NBA Playoff Picture: Where everyone in the East wants the Celtics

Yahoo Sports

Almost every day there’s movement in the race for the Eastern Conference’s final six playoff spots behind the set-in-stone top-two seeds in Toronto and Boston. The last two days alone shuffled five of those six seeds, and just one loss separates the final three teams jockeying for playoff position.

It’s tough to see the the horizon through the window of ever-changing standings, so we’ll do our best here to paint a big picture of the landscape as we enter the final weekend of the regular season.

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3704/" data-ylk="slk:LeBron James">LeBron James</a> saw his path in the East get easier this week. (AP)
LeBron James saw his path in the East get easier this week. (AP)

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (49-30, currently in third place)
Half-game up on fourth place, two games up on fifth place

Projected record: 51-31
Net rating: 1.2
Record against top-eight teams in the East: 15-9
Games left against teams above .500: 1
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 2

The Cavaliers own the conference-record tiebreaker against the 76ers. They lost their season series to the Pacers. The Heat, Wizards and Bucks cannot catch the Cavs in the standings.

Good news: Even with missed games from everyone on the roster not named LeBron James, J.R. Smith and Jordan Clarkson over the past three weeks, the Cavs are suddenly looking like East favorites again. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, including two against the Raptors, all while the Celtics lost Kyrie Irving to season-ending surgery, and LeBron has made a monster MVP case down the stretch.

Bad news: Cleveland remains one of the league’s worst defensive teams, despite “only” ranking in the bottom 10 these last few weeks. That’s a playoff problem. As for their remaining regular-season slate, the Cavs are even in the loss column with the Sixers, with a head-to-head matchup on Friday that could decide the all-important No. 3 seed, which provides the easiest road to the conference finals.

Remaining games: at Philadelphia, at New York, vs. New York

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (48-30, currently in fourth place)
Half-game behind third place, 1.5 games up on fifth place

Projected record: 51-31
Net rating: 5.0
Record against top-eight teams in the East: 9-16
Games left against teams above .500: 2
Home games left: 3
Road games left: 1

The 76ers lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Cavaliers and Pacers. The Heat, Wizards and Bucks cannot catch the Sixers in the standings.

Good news: The Sixers are the most dangerous of the East also-rans, having won 13 straight despite losing Joel Embiid to an orbital fracture last week. Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons has made a next-level jump, and they’ve benefited from a cupcake schedule in the season’s final month. They can put themselves in position to capture the third seed with a win over the Cavs on Friday, and there’s an outside chance Embiid returns for the start of the playoffs. This is a Finals contender.

Bad news: There’s also a chance it could take Embiid longer to return, especially if his vision is impacted by the injury. Without him manning the middle, the Sixers are also vulnerable, especially if they’re stuck in a 4-5 series opposite the Pacers. It’ll be fascinating to see how Simmons acquits himself in clutch situations, given his shotmaking limitations, and Friday will give us an early glance.

Remaining games: vs. Cleveland, vs. Dallas, at Atlanta, vs. Milwaukee

Victor Oladipo is a bona fide star, in case you haven’t heard. (AP)
Victor Oladipo is a bona fide star, in case you haven’t heard. (AP)

INDIANA PACERS (47-32, currently in fifth place)
Two games behind third place, 1.5 games behind fourth place

Projected record: 49-33
Net rating: 2.0
Record against top-eight teams in the East: 14-11
Games left against teams above .500: 1
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 2

The Pacers own the head-to-head tiebreakers against the Cavaliers and 76ers. The Heat, Wizards and Bucks cannot catch them in the standings.

Good news: Well, the Pacers walloped the Warriors on Thursday night to sweep their season series with Golden State. Victor Oladipo is a surefire All-NBA selection and the heavy favorite to take home Most Improved Player honors, and they’re a serious threat against either of their potential first-round opponents, owning a 5-2 record against the Cavs and Sixers, especially if they’re not taken seriously.

Bad news: It seems unlike Indiana can capture home-court advantage against either Cleveland or Philadelphia, even if they own head-to-head tiebreakers against each. They trail both by two games in the loss column with three to play. A Pacers win over Toronto combined with whichever team loses the Cavs-Sixers game on Friday would give them an outside shot, and that’s all they’ve asked for this year.

Remaining games: at Toronto, at Charlotte, vs. Charlotte

Erik Spoelstra is not the coach you want to face in the first round. (AP)
Erik Spoelstra is not the coach you want to face in the first round. (AP)

MIAMI HEAT (43-36, currently in sixth place)
One game up on seventh and eight place

Projected record: 45-37
Net rating: 1.0
Record against top-eight teams in the East: 13-10
Games left against teams above .500: 2
Home games left: 2
Road games left: 1

The Heat own the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Bucks and the conference-record tiebreaker against the Wizards. They cannot catch the Cavaliers, 76ers or Pacers in the standings.

Good news: The Heat are the Heat, a scrappy bunch of good-but-not-great players who play well and hard together under Erik Spoelstra. Miami’s current 3-6 matchup with Cleveland would be a fun showdown, with Dwyane Wade and LeBron squaring off in the playoffs for the first time in their careers, even if it is a decade late. Of the three teams vying for the 6-7-8 spots, Miami is the toughest.

Bad news: The seventh seed and the chance to play a battered Boston team is the coveted spot for these final three teams, but with a game in hand and tiebreakers against both the Wizards and Bucks, it’ll be tough for them to drop out of sixth. They could completely tank their final three games against a lame Knicks squad, the still-fighting Thunder and a Raptors team likely to be resting, but Miami is the sort of team that can’t afford to enter the playoffs out of rhythm. Especially if LeBron awaits.

Remaining games: at New York, vs. Oklahoma City, vs. Toronto

John Wall is back. (AP)
John Wall is back. (AP)

WASHINGTON WIZARDS (42-37, currently in seventh place)
One game behind sixth place, tied record-wise with eighth place

Projected record: 44-38
Net rating: 0.8
Record against top-eight teams in the East: 13-13
Games left against teams above .500: 1
Home games left: 2
Road games left: 1

The Wizards currently hold the conference-record tiebreaker against the Bucks and lost it to the Heat. They cannot catch the Cavaliers, 76ers and Pacers in the standings.

Good news: John Wall returned from his knee injury, and he looked pretty damn healthy on Thursday, compiling 28 points and 14 assists, even if they did come in a loss he booted to the Cavaliers. The Wizards have spent a year saying Cleveland ducked them in the playoffs last year, and ironically they’re now in the pole position to avoid the Cavs and play the injury-riddle Celtics in the first round.

Bad news: Boston still has some say in Washington’s seeding, with a head-to-head meeting on Tuesday looming. There’s a chance the Celtics could be resting by then, although coach Brad Stevens has suggested he’d like what’s left of his rotation to continue jelling. There’s also a shot the Wizards will want to lose that game to stay locked into the No. 7 seed, but considering Wall’s prolonged absence and the fact that they’ve been an average team all year, they face that same risk of resting.

Remaining games: vs. Atlanta, vs. Boston, at Orlando

Giannis Antetokounmpo is up to the playoff challenge, but is Bucks coach Joe Prunty? (AP)
Giannis Antetokounmpo is up to the playoff challenge, but is Bucks coach Joe Prunty? (AP)

MILWAUKEE BUCKS (43-34, currently in eighth place)
One game behind sixth place, tied record-wise with seventh place

Projected record: 44-38
Net rating: 0.8
Record against top-eight teams in the East: 9-16
Games left against teams above .500: 1
Home games left: 1
Road games left: 2

The Bucks lost the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Heat and trail the conference-record tiebreaker to the Wizards. They cannot catch the Cavaliers, 76ers or Pacers in the standings.

Good news: They have Giannis Antetokounmpo, a threat to alter any series. They too have a game against Boston left, sandwiched between should-be wins against New York and Brooklyn. If the Celtics want to face Milwaukee, which they should, considering their dearth of guards against a Wall and Bradley Beal backcourt, they could rest against the Bucks and help their cause in jumping up a seed.

Bad news: The reason Boston might want Milwaukee in the first round is because the supporting cast around Giannis has been so mediocre, and interim head coach Joe Prunty is a question mark for the playoffs. The Celtics nearly beat the Bucks this week with Kadeem Allen starting at point guard, mainly because they’re defensively challenged and reliant upon on a 40-year-old Jason Terry off the bench.

Remaining games: at New York, vs. Boston, vs. Brooklyn

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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