NBA Eastern Conference: Who Avoids The Play-in Tournament?
Overachievers and underachievers: we've got all kinds in the Eastern Conference, coincidentally two of each are fighting to avoid the newly-implemented 7-8 seed play-in tournament. The overachievers: the New York Knicks who closed out the month of April winning 10 of 11 games led by Most Improved Player front-runner Julius Randle, and the Atlanta Hawks who are trying to bounce back from a three-game losing streak without Trae Young. The underachievers: the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat who have both been plagued this year by player injuries and COVID protocols. We're quickly entering the home stretch of this crazy, 72-game NBA season and only 2 games separate the 4-7 seeds in the east with less than ten games left. Join me as I break down each team's May schedule and predict who gets left out to fight for playoff berth in the tourney.
New York Knicks
The Knicks have been absolutely rolling lately, however they also have arguably the hardest closing schedule out of the four teams. New York will kick off the month of May with a back-to-back against the Houston Rockets on Sunday, followed by the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday. Julius Randle and company should be able to secure wins in both of these contests considering how well they've been playing, although it's important to note that their last matchup with Memphis ended in just a 4-point victory going into overtime.
Now this is where it can get ugly for the Knicks, as they follow up with a four-game stretch against the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, and Los Angeles Lakers. Realistically, I only see New York winning one or two games in this tough stretch. Last time they played Denver it ended in a 25-point loss, but the absence of Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray gives them a better chance to even the season series. Phoenix was the team to end the Knicks 10-game winning streak and, not to mention, the second best team (record-wise) in the NBA. The two LA teams are interesting because both have been resting players in preparation for the playoffs. For the Clippers, it is almost a guarantee that either Paul George or Kawhi Leonard will be absent in addition to possible absences from vets like Serge Ibaka, Marcus Morris, and Reggie Jackson. As for the Lakers, they're more likely to play their stars with Anthony Davis and LeBron James both trying to get back to form after missing a large chunk of the season. If the Lakers end up playing their dynamic duo, New York only grabs one win against the Clippers in this four-game road trip.
The last three games feature matchups with the San Antonio Spurs, the Charlotte Hornets, and the Boston Celtics. Before I continue let me just say that New York is definitely capable of winning all three games in this stretch, especially if either San Antonio or Boston decide to rest players. However, the Celtics are making one last-gas effort at the 4-seed and the Spurs are fighting for positioning in the Western Conference play-in. So, assuming all teams are at full-strength, I think the Knicks will go 1-2 in this stretch with a win against Charlotte.
May Record: 4-5
Final Record: 39-33 (5th Seed, Wins Tie-Breaker vs Atlanta)
The Hawks have eight games to play in the month of May, and their path to the 4th seed would as easy as anybody else's if they weren't missing key players Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter. While Huerter's timetable is unknown at the moment, both Young and Bogdanovic are optimistic to return at some point this weekend/early next week. They start off the month against the Chicago Bulls, who are still without the services of All-Star guard Zach Lavine. The Hawks are a little banged up right now as well, however I think Clint Capela and John Collins serve a tough enough matchup to neutralize Vucevic. They'll be up for a tougher challenge when the Portland Trail Blazers come into town next, as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum look to lead their team past the Dallas Mavericks and out of the play-in. It's a somewhat safe bet that Atlanta splits these games, especially if they get Bogdanovic and Huerter back.
Next up for the Hawks is a back-to-back featuring the Suns and Pacers. It's hard to see Atlanta beating Phoenix with the amount of injuries they're dealing with right now, but Indiana is also struggling with injuries to Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Surprisingly, the Pacers are 5-3 without the services of Sabonis, but Capela and Collins will have a field day without Indiana's starting bigs in action. This back-to-back is followed by two matchups against the Washington Wizards, who have won 9 of their last 10 games as Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal finally look like an All-NBA backcourt. Both Russ and Beal are way too talented offensively for Young to be an effective defensive assignment, so this could be a troublesome pair of games for Atlanta. I think the Hawks come out of this four-game stretch 2-2, with Phoenix and Washington each snagging one game.
Atlanta ends their season with two freebies against the Orlando Magic and the Houston Rockets. There's not much to say about these games: both opponents are wrapping up their tanking jobs in order to set themselves up in the best position to receive a high pick in the next NBA Draft. This gives the Hawks a good opportunity to secure safe positioning in the Eastern Conference standings while also potentially resting some players.
May Record: 5-3
Final Record: 39-33 (6th Seed, Loses Tie-Breaker vs New York)
Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the Boston Celtics. They (unfortunately) lead the league in most player days missed due to Health & Safety protocols, Kemba continues to miss back-to-backs, in addition to the on-off statuses of Robert Williams, Evan Fournier and Marcus Smart have derailed the roll Boston was on earlier in April. Luckily, the Celtics have one of the easiest schedules to end the season (although that hasn't meant much so far). Boston ended April by extending their winning streak to two games after an overtime thriller against the Spurs last night where Jayson Tatum dropped a career-high 60 points, tying Larry Bird for the Celtics' single-game scoring record.
They start off May with a four-game stretch, featuring the Trail Blazers, Magic, Bulls, and Heat. With no back-to-backs in this cluster of games, I'm going to make the bold assumption that Boston will be at full strength. The Portland game is the biggest toss up out of these first four games. Jayson Tatum always seems to bring it against the Trail Blazers, which usually means co-star Jaylen Brown and supporting cast will have an easier time getting good looks. However, Norman Powell and Carmelo Anthony love to put up big numbers against the Celtics. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum causing headaches for Boston seems like a guarantee as well so expect a close game with this one. Although the Celtics have been notorious this season for underperforming against bad teams, the absence of Zach Lavine and the tanking of Orlando makes me trust that Boston will grab relatively easy wins against the Bulls and Magic. We end this grouping of games with the dreaded Sunday afternoon game against the Miami Heat. The Celtics have been terrible in Sunday afternoon games, and I expect no less here especially against a gritty/hungry team trying to claw their way up the standings. I think Boston starts May off strong going 3-1 in this stretch.
The next four games for the Celtics come in the form of two back-to-backs: the first puts them up against Miami and Cleveland, while the second features the Timberwolves and Knicks. This second matchup against the Heat following their predicted loss on Sunday serves as a redemption game. Boston usually gets their act together and wins the next matchup with teams they underperform against (Knicks, Hornets, Hawks, Wizards to name a few). While it may just be a coincidence or the inconsistency of this team, I think they keep the trend going with a win against the Heat. Now this matchup with the Cavaliers screams rest game for me, especially if Boston goes 4-1 in their first five as predicted. Kemba will 100% rest on both second halves of these back-to-backs and this game against Cleveland gives them an opportunity to rest Tatum, Brown, plus others as they see fit in preparation to end the season strong. Last time the Celtics faced Minnesota, Jayson Tatum dropped a previous career-high 53 points in an overtime win. Coming off of multiple days of rest, Boston should easily take the win against a team already out of the running for playoff berth. Finally, the Celtics end their season against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. This game could really go either way as these teams match up relatively well, which makes this one of the must-watch games to end the season with playoff implications on the line. If Kemba is the only Celtic resting for this game, Tatum and Brown should be able to lead a supporting cast of Smart, Fournier, Williams, Thompson and Pritchard past a gassed Knicks team (you can thank Thibodeau).
May Record: 6-2
Final Record: 40-32 (4th Seed)
It'll be no easy trek for Miami to outperform Atlanta, New York, and Boston to avoid getting stuck with the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. What makes this feat so difficult partly resides in their schedule. The Heat start off with a weekend back-to-back against the Cavaliers, followed by the Hornets. Miami then squares off at home with the Mavericks on Tuesday and end this four-game stretch against the Timberwolves. I'm expecting the Heat to handle Cleveland and Minnesota, however the ball movement of Charlotte and Luka's ability to take over a game for Dallas makes me think a 2-2 start to may is in order. I would be more confident about the Hornets game if not for the potential return of LaMelo Ball and how that might energize the rest of his squad. Luka on the other hand, is closing in on dragging the Mavericks out of the play-in tournament and has shown that he steps up when it matters most.
The Heat then face the Celtics twice in Boston, followed by a brief one-game homestead against the Philadelphia 76ers. As I mentioned in my Celtics section, I really do think they'll split these games. Miami embarrassed Boston down the stretch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals and one could imagine they might just embarrass them again. However, it's those kind of games that usually push the Celtics to play to the ability most expected them to maintain throughout this season. It's always a possibility that Miami catches Boston on two bad days. As for the 76ers game, Defensive Player of The Year candidate Ben Simmons is back and Most Valuable Player candidate Joel Embiid looks to make a final push for the 1st seed in the East. Despite what Simmons might say about the Nets, Philly doesn't want to finish behind Brooklyn under any circumstances. Look for the 76ers to put up a strong showing against Miami in this one, bringing the Heat to 1-2 in this stretch.
The final two games of Miami's season come in the form of a weekend back-to-back against the Bucks and the Pistons. Heat fans were able to relish in one of the biggest upsets in the playoffs last year when they upset Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Unfortunately for Heat fans, we're not in the bubble anymore. The Bucks have way too many productive pieces on both ends of the floor and Miami would have to play a near-perfect game to best Milwaukee if they're rolling. The only question mark about this game is if Giannis Antetokounmpo will be back after reaggravating his ankle against Houston. If the Greek Freak ends up missing this matchup, the Heat will have to take advantage in hopes to make a last-ditch effort at the 6th seed. Miami finishes their season against the Pistons, which should be an easy win for the Heat considering Detroit is looking to secure their odds in the next draft lottery by having one of the three worst records in the league. If Giannis is healthy, the Heat split this back-to-back heading into the postseason off of an easy win.
May Record: 4-5
Final Record: 37-35 (7th Seed Play-In)