There’s nothing especially wrong with barely creeping into the playoffs. After all, there’s 15 other teams that probably wish they had won the honor of getting embarassed on national TV in the first round by the Mavericks, Suns, or Pistons. Well, that’s true except for those teams that are so mired in their own ineptitude that they’re already thinking about landing the Holy Grail in June’s NBA draft.
With everyone counting less than 14 regular-season games left on their schedule, a lot has yet to be settled for the 7th and 8th seeds. In both the Eastern and Western Conferences, three or four teams are jockeying up and down the standings, in and out of the playoff picture, and at times it feels like some of these teams (ahem, the Pacers) are doing their very best at playing their way out of the postseason. I know they’re not a great team by any stretch of the imagination, but Indiana has posted a 2-13 record for the month of March (!)… and they’re still only 1.5 games out of the 8th seed in the East!
Anyway, let’s take a quick look at each of the teams still entertaining at least modest hopes of making the 2007 playoffs. It probably won’t matter which of these mediocre squads actually gets in because they won’t last very long, but Ron Artest hasn’t made any headlines today and Flea hasn’t updated his blog in almost a week, so this was next on our shopping list. We’ll start with the muddled mess in the Eastern Conference, and recommend looping Bad Religion’s “Mediocrity” to get yourself in the mood while reading.
New Jersey Nets (33-38)
Heading into their Friday night contest against the East-leading Detroit Pistons, the Nets are, relatively speaking, sitting pretty in the 7th seed spot, a half game ahead of the Orlando Magic and two games up on both the Pacers and New York Knickerbockers. Unless something miraculous happens (like Nenad Krstic returning from a season-ending injury), the Nets will limp into the playoffs sporting a sub-.500 record and a coach who sounds more and more exasperated by the day. They also just lost three-point sharpshooter Eddie House indefinitely, and injuries have forced them to start vagabond Mikki Moore at center (though to be fair, he’s overachieving and playing decently).
Jason Kidd is having perhaps the finest overall season of his career, with per-game averages of 13.6 points, 8 boards, 9.1 assists, 1.6 steals, and 41.4% FG. Richard Jefferson is back after an extended period of time on the injured list, and Vince Carter, well, he’s still VC, the kind of guy who can go off for 40 one night, then log a 3-18 FG effort the next.
The Nets have 11 games left: six on the road, five at home. It’s not exactly the easiest schedule, either, with two games against both the Bulls and Wizards, and one game against the Pistons and Cavaliers each. They’ll need to win at least two of those, but perhaps more importantly need to take care of business when they face the Knicks (twice) and the Pacers, both of whom are gunning for the playoffs too. Our Best Guess: 7th Seed.
Orlando Magic (33-39)
Brian Hill’s Magic didn’t have any Wednesday night in a devastating double-overtime loss to the Celtics, which hurt even more because the Knicks were able to gain a game after beating the Cavs. This team has just kind of been middling along at a consistently average pace, going 5-8 in March. Lucky for them, two of those wins came against the Knicks and Nets. They’re currently occupying the 8th seed in the East, with 1.5 games padding between them and the other two contenders.
Dwight Howard is undoubtedly the centerpiece of both the Magic’s offense and defense, but the talented big man has had his limitations exposed as the season has worn on; namely, he’s much less effective when forced to leave the paint. Along with the predictable nonchalant attitude of Darko Milicic, and an injury to Tony Battie that kept him out of the lineup for some time, the Magic frontcourt has kept them from achieving a level of positive consistency. Well, that and Jameer Nelson’s up-and-down game and Grant Hill’s neverending odyssey of “will he or won’t he play tonight.”
The Magic have a big one at home against the Pacers on Friday night, the first of a four-game homestand that also sees the Timberwolves, Raptors, and Grizzlies coming to town. We’d say there’s no reason they shouldn’t win three of those four, but more realistically the Magic need to at least take two. Three of their last six games are against the playoff-bound Heat, Pistons, and Wizards. As bad as the teams are that are chasing them, Orlando can likely go 5-5 to close out the season and still sneak in. Our Best Guess: 8th Seed, but not a lock.
Indiana Pacers (31-40)
That big midseason trade with the Golden State Warriors isn’t looking so good right now, is it? Like I said in the intro, the Pacers have registered a paltry 2-13 record this month under the direction of head coach Rick Carlisle. Indeed, many members of the team are better at making it rain than winning ballgames. Adding insult to injury, the team’s mascot, Boomer, isn’t having such a hot month either. Their only bonafide star player, Jermaine O’Neal, has missed four games in March, and while his effort has been valiant it’s just not enough to make up for the lack of production around him.
We’re not going to waste too much time with this one because, honestly, we feel like this team does not deserve to be anywhere near a playoff discussion. Alas, they’re still in it, so let’s take a quick look at their remaining schedule. After Friday’s aforementioned contest against Orlando, the Pacers close out the ’07 season with five road and five home games. Four are against playoff teams (Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Wizards), one against a team that might get in (Nets), and five versus teams playing for ping-pong balls (Bucks, Bobcats, Celtics, 76ers, Hawks). That’s not an entirely unfavorable schedule, but they’ll have to flip the switch, NOW, and play their best basketball just to make up ground. No win is an easy win for this team anymore, and we feel like the losing trend of March will seep into April.
Our Best Guess: Stick a fork in ’em, they’re done.
New York Knicks (31-40)
If not for devastating injuries to Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson, and rebounding extraordinaire David Lee, the Knicks would probably have a few more notches in the win column. As it stands, however, they have some games to make up and will have to suck it up and ride young guys like Mardy Collins, Renaldo Balkman, and Nate Robinson during their final push for the playoffs. Hell, even Randolph Morris, who we last saw two weeks ago playing for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, is getting some minutes. Stephon Marbury has played surprisingly well, especially since the All-Star break, and Eddy Curry seems to maybe kinda sorta be figuring out how to deal with the incessant double teams in the post.
Isiah Thomas got what he wanted, a nice fat contract extension, so now’s the time for him to earn it and coax the Knicks back into the playoffs. His team registered a big win Wednesday night at the Garden over the Cavs, but with only 11 runs left (including some that are likely unwinnable), now’s not the time for patting anyone on the back. The Knicks have a tough back-to-back this weekend on the road against the Mavericks and Hornets, then have four home games (Timberwolves, Pistons, 76ers, Nets) and five road games (Bucks, Nets, Bulls, Raptors, Bobcats).
They need to win both games against the Nets for starters, hope for a split this weekend, then probably steal four or five more victories to have a shot. They can do it, but it’s not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Our Best Guess: If the Magic or Nets falter, and the Knicks turn it on, they might sneak in. Might.
Denver Nuggets (35-35)
Despite being flattened by a Rasheed Wallace prayer on Monday night, the Nuggets seem to finally be putting it together in the Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony era. JR Smith is back in the lineup and looking healthy, Steve Blake has proven to be the pass-first, shoot-second guard the team envisioned when they brought him in to replace Earl Boykins, and Nene and Marcus Camby are playing at a very high level to solidify the Denver frontcourt. Head coach George Karl will always do his best to sabotage victories, but even he might not be able to foul this up.
Denver sits semi-comfortably at the 7th seed, 1.5 games up on the LA Clippers, 2.5 games up on the Golden State Warriors, and 4 games up on the NOK Hornets. They’re still entertaining hopes of moving up to the 6th seed and unseating the Lakers (2.5 games back). Aside from contests against the Suns, Mavs, and Spurs, Denver has somewhat of a cake walk in April, and we just can’t see AI and Carmelo letting their team collapse out of the postseason. They’ll need to be at their best come playoff time, but this is one team I would not look forward to facing. Our Best Guess: They’ll push for the 6 seed, but come up just short and settle for the 7th.
LA Clippers (34-37)
If they make it, the long-embattled Clippers will undoubtedly be heavy favorites to be swept in the first round by the Mavericks (okay, or the Suns), which is one reason we’re hoping they slip and surrender the 8th seed to the Warriors. Nothing personal against Mike Dunleavy and his squad—we’re big fans of Elton Brand and feel he deserves more recognition for what he does—but the fact is that this team is not very exciting to watch, at all, and there’s no question they’d enjoy a very early exit from the playoffs.
A heartbreaker on Wednesday night at the hands of the Houston Rockets, which pushed their record in March to 6-8, didn’t help their cause with 11 games left to play. After a back-to-back road series at Sacramento and Portland this weekend, the Clips close out with five on the road and four at home. For some reason, our crystal ball shows a series of disappointing losses on the horizon, including both games against the Lakers and their last two of the season against the Suns and Hornets, respectively. Our Best Guess: The Clippers are lottery bound.
Golden State Warriors (33-39)
If only the Warriors had stayed healthy and had Al Harrington in the lineup all year. Just about a month ago Don Nelson was ready to give up on the season, and took the blame for his team missing the playoffs for the 12th straight time. Since then, however, guys like Baron Davis and Jason Richardson have returned from nagging injuries, and the team has strung together a respectable, if not overwhelming, 8-6 record in March. Unfortunately, before their impressive win over Phoenix last night, they dropped two straight, including a tough two-point nailbiter to the Lakers Sunday night.
The Warriors are going to have a very tough time ending up anywhere higher than the 8th seed, but given their history of futility they’d gladly take it. This team is extremely injury prone, and if Davis, Richardson, or Andris Biedrins were to miss any time over the rest of the season it would probably sink their postseason chances. If they all stay on the court, however, I have to think the Warriors can collectively right the ship and do just enough to edge out the Clippers and Hornets and make it, despite the ever-spreading cancer seeping from Stephen Jackson’s pores.
Even if they go, say, 7-3 (unlikely) or 6-4 (possible) over their last 10 games, they’ll need help from the Clippers. Our money says they’ll get that assistance, so the rest is up to them. Games they should win: Memphis, at Memphis, at Sacramento, Minnesota, at Portland. Games they won’t win: at Houston, at San Antonio. Games up in the air: Utah, Dallas. Remember, the Warriors are riding a three-game winning streak against the NBA-leading Mavericks—wouldn’t you love to see that matchup in round 1? Our Best Guess: It ain’t gonna be easy, but the Warriors steal the 8th seed.
NOK Hornets (32-40)
The displaced Hornets squandered an upset bid Wednesday night in San Antonio, losing by four points after a Brent Barry three-pointer with under a minute to go nailed the coffin shut. Unfortunate, because after the Hornets kicked off a mostly dreadful month of March by losing seven of their first eight, the team is still entertaining playoff hopes due to the ineptitude of the Clips and Warriors. Obviously, that would have been a huge win. Technically, these guys are very much in the hunt for the 8th seed, which they sit 2.5 games back from.
But with only 10 games left, this team has not shown they are capable of stringing together a series of big wins and catapulting themselves into the Western Conference’s top eight. Having said that, their schedule isn’t exactly intimidating, and if they can knock off the Clippers on April 10 and score an upset or two over the Rockets or Suns, their final regular season match against the Clips could very well decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Head coach Byron Scott is also optimistic that Peja Stojakovic could finally return on Saturday night and contribute to the cause. Between LA, Golden State, and NOK, it’s going to be tight. Real tight.
Our Best Guess: Close, but no cigar.