to suit up and play an unfathomable 27 different players in 2015–16. That ties an NBA record set by the 1996–97 Dallas Mavericks.

Marc Gasol Will Miss the Most Games in a Season of His Career in 2015-16 | PointAfter

Miraculously, the Grizz remain in the thick of the playoff hunt despite a swath of injuries that have claimed Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph, among others. That being said, Memphis is 2–8 over its last 10 games and has lost four in a row. Ballhandling duties have been passed around to Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson and Tony Allen of late, none of whom are point guards. That prompted the team to sign Jordan Farmar, who had previously been playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.

The Grizzlies continue to fight valiantly, but injuries have backed them into a corner.

Chicago Bulls

What exactly has happened to the Bulls?

Once securely in the playoff picture, Chicago’s tumbled out of the top eight spots in the East thanks to a recent four-game losing streak. The team’s leading scorer, Jimmy Butler, hasn’t reached the 20-point plateau since March 17 (now up to seven consecutive games scoring below 20).

Jimmy Butler's Stats in the Last 5 Games | PointAfter

As a matter of fact, Butler has reached 20 points just once since returning from injury on March 14. Normally the alpha dog scorer for Chicago, “Jimmy Buckets” is averaging just 15.2 points on 40.4% shooting in March.

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Interestingly, former MVP Derrick Rose—whose new modus operandi has been a complete lack of scoring efficiency since returning from various injuries—has played quite well of late. His post-All-Star break numbers are the closest he’s ever come to the D. Rose of old.

Derrick Rose Pre- and Post-All-Star Stats (2015-16) | PointAfter

Not only is Rose pouring in 19.2 points per game, he’s doing so on 48.2% shooting from the field and 41.9% shooting from beyond the arc. The latter figure is particularly eye-popping, because Rose’s career mark from three-point territory is an ugly 30.4%.

But even though Rose is posting stats similar to those of his younger self, Butler’s struggles, and an overall lack of cohesion, have the Bulls primed for the lottery if they don’t buckle down in April.

If the Bulls miss the playoffs, they’ll become the 63rd team in NBA history to miss out on postseason play despite boasting two All-Stars (Butler and Pau Gasol). Let’s just say Fred Hoiberg’s first year at the helm has been an adventurous one.