With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the playoff picture at the bottom of the Eastern Conference is still a mess. There are five teams within 2.5 games of each other, all competing for two postseason spots.
The Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets entered Thursday's action with matching 34-40 records and the seventh and eighth seeds. The Boston Celtics (34-41) lurk a half-game back, but created a bit of separation over the next teams in line with wins over the Charlotte Hornets (32-42) and Indiana Pacers (32-43) at the start of the week.
While you can't count any of these five teams out, the odds help paint a quickly calcifying picture. Miami's favorable schedule makes it a strong favorite to land the seventh seed, while Boston and Brooklyn are just about a coin flip to determine who sneaks into that final spot. While Brooklyn is currently a half-game up in the standings, Boston owns the head-to-head tiebreaker after winning three of four meetings this season.
With that in mind, we asked ESPN's Brooklyn Nets reporter Mike Mazzeo to join us for five questions as we attempt to predict how a potential two-horse race for the eighth seed between Boston and Brooklyn might unfold.
1. Why should your team make the playoffs?
Mazzeo: Simple -- they’re playing better. The Nets have been a different team since acquiring Thaddeus Young at the trade deadline. And they’ll enter Friday night’s game against the Toronto Raptors having won a season-high five straight and nine of 11. Nets coach Lionel Hollins has finally found a starting lineup that works in Deron Williams, rookie Markel Brown, Joe Johnson, Young and Brook Lopez. Since the All-Star break, that five-man group has outscored the opposition by 16.5 points per 100 possessions. Only four lineups1 in the entire NBA have been better over that span (minimum 150 minutes played).
But why has it worked? Balance. Young and Brown have provided much-needed athleticism and versatility. Young has been able to space the floor with his improved 3-point shot, allowing Lopez to concentrate more inside, while Brown has done an admirable job guarding the opposition’s best wing players on most nights. Williams and Lopez have been terrific in the pick-and-roll together, developing excellent chemistry. Lopez is playing the best basketball of his career -- scoring and rebounding at a high rate -- while Williams has been setting up his teammates for quality shots with quality passes. The point guard’s feel of the game seems much better; if only he still had lift when going to the rim. Johnson’s tendinitis hasn’t acted up of late, and he’s delivered several clutch shots late in games. Since the break, the Nets rank ninth in offensive efficiency and 23rd in defensive efficiency. With Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, Brooklyn has been a different team. And that’s a good thing.
Forsberg: There's no better feel-good story in the NBA this season than these Celtics. Boston traded away its two most talented players (Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green) by mid-January, lost its best remaining player to injury in mid-February (Jared Sullinger), and, despite a turnstile roster (11 trades, 22 game-day players, 40 roster players), the Celtics are still improbably in position to sneak into the playoffs. Brad Stevens is doing what he did at Butler University -- maximizing the individual talents of his players and getting them to overachieve as a group. Sure, a terrible East is helping that cause, but Isaiah Thomas' addition at the trade deadline invigorated Boston's offense and the Celtics are a top-10 defense since Feb. 23 (going 14-8 in that span). If Boston can maintain what Stevens calls its "Defensive DNA," then it will have every opportunity to earn that playoff berth with its play.
But here's the real reason the Celtics deserve it: They're scrappy and incredibly resilient. When the starters don't have it on a given night, a bench unit led by in-season additions like Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome steps up. When Thomas got waylaid by Dwyane Wade, the Celtics went 5-3 in his absence, finding ways to generate offense without their best scorer. When Kelly Olynyk got bonked in the eye before Wednesday's game, he dashed off to the ophthalmologist, got stitched up and returned to TD Garden to score a team-high 19 points in a must-win game against the Pacers. These Celtics just seem to find a way lately.
2. Why should your team miss the playoffs?
Mazzeo: For all the success the Nets’ starting lineup has had since the break, the same cannot be said about their bench. In recent games, Brooklyn’s starters have built double-digit leads, only for its reserves to give those leads back. Bojan Bogdanovic and Jarrett Jack, in particular, have been liabilities. The Nets are being outscored by 6.7 points per 100 possessions with Bogdanovic on the floor and by 5.7 points per 100 possessions with Jack on the floor. Bogdanovic, who has really gained a lot more confidence in his shot recently, can struggle as a defender, while Jack’s shot selection and decision-making can be baffling at times. Hollins, however, has a particular fondness for Jack, which may end up costing the team. Mason Plumlee also hasn’t played well of late. He had been solid in tandem with Garnett, but Lopez has since surpassed the second-year pro on the depth chart.
Ultimately, what the Nets have done lately doesn’t take away from their horrendous start to the season. And, overall, the only thing they’ve done with any sort of consistency is be inconsistent -- in a below-.500 team sort of way. They’re good enough to beat the Cavs and bad enough to nearly lose to the Knicks. It doesn’t make much sense. If they miss the playoffs, they’ll have to sweat out the upcoming draft lottery. Atlanta has the right to swap first-round picks with Brooklyn as a result of the Johnson trade back in 2012.
Forsberg: The Celtics dug themselves a huge hole at the start of the year (standing 13 games under .500 on Jan. 19) and that's left them with virtually no margin for error the rest of the way. They've had some unforgivable losses recently (in overtime to the Pistons and versus a short-handed Miami squad, both at home). If the rest of the teams around Boston hadn't stumbled recently, too, Boston would already be resigned to playing for pingpong balls.
If the Celtics miss the playoffs it will be because of an inconsistent offense. The team has been better lately, thriving when it whips the ball around the gym and generates open looks. But when shots don't fall, this team struggles to put points on the board and that puts an awful lot of pressure on the defense to keep the Celtics in games.
3. What stands out about your team’s schedule the rest of the way?
Mazzeo: Six of Brooklyn’s final eight games are against teams with winning records. The Nets are 9-28 against .500 or better teams (at time of game played) this season. During their 9-2 surge, Brooklyn has defeated only one team with a winning record (Cleveland). Granted, you can only play the teams on your schedule, so at least the Nets are taking care of business. But we’re about to find out a lot about the Nets in the games to come. They still have to face the Hawks two more times, and it will be interesting to see whether Atlanta plays its starters. You would think that the Hawks would, considering the scenario laid out above. It’s possible the Nets get lucky and some of their already playoff-bound opponents rest key players.
Forsberg: Boston's final seven games don't feature any gimmes and the most winnable game might be its lone national TV matchup of the season next Wednesday in Detroit (the same Pistons team that upended Boston last month). Boston plays only three other teams, with two games against the Bucks, Raptors and Cavaliers. As Mazz mentioned, the Celtics will cross their fingers and hope (1) top seeds like the Raptors and Cavs will rest their starters moving forward and (2) the Hawks will go full throttle in hopes of ensuring Brooklyn's presence in the lottery. The wild card: Boston is an astounding 9-1 in the second game of back-to-backs this season and has two more back-ends looming against the Raptors (Saturday) and Bucks (season finale on April 15).
4. What’s the buzz about your team’s potential playoff surge?
Mazzeo: That they need to get in the playoffs. Otherwise, the Nets' season will be considered a massive failure. It’s incredible that they’re even still in the race given how things have gone. But the Eastern Conference sure has been helpful. The Nets want to avoid LeBron James just like everyone else. But if they do end up playing the Hawks, you wonder if they could at least give Atlanta some trouble. With Lopez playing as well as he is, you never know.
Forsberg: Some in Boston would still prefer the Celtics pull up and improve their draft position with eyes toward a brighter future. A playoff berth in the East this year is a bit of fool's gold, but everybody acknowledges that. The excitement of this playoff push has won most Boston fans over. One thing is clear: The players in the Celtics' locker room and Stevens are all in for the playoffs. They've shown an awful lot of grit this week with big wins to drop Indiana and Charlotte back in the race; now Boston has to find a way to catch Brooklyn. Hey, this is a lot more fun than last year, when Boston lost 16 of its final 19 games.
5. Prediction time: Who makes the playoffs in the East?
Mazzeo: The Nets sneak into the No. 8 spot. But given that the Celtics hold the tiebreaker, nothing would surprise me.
Forsberg: Honestly, this all might boil down to the Hawks. They can practically pick their first-round opponent. Lie down against the Nets and likely ensure a visit from Brooklyn (though that diminishes the first-round pick that will be delivered). If the Hawks prefer to see Boston, then a couple of wins over Brooklyn would help that cause. I agree that Brooklyn seemingly has the edge at the moment, but Boston's tiebreaker could be a huge asset at the finish line.
1: The four better lineups: San Antonio: Parker-Green-Leonard-Splitter-Duncan (plus-28.6); Clippers: Paul-Redick-Barnes-Griffin-Jordan (plus-21.7); Cleveland: Irving-Smith-James-Love-Mozgov (plus-17.6); Golden State: Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Green-Bogut (plus-17.3).