When Jared Sullinger was lost for the season with a stress fracture in his foot last month it seemed to spell the end of the Celtics playoff hopes. Instead, a roster shakeup in the wake of the trade deadline has helped Boston stay in the mix by winning five of their last ten games. While a .500 record isn't anything to get too excited about, it dwarfs their season winning percentage (.410) and has prevented them from falling out of the playoff race.
The primary reason the Celtics are still hanging around in the hunt for one of the final playoff spots in the East has been the stellar play of newcomer Isaiah Thomas. The diminutive point guard is averaging 21.0 points per game since donning the Celtics green and the 189 points he's piled up set a franchise record for the most scored over the first nine games with the team.
MOST POINTS, FIRST NINE GAMES WITH CELTICS Isaiah Thomas 189 Kevin Garnett 187 Ray Allen 184 Bailey Howell 183— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) March 9, 2015
Boston entered Monday in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, but they sit a mere 2.5 games behind the 8th seeded Indiana Pacers and their -1.5 point differential is tied for 8th in the conference. They will need at least a couple of the teams ahead of them to cool off if they have any hope of catching them, but if any of them falter then the Celtics could be ready to steal their spot.
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.
Indiana Pacers: Winning 11 of 13 games since the start of February has vaulted the Pacers into a playoff spot. Indiana has limited opponents to 96.1 points per game over that span - the third best mark in the league since the beginning of last month. They also have one of the league's best point differentials since the All-Star break and have finally raised their point differential for the season back to an even zero. With Paul George potentially on his way back soon, this Pacers team could be a force that the top seeds will want no part of if they manage to cling to a playoff spot.
Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC has won 7 of their last 10 games without Kevin Durant in the lineup for most of that stretch because Russell Westbrook has transformed into Oscar Robertson. Westbrook is averaging a triple-double since the All-Star break, with 34.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. He recently became the first player since Michael Jordan in 1989 to record four straight triple-doubles and now has one in five of his last six games. Westbrook is on a ridiculous tear in Durant's absence that not only has launched him into the MVP conversation, but has carried his team into a playoff spot.
Brooklyn Nets: It's too bad that this isn't one of the years that the Celtics own Brooklyn's draft pick, because it's turning into a juicy lottery pick as the Nets continue to tumble in the standings. Brooklyn has lost 3 straight and 5 of their last 7 to relinquish their playoff spot. At least the Atlanta Hawks can swap picks with Brooklyn, so if the Nets futility continues then it won't result in a lottery pick that could help them in future seasons when Boston does own their draft pick.
Phoenix Suns: In our last edition of the standings watch we had to create a new category for the "abyss of uncertainty" that was influenced in part by the head-scratching moves the Suns made at the trade deadline. After an admittedly small sample size since the deadline, that uncertain future is looking pretty bleak. Eric Bledsoe has struggled at times to adjust to playing with Brandon Knight and is averaging 4.6 turnovers per game since the break. Knight has played pretty well, but he can't make up for the production of both Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas by himself and the Suns have gotten next to nothing from any of their other new acquisitions. The moves Phoenix made may prove to be the right decision in the long run, but we can essentially count them out of the playoff race now.
Minnesota Timberwolves : Kevin Garnett's emotional return to the franchise he started his career with was a nice moment for their fans, but it's not translating into more wins. The emergence of Andrew Wiggins (20.5 points per game since the break) and Ricky Rubio's return (12.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 10.6 assists since the break) offer a glimmer of hope for the future, but this remains a lost season.
Philadelphia 76ers: Isaiah Canaan is hoisting 7.9 three-point attempts per game since being sent to Philly to take over the starting point guard role that was vacated when Michael Carter-Williams was shipped out of town. That's nearly as many 3's as Stephen Curry's league leading pace! He's draining those shots at a very respectable 39 percent clip, but his overall field goal percentage has been a putrid 37 percent. On a team with little interest in winning games, Canaan has been set loose to jack up as many shots from long range as he pleases.
New York Knicks: Phil Jackson was a legendary coach when he had superstar players to work with. When his job is to assemble a championship caliber roster? That remains to be seen, but it's been a rough start for the Zen Master. This roster is a mess and there isn't an easy fix. Even when the Knicks get cap space, there is little on this roster that would entice a star free agent to go there. They aren't lining up to play with Melo now that he's over 30 and coming off a season-ending knee injury.
The projected draft order, as of Monday morning (pending lottery results).
|1. New York Knicks|
|2. Philadelphia 76ers|
|3. Minnesota Timberwolves|
|4. Los Angeles Lakers|
|5. Orlando Magic|
|6. Sacramento Kings|
|7. Denver Nuggets|
|8. Detroit Pistons|
|9. Atlanta Hawks (via Brooklyn Nets)|
|10. Boston Celtics|
|11. Utah Jazz|
|12. Philadelphia 76ers (via Miami Heat)|
|13. Phoenix Suns|
|14. Houston Rockets (via New Orleans Pelicans)|