As we head into the final stretch of the regular season, the Boston Celtics find themselves in a four team dog fight for the final playoff spot in the East.
Boston did themselves a big favor by winning a key match up against the Charlotte Hornets Monday night to move a game ahead of them in the loss column. The victory puts the Celtics (33-41) a mere fraction of a percentage point ahead of the idle Brooklyn Nets (32-40) for the 8th seed. The four teams battling for that spot are separated by no more than two games in the loss column, leaving little margin for error.
Isaiah Thomas had an ugly 4 point performance in his return from an 8-game absence last week. He bounced back to put up a combined 37 points over the next two games, but entered Monday night's game shooting only 31% from the field over the past 3 games. Meanwhile, Marcus Smart is shooting 31% for the entire month of March. Boston needs better efficiency out of their point guard duo if they expect to be playing in the postseason.
These are the teams currently bound for the lottery (as of Monday morning), along with some useful information regarding their remaining games, courtesy of ESPN's Playoff Matchups page.
Brooklyn Nets: Winning 5 of their last 6 games has put the Nets on the verge of a playoff spot. This stretch has included impressive wins over the playoff bound Cavs and Bucks, while the lone loss happened to come at the hands of the Celtics. Brook Lopez has been on a tear since reclaiming the starting center role this month, averaging 20.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in March.
Oklahoma City Thunder: How is a team that recently ruled out reigning MVP Kevin Durant for the season considered a team on the rise? Maybe it's because Russell Westbrook has been playing out of his mind lately. The star point guard has been routinely flirting with triple-doubles by averaging 31.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 10.6 assists since the All-Star break to carry an undermanned Thunder squad. It's difficult to imagine the Thunder making it out of the first round without Durant, especially if Serge Ibaka isn't able to recover from knee surgery in time to be a factor. Yet if Westbrook continues to will his team into the playoffs without his star teammates, he'll be hard to ignore in the MVP race.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker's return from a knee injury has coincided with the Hornets dropping 7 of their last 10 games. The team is starting to ramp up his minutes after easing him back into the lineup, but his production remains inconsistent. An explosive 4th quarter nearly led his team to a comeback Monday night, as he dropped 28 points and a dozen assists on the Celtics. Perhaps that's a sign Walker is back to his old self. Charlotte needs him to be if they hope to stay in this race.
Dallas Mavericks: Losing 4 of their last 5 games has dropped the Mavs down to 7th in the West. Rajon Rondo has struggled to integrate with the team, which has torpedoed what had been one of the league's best offenses prior to his arrival. Since the All-Star break, Dallas ranks 23rd in the league with a 99.3 Offensive Rating. While Rondo may not be a great fit with this team, he can't take all the blame. Dirk Nowitzki's scoring has dipped to 14.1 points per game on 42% shooting from the field since the break. Celtics fans salivating over getting a lottery pick from the Rondo trade should still temper expectations. Dallas still holds a comfortable 5.5 game cushion, making it unlikely they will fall out of the postseason.
Philadelphia 76ers: Those that expected Andrew Wiggins to run away with the Rookie of the Year vote forgot about Nerlens Noel, who qualifies as a rookie despite being drafted in 2013. The 20-year old is averaging 14 points, 11 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.1 blocks this month. His 14.89 PER this season is 4th among rookies, while none of the rookies ahead of him are logging anything close to the 30 minutes per game Noel is on the court for. Philadelphia entered the day just as close to moving up in the standings as they were to having the league's worst record.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Not that there is anything wrong with Wiggins, who continues to lead all rookies in scoring at 16.2 points per game. Meanwhile, fellow rookie Zach LaVine has produced averages of 11.6 points and 4.7 assists in the 31 starts he's made this season. The Wolves have been ravaged by injuries this season, but there is a sliver of hope on the horizon if their young players continue to develop.
New York Knicks: With a record that currently has them 3 games behind Minnesota in the loss column, the Knicks have essentially locked up the league's worst record. Losses to both the Sixers and Wolves this month went a long way toward aiding their tanking efforts.
The projected draft order, as of Monday morning (pending lottery results).
|1. New York Knicks|
|2. Minnesota Timberwolves|
|3. Philadelphia 76ers|
|4. Los Angeles Lakers|
|5. Orlando Magic|
|6. Sacramento Kings|
|7. Denver Nuggets|
|8. Detroit Pistons|
|9. Charlotte Hornets|
|10. Indiana Pacers|
|11. Utah Jazz|
|12. Boston Celtics|
|13. Phoenix Suns|
|14. Houston Rockets (via New Orleans Pelicans)|