The race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is as pathetic as the race for the bottom four spots in the Western Conference is exciting.
The Pacers, current holders of the eighth slot, have lost four straight games and have gone into a major defensive slump. The Bobcats, pursuing the Pacers as if they were lazy house cats and not predators, have lost five straight. Their combined ineptitude has allowed the Bucks to stay in it even though they’ve been declared dead several times and had lost four of five before blowing out the putrid Wizards on Tuesday.
You know I have a soft spot for the Bucks, and that I’ve been rooting for them to find their 2009-10 groove, sneak into the playoffs and give the top seed some Andrew Bogut-style hell. But the more I watch Bogut struggle with a rib cage muscle strain and a right elbow that clearly still isn’t right, the more I wonder if it might be best for Milwaukee to miss the playoffs, get its core players healthy, take a swing in the lottery and hope Brandon Jennings makes a leap next season.
Even if the Bucks were actually trying to tank (which won’t happen), the Pacers and Bobcats just won’t let them escape playoff contention. This battle for the eighth spot — combined with the sterling play of the Sixers, who are seventh and only a half-game behind the Knicks for sixth — has made it clear that whoever wins the battle for the top seed between Boston and Chicago will have a small but important edge in the playoffs.
As things stand now, facing the Pacers instead of the Sixers or Knicks is a big deal, particularly for an older team such as Boston. Philadelphia and New York always seem to play Boston tough, and having an easy five-game series against Miami last year — as opposed to the bloodbath seven-gamers of Boston’s prior two playoff runs — helped set up the aging Celtics for a Finals run.
So does any team have the edge in this three-team race? I’d rank them like this:
1) Pacers: The heavy favorite, with a one-game lead in the loss column over Charlotte and a two-game lead over the Bucks — and the most favorable schedule of all three clubs.
2) Bucks: A schedule that looks much like Indiana’s — with one significant difference — and is much easier than Charlotte’s. They can also clinch the tiebreaker over the Pacers with a win over Indiana on April 1, which could emerge as a crucial game.
3) Bobcats: They’re one game ahead of the Bucks in the loss column, but they just traded their best all-around player to Portland (Gerald Wallace), and they’ve got the toughest remaining schedule of these three clubs.
Seven of Charlotte’s last 19 games come against teams currently in the top four in either conference; five of those seven games are on the road. The Pacers and Bucks have just 10 such games combined. The misery for Charlotte starts Wednesday against the Bulls and continues with a three-game road trip next week that includes a back-to-back against the Thunder and Spurs. Ouch.
Charlotte does have six games left against lottery teams (the Bucks and Pacers have seven such games each), but three of those games come in the last eight days of the season, when the Bobcats might be out of it.
And, by the way, Charlotte has already lost the head-to-head tiebreaker with both Milwaukee and Indiana.
John Hollinger’s playoff odds give the Bobcats a small edge over Milwaukee right now, but I expect that to change in the next week or so. In short: I’d be shocked if Charlotte makes it.
That leaves the Bucks and Pacers. The remaining opponents of both teams have a collective winning percentage around .470, and Milwaukee and Indiana have (basically) an even split of home and road games the rest of the way. Both face seven teams bound for the lottery. The Bucks do face six of those elite clubs I mentioned above, compared to just four such games for the Pacers, but Milwaukee’s last game against a heavyweight club comes against the Thunder in the season finale for both teams. Oklahoma City will likely be locked into the fourth seed in the West by then and may choose to rest its best guys.
There is one major difference between the schedules of the two teams: Milwaukee has six back-to-backs left, while the Pacers have just three. (Note: Those figures don’t include Wednesday’s games, which mark the second end of a back-to-back for both clubs.) The Bucks are 6-10 on the second end of back-to-backs, and they have lost four consecutive games in that situation. With so few games to go, that is a real edge for the Pacers. (Side note: No team had more back-to-backs than Milwaukee this season.)
Milwaukee’s best hope comes from its 2-1 edge in head-to-head games with the Pacers, and the Bucks can lock up that tiebreaker with a win in Indiana on April 1. If Milwaukee loses that game, the next tiebreaker would be divisional record, where the Pacers have an advantage; Indiana is 6-6 against the Central Division, while the Bucks are just 4-7.
One final nugget of interest: The Knicks could have a major say in who wins this “race.” New York still has three games left with Indiana and two with the Bucks in something of a scheduling quirk.
The big picture points to the Pacers holding on to the last spot. But if they keep mucking things up, that April 1 game against the Bucks could mean more than Indiana fans would like to imagine.