It's time to start looking at the remainder of the NBA schedule like we do the entire NFL season. There are six teams in the Eastern Conference fighting for only three spots in the playoffs, and each one has about 16 games remaining, the equivalent of a full NFL season.
American Football is the most popular sport in the United States because there are so few games on the schedule, which makes every week a must-win. But the closing of the 2014-15 NBA season is very much the same way, with just one win or loss being the difference between making or missing the playoffs.
John Schuhmann took a fantastic look at every team's playoff chances by assessing their strength of schedule, and we're going to piggyback off his idea by reviewing the schedules again, but with data only since the All-Star break.
That's because teams have changed so much over the course of the year, so games played in December and January aren't as relevant at this point of the season. Looking specifically at their production since February 19 may give us a better idea of the strength of each team's remaining schedule.
Here is what was found for the remaining schedules of the six teams on the bubble:
The difference between each team's remaining schedule is not significant, partially because there are so many head-to-head matchups. The Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, and Brooklyn Nets all have six common games against other bubble teams. The Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets have four. These matchups will likely be the differentiator between who's in and who's out.
Keep in mind that ONetRtg is the average opponent's point differential per 100 possessions. And OAdjNet accounts for the game's location and back-to-backs, as described in more detail here by John Schuhmann. A positive score means the schedule is more difficult, and a negative means it is easier.
Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks have a 3.5 game lead on the competition, but they have the most difficult remaining schedule, according to ONetRtg. However, their OAdjNet is significantly lower because they they're facing a number of teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back. 39 or 40 wins make them a virtual lock for a playoff seed, but there's no guarantee they get there, as they are 2-8 in their last 10 games.
Brooklyn Nets: Brooklyn is on the outside looking in and they have the second-hardest remaining schedule according to both metrics. As Schuhmann points out, they have 11 home games left, but they are a league-worst 1-4 at home since the break. The Nets are long shots to make the playoffs unless they catch fire at Barclays Center.
The Controllers of Destiny
Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets have by far the easiest schedule. They're fortunate to have games against the likes of the Kings and Wolves, and they only have four head-to-head games remaining. While other teams are beating up on each other, Charlotte will be controlling its own destiny.
Miami Heat: The same can be said for the Heat, who have only four more games against common opponents. Six of their eight remaining games in March are against playoff teams or Eastern Conference bubble teams, so this stretch could set the tone for April. Fortunately for Miami, four of their final five games are at home.
Indiana Pacers: Indiana is 9-3 since the All-Star break, making them the third-hottest team in the league. They have one of the easiest schedules when looking at ONetRtg, but location and back-to-back adjustments in OAdjNet reveal that it's slightly more difficult than it appears. The Pacers will be challenged during a four-games-in-five-nights stretch against Brooklyn, Boston, Charlotte, and Miami.
Boston Celtics: The Celtics are one of the hottest teams in the league, but they have the toughest remaining schedule, according to OAdjNet. With games against the Thunder and Spurs, and two games against the Cavaliers, the Celtics will be fighting an uphill battle. The Celtics have four more back-to-backs this season, which would normally be a disadvantage, but they are 7-1 on the second night of a back-to-back since mid-January.
The Shortened Season
The 66-game schedule of the 2011 lockout year was one of the more thrilling seasons in recent memory, because with fewer total games each matchup had an increased importance. Fans should look at this final stretch of the season in the same exact way. The end of this season is unique; three Eastern Conference teams are 30-36 and they all have exactly 16 games remaining.
The first 66 games of each team's season mean nothing in terms of what happens next. This is a new 16-game season, and what happens from here on out will determine each team's fate. Much like the NFL, every game matters significantly. Every game is a playoff game, and it must be viewed as such by the fans, the players, and the coaches.
The three teams with the greatest mental toughness down the stretch will be the ones rewarded with a chance in the wide-open Eastern Conference playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers are undoubtedly the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but they aren't unbeatable. If the cards fall right, one of the bubble teams could go a lot further in the playoffs than any fan is expecting them to.
Here is each team's remaining schedule in its entirety: