The 2014-2015 NBA season is in its final stretch and three teams in the Eastern Conference are clawing for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. The Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers are battling it out with roughly 12 games remaining.
Even the Brooklyn Nets are still in contention. The Nets recently defeated the Pacers in Indiana, but followed up that victory with a 19-point loss to the Celtics at Barclays Center. Lionel Hollins' squad has sputtered along to a 29-40 record, and have the most arduous schedule ahead of them.
For now, it appears to be a three-team race, with each of the sub-.500 clubs looking to make a final push by April 15. Scoring might be the biggest factor with which team advances, as Boston is the only team with in the Top 15 in points per game at 100.9. The winner will almost certainly face the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
Below is a look at the three teams and the outlook for the No. 8 seed in the East:
The Celtics (31-39) are the in best position right now, holding a half-game lead over ninth-place Charlotte (30-39), and a one-game advantage over tenth-place Indiana (30-40), despite trading Rajon Rondo in December. Brad Stevens' squad ended a three-game skid, and may be poised for a run. Boston has gone 6-4 over its last 10 games against tough competition, earning important wins against the Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat along the way.
There is a surprisingly mixed amount of talent on the Boston roster. Guards Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner and Avery Bradley are capable of lighting up the scoreboard, and rookie Marcus Smart has produced the occasional scoring outburst. In the frontcourt, Brandon Bass has been a much-needed veteran presence next to Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller, and the trio compensate for relatively ineffective reserve forwards. The Celtics can score, but are near the bottom of the league defensively, ranking 24th (101.6 ppg allowed). With youth also comes inexperience in the final push for the playoffs. It doesn’t help that one of the stars of the squad, Thomas, is suffering from a back injury with his status listed as day-to-day after missing eight games. Thomas has been stellar since February arrival in Boston, averaging 21.4 points and 5.4 assists in 10 games. Should Thomas return and compete at the same level, it might be very hard for the Hornets and Pacers to catch Boston.
Over Boston’s final 12 games, they will play eight games against teams currently in playoff position. Of the four other games, two are against direct competitors—at the Hornets on March 30 and home against the Pacers on April 1. Those two games will be incredibly important.
The Hollinger Power Rankings, via ESPN, give the Celtics a 48.6 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The Hornets sit just a half-game behind the Celtics in the standings, and after winning five consecutive games, dropped six of their next eight. Head coach Steve Clifford has a relatively deep squad featuring guards Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson and Mo Williams, along with frontcourt players Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson and Al Jefferson. Perhaps slightly unnoticed this season, Jefferson has been one of the more effective centers in the NBA, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds. Walker is a dangerous volume scorer capable of “heat check” games, while averaging 18.1 points on 39.3 percent shooting.
Over Charlotte’s final 13 games, eight are against teams currently in playoff position. Clifford will have to get the most out of a roster is No. 29 in field-goal percentage (42.4). The Hornets allow just 97 points per game (No. 4 in the NBA), but put up only 94.7 points (No. 28) on average. During the final stretch of the season, the defense will have to really clamp down to beat top offensive teams like the Atlanta Hawks (March 28, April 10), Toronto Raptors (April 8 and 15) and Houston Rockets (April 13).
Charlotte will host Boston on March 30 and travel to Indiana on April 3. The Hollinger Power Rankings give the Hornets a 30.9 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The Pacers are one of the more curious teams in the NBA. The one-time juggernauts had shot up the standing to No. 6 in the East after winning 13 of 15 games in February through mid-March. They’ve since dropped six-straight games and plummeted to ninth in the standings. The Pacers feature a roster of proven players including center Roy Hibbert, power forward David West, and guards Rodney Stuckey and George Hill. Despite missing a large portion of the season, Hill has enjoyed a productive season, with a career-high scoring average of 15.3 points and an uptick in his assist average (4.5). But the team is plagued with inconsistency, especially Hibbert, who seems to show less interest in defense than in previous years. Indiana has a lot hinged on the potential return of injured superstar Paul George, but it might not come this season. Even if George returns in the regular season, it's unclear how effective he will be in limited minutes.
Head coach Frank Vogel continues to have the Pacers playing efficient team defense, allowing just 97 points per game, but it might not be enough. Over Indiana’s final 12 games, eight are against teams currently in playoff position. The Pacers' games against Boston and Charlotte will hold a lot of weight, and they also end the season with a tough three-game stretch against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies.
The Hollinger Power rankings favor the Pacers over Charlotte, giving Indiana a 39.9 percent chance to make the playoffs.
All signs point to this being a very tight finish. The Celtics, despite losing Rondo and Jeff Green, appear to have a slight edge. Isaiah Thomas’ return will provide a boost and the youthful squad should have enough energy to challenge established contenders who might be resting in the lead-up to the playoffs. Charlotte is not playing its best basketball, but that can change should Mo Williams get hot. Indiana is on a losing streak at precisely the wrong time, but George's presence might be enough to boost the Pacers' confidence. Head-to-head matchups should play a significant factor in who advances. Boston, which seems to be the most focused of the three teams, seems to have just enough to squeak in.