The No. 6, 7 and 8 seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs are all that’s left to be determined -- a five-team race over the final 10 days of the 2018-19 NBA regular season.
Detroit (39-37), Brooklyn (39-38), Miami (38-38), Orlando (38-39) and Charlotte (35-41) are separated by 3.5-or-fewer games, with every other team already aware of its destiny at the conclusion of the campaign.
The Pistons beat the Trail Blazers despite having Blake Griffin sit out with a sore knee. The Nets beat the Celtics behind a 20-point third quarter from D’Angelo Russell. The Heat have won six of their last eight games, as Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters are finally healthy and filling the stat sheet. The Magic have won seven of their last eight games, five of which have seen Aaron Gordon score 20-or-more points. The Hornets have won four of their last six games courtesy of the emerging Dwayne Bacon, who has notched 74 points over his last four games.
Here is a breakdown of how the next two weeks could shape out for these five teams heading into the postseason...
Detroit Pistons (39-37, 6th place)
at Indiana (4/1)
at Oklahoma City (4/5)
vs. New York (4/10)
Griffin was a late scratch, and the Pistons entered play on Saturday with an 0-3 record when Griffin sits out. That changed, though, as head coach Dwane Casey and company won their 11th straight home game thanks to 50 combined points between Reggie Jackson (28) and Andre Drummond (22). If Luke Kennard can continue to be a solid fourth option and if Griffin can return soon, then Detroit should be fine, especially at the tail end of their remaining schedule.
Brooklyn Nets (39-38, 7th place)
at Milwaukee (4/6)
at Indiana (4/7)
The path to the playoffs figures to be arduous for the Nets, who have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, according to Tankathon. Allen Crabbe and Rodions Kurucs are both battling knee injuries, but head coach Kenny Atkinson does have multiple layers of depth -- Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Ed Davis are all major contributors off the bench behind Russell, Joe Harris, DeMarre Carroll and Jarrett Allen. Twenty of Brooklyn’s 77 games have been decided by three-or-fewer points, amplifying the need for Russell’s late-game production.
Miami Heat (38-38, 8th place)
at Boston (4/1)
at Minnesota (4/5)
at Toronto (4/7)
at Brooklyn (4/10)
Boston has benched Kyrie Irving and Al Horford for load management at various points, so the Heat might catch a break over their next two contests by playing a weaker lineup. Ever since Bam Adebayo shifted to the starting lineup and Waiters and Dragic returned to an effective form, Miami has become a new team. With Dwyane Wade set to retire at the season’s end, a playoff berth would be fitting. Head coach Erik Spoelstra’s sixth-ranked defense and two NBA titles help quite a bit, too.
Orlando Magic (38-39, 9th place)
at Toronto (4/1)
New York (4/3)
at Boston (4/7)
at Charlotte (4/10)
Vucevic is going to be a free agent this upcoming summer and will want to maximize his next contract as much as possible. His career-high averages in points (20.7), rebounds (12.0) and assists (3.9) just about guarantees a lucrative deal, but a spot in the postseason would solidify it. Similar to the Nets, the Magic can balance their scoring attack between Vucevic, Gordon (16.0 PPG), Evan Fournier (14.8 PPG) and Terrence Ross (14.6 PPG). Signing Michael Carter-Williams and playing the Knicks, Hawks and Hornets to close out the slate might be enough to stir a playoff formula, but first-year head coach Steve Clifford will need at least three more victories just to have a chance at advancing.
Charlotte Hornets (35-41, 10th place)
at Utah (4/1)
at New Orleans (4/3)
at Detroit (4/7)
at Cleveland (4/9)
The Hornets have a busy stretch to end the year, but only half of their remaining schedule comes against playoff-caliber rosters. Like Vucevic, Kemba Walker is heading into free agency this summer with hopes of putting the finishing touches on his decorated resume. Walker’s career-high 31.3 percent usage rate, however, indicates that Charlotte lacks depth and is too dependent on him each night. If Bacon can keep sizzling and if Miles Bridges can extend his double-digit scoring surge, then first-year head coach James Borrego could pull off the miraculous feet. That’s a lot of ifs, though.
Prediction: Detroit, Miami and Brooklyn claim the final three playoff seeds (in that order), as the Magic and Hornets fail to provide the same level of depth.