The Celtics are making a valiant late-season run at a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a 10-6 run since February 3rd. The team has undeniably been more energetic and fun to watch, but what are the chances they can earn a playoff spot? Let’s take a look at where the Celtics are, who the competition is, and what the outlook is for this unexpected playoff run.
THE STANDINGS TODAY
Five teams in a knock-down drag-out battle for two playoff spots with twenty games to go. All five teams are within 2.5 games. Adding in even more drama is the fact that each of these teams has multiple games against the other teams in the race down the stretch. Superficially, each of these teams has every reason to believe they can make it work. Let’s take a deeper look at each team, how they’ve played recently, their schedule going forward, and their motivations.
BROOKLYN NETS (25-36, 11th place)
Off Rtg: 103.1 (23rd of 30) ▪ Def Rtg: 106.8 (21st of 30)
RECENT TRENDS: The Nets are headed in the wrong direction. 4-8 since February 7th. 9-20 since January 4th.
SCHEDULE: The Nets have 6 games left against the other 4 Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls and 5 games left against other teams under .500 for the season that seem perfectly winnable. But they also have two games left with the Cavs, two with the Hawks, and one each with the Raptors, Blazers, and Bulls.
MOTIVATION: Brooklyn has every reason to want to be in the playoffs year. They have an old, expensive roster. Their draft pick is going to be in the late 20s regardless of their own performance thanks to the Joe Johnson trade and the Atlanta Hawks outstanding season. Missing the playoffs this year hurts tremendously as they try to establish themselves as a brand in Brooklyn.
OUTLOOK: Making up a 2.5 game deficit in 20 games is not impossible. Making up a 2.5 game deficit in 20 games while winning only a third of your games over the past 9 weeks is incredibly unlikely. The Nets need to right their ship, and quickly, if they plan on being a part of this race much longer. Best guess? The Nets go 2-4 over the next six and never really threaten to grab one of the playoff spots. For a team with a bottom ten offense and bottom ten defense, there’s little reason to believe they’ll suddenly reverse their fortunes.
MIAMI HEAT (28-35, 9th place)
Off Rtg: 104.1 (19th of 30) ▪ Def Rtg: 106.9 (22nd of 30)
RECENT TRENDS: Despite their bold move for Goran Dragic at the trade deadline, this Heat team is barely treading water. They’ve gone 6-5 since acquiring Dragic, having lost Chris Bosh to a pulmonary embolism in the meantime. The loss of Bosh also seems to be having an impact on bargain bin find Hassan Whiteside, who has managed to get himself ejected from two games recently and is suspended for the Heat’s next game for his needless attempt to maul Kelly Olynyk. Dwyane Wade is still one hell of a player, but he, Dragic, and Whiteside have all been dealing with nagging injuries that will take their toll down the stretch with the Heat needing to win every game to stay relevant.
SCHEDULE: After losing last night’s game to the Celtics, the Heat only have 4 games remaining against the other playoff hopefuls, giving them slightly less direct control of their fate. They have 5 other games left against sub .500 teams but face off against the Cavs and Hawks twice each down the stretch.
MOTIVATION: The Heat retain their first round pick if it falls in the top ten, but this is a veteran team built to win now behind Wade, Dragic, and Deng. Wade and Erik Spoelstra both have a chance to prove that they can be effective without LeBron by making a run down the stretch.
OUTLOOK: Expect Miami to stay relevant, even if their injury concerns and recent performance make a playoff appearance unlikely. The Heat remain a game and a half ahead of the Celtics in the standings, despite Monday’s loss. Ninth place in the East doesn’t count for much, but the Heat will want to challenge the Celtics for it down the stretch if that’s how things play out.
CHARLOTTE HORNETS (28-34, 7th place tie)
Off Rtg: 100.8 (28th of 30) ▪ Def Rtg: 102.8 (9th of 30)
RECENT TRENDS: The Hornets have gone 6-2 over the past few weeks, with wins over the Bulls and Raptors. Kemba Walker seems likely to return to the floor soon. They’ve rediscovered the defensive intensity that characterized their playoff run last year, climbing into the top ten in defensive efficiency.
SCHEDULE: Just four games left against the other East playoff hopefuls for the Hornets is a positive for them – it’s fewer chances for them to get knocked down a peg directly. Nine games left against teams above .500 and seven games against other sub .500 teams gives them a favorable schedule down the stretch.
MOTIVATION: This is a team looking to prove that last season’s playoff appearance was not a fluke. They own their own first round pick, but have a fair amount of advanced young talent that would benefit more from additional playoff experience.
OUTLOOK: If this team keeps playing at their recent level it’s going to be very difficult to make up even a two game deficit for the Celtics. If they got 6-1 against the league’s dregs and 4-5 against the teams over .500, a 2-2 mark against the other competitors would put them at 38-42 at the end of the season.
INDIANA PACERS (28-34, 7th place tie)
Off Rtg: 102.5 (25th of 30) ▪ Def Rtg: 102.5 (7th of 30)
RECENT TRENDS: At 11-2 since the start of February, this Pacers squad is on fire. Like Charlotte, the Pacers have rediscovered their defensive identity and have held nine of their last ten under 100 points. Their offensive attack may not be the NBA’s most efficient – but it is one of the most balanced. In each game during their recent hot streak they’ve had at least four players in double figures.
SCHEDULE: The Pacers have six games left against the other playoff hopefuls. In some ways, this works against them as it gives the Heat/Celtics/Nets a few extra chances to knock them down a peg. Of course, if they stay hot they’re likely to make use of those games to further solidify their position. The rest of the schedule works against the Pacers, with just three games against other sub .500 teams.
MOTIVATION: Making the playoffs without Paul George playing through most of the regular season would be an incredible feat for an Indiana team that started off slowly without George.
OUTLOOK: Frank Vogel is one of the best coaches in the business and he’s proving it this year by keeping this Pacers team afloat without their best (only?) offensive weapon. Their schedule is daunting, but they’re playing like a much better team than anyone else in this competition right now. A 7-2 record against their sub .500 opponents would mean just a 5-6 record against the winning teams would leave the Pacers with 40 wins at the end of the season. A slightly more conservative 6-3/4-7 would give them 38 wins, right along with my projection for the Hornets.
BOSTON CELTICS (26-36, 10th place)
Off Rtg: 104.4 (17th of 30) ▪ Def Rtg: 105.7 (16th of 30)
RECENT TRENDS: The Celtics have gone 6-3 since blowing Isaiah Thomas’ debut with the team against the Lakers. The team’s position in the race was helped by Monday’s win over the Heat, but Sunday’s loss to the Magic could end up being the team’s undoing. The Celtics have had a recent talent for blowing significant leads, a trend that will have to be reversed if the Celtics want to stay in this race.
SCHEDULE: Five games left against the Eastern Conference contenders and five others against sub .500 teams gives the Celtics a chance to control their destiny down the stretch. That leaves ten games against teams above .500, though that contains two games against the Bucks and one against the Thunder that look eminently winnable.
MOTIVATION: The Celtics own their own first round pick, but like the Hornets have quite a bit of young talent on the roster that would benefit from playoff experience. Making the playoffs would likely mean the 15th pick for the Celtics. Missing the playoffs would likely leave the Celtics with the 10th or 11th pick, even if they try to tank. The difference in median win shares for a 10th vs. 15th pick is just ~20 throughout their career, meaning there is minimal benefit to this Celtics team to not go all out and try to get this playoff spot. Make no mistake, tanking is out the window – the Celtics are all in for the playoffs.
OUTLOOK: Being all in and winning this race are two different prospects. Starting from a two game deficit makes this a difficult proposition. Having to pass three teams, two of which are playing great basketball makes it much tougher. If the Celtics go a respectable 3-7 against the teams over .500, the Celtics would have to go 9-1 against the sub .500 teams to get to the 38 win mark along with the Hornets and Pacers.
WHAT THE METRICS SAY
ESPN’s Hollinger playoff odds and Basketballreference.com’s playoff odds both have Indiana and Charlotte likely retaining the 7th and 8th seeds in the East, with the Celtics likely needing at least 37 wins (and probably 38) to displace one of them. That’s a tall task for a young team. Both prediction systems give the Celtics ~24% chance of pulling this feat off though, so the task is not insurmountable. Fivethirtyeight.com comes up with the same result in their latest NBA power ranking, though they curiously rank the Celtics ahead of the other four contenders.
The Brooklyn Nets are out. The Heat are going to give it their best shot, but injuries are likely to prevail. The Celtics seem to have the best shot here and they’re taking it, but they’re going to need some help in the form of a slip from the Hornets or Pacers to earn the right to square off against the Hawks.