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Playoff Push - East & West

Playoff Push - East & West

Playoff Push - East
By Joe Nelson

As the NBA All-Star Break approaches, it is a chance for the teams sitting outside of the playoff picture to regroup and focus on making a big second half run. Here are the first five teams on the outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference and an assessment of the chances they have to get it done.

Detroit Pistons (22-30): Fifty games into the season, the Pistons have recently fired head coach Maurice Cheeks. President Joe Dumars has now fired eight coaches in less than 14 seasons in charge of the Pistons and the somewhat high profile move of hiring Cheeks did not last even a season. Assistant coach John Loyer has taken over the team and the Pistons won in his debut Monday, the third win in a row for Detroit. The Pistons had a rough month of January, but the schedule played a role in the 5-13 run before the recent win streak with eight of those losses coming in road games. Loyer steps into a pretty favorable situation to do well as Detroit is only a half game out of the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference and seven of the next 10 games are at home to help improve the chances of getting back into the mix.

Detroit is only -2.0 points per game in average point differential, superior to that of Brooklyn and Charlotte, the teams that hold the #7 and #8 spots in the East currently. Detroit is the third highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference and only Indiana has been a better rebounding team in the conference, while Detroit has posted a solid 18-14 record against the Eastern Conference. Expect Detroit to climb into the playoff field in March, but a tough late season schedule could make it challenging to hold a spot, closing with six of the final eight on the road with a few very tough games.

New York Knicks (21-31): The Knicks are 11-9 the last 20 games, but it has come in streaks with a five-game win streak and a four-game win streak so far in 2014, but with a five-game slide in between those runs. New York has very solid defensive numbers on the season and for as much negative press as the team has faced, they are only 2.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference. New York has the seventh-best per game point differential in the Eastern Conference despite sitting 10th in the standings. New York has the most remaining games against Western Conference teams of any Eastern Conference team as the remaining schedule will provide a great challenge. Nineteen of the remaining games for the Knicks are road games for a team that is just 8-14 on the road this season including eight of the next 11 games. New York will not play more than two consecutive home games at any point for the rest of the season as it appears less likely that the Knicks will be the team making a charge into the playoff picture from this group despite the high profile and expectations.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-33): The Cavaliers were expected to be a breakthrough team this season and while the results have been very poor, Cleveland is still in the playoff mix, only four games out. Cleveland recently fired general manager Chris Grant but the team has responded, matching a season-high streak with four straight wins in the last four games. Cleveland has a favorable schedule out of the break before a very difficult stretch of games in mid-March and the April schedule also looks promising for the Cavaliers, so this team should not be counted out.

Andrew Bynum clearly proved to be a disastrous signing for the Cavaliers and now with Luol Deng and the rest of the team getting healthier, this could be a team that makes a run. Even disappointing top pick Anthony Bennett has shown some life of late as Cleveland is a team to watch in the coming weeks. The Cavaliers have a lot of a ground to make up and several teams to jump before being a serious threat for the playoffs, but the current lineup has a high ceiling and things can’t get any worse than they were in the first half of the season.

Boston Celtics (19-35): The Celtics opened the season looking like a viable playoff team under Brad Stevens, but the team went on a 4-19 run over a six-week span from mid-December through January. Boston is 4-2 so far in February and while the wins have all come in close games against losing teams, those are the types of games the Celtics had been losing much of the season. The Celtics will head west right after the All-Star break, but three of four games will be against losing teams and only eight games remain against the current 10 best teams in the league. Boston is the best defensive team of the squads sitting just outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference and Rajon Rondo missed most of the first half of the season, having only played in nine games so far this year.

The current roster looks much more promising moving forward as Boston dealt with a lot of injuries during the periods of struggle the past two months. Rondo has not quite been the same offensive player he was before the injury-plagued past two seasons, but he could lead this team on a nice second half run once he finds his shot again. There is a lot of ground to make up for the Celtics, but this team should be expected to hang around the edge of playoff picture, currently less than five games out with a pretty favorable slate ahead.

Orlando Magic (16-38): The Magic likely would not be on this list if this article was written last week, but they have won three of four, including beating the top two teams in the NBA in succession with one-point home wins over Oklahoma City and Indiana last weekend. Orlando is 13-15 at home this season, featuring the best home record of any Eastern Conference team outside of the playoff field, but the Magic are incredibly just 3-23 on the road. Orlando has been outscored by over five points per game this season, but the schedule ahead is promising. Remaining are four games against Milwaukee and Philadelphia, the two worst teams in the East as well as several other game against losing teams.

If Orlando is to make a miraculous run, they will need to get it done on the road as they will face 12 of the first 18 games in the second half on the road. Only five of those road games will be against winning teams and the Magic close the season with eight of the final 11 games at home. Injuries have been a constant for the Magic this season with Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Nokola Vucevic, and Glen Davis missing time this season. Tobias Harris has also emerged in recent weeks playing a bigger role and Victor Oladipo continues to be one of the most impressive rookies as this is a team heading in the right direction in the big picture. It would take a pretty incredible run for Orlando to entertain serious playoff hopes, but this team is playing better of late and they faced the toughest rated schedule of the five teams on this list in the first half.

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Re: Playoff Push - East & West

Playoff Push - West
By Joe Nelson

As the NBA All Star Break approaches, it is a chance for the teams sitting outside of the playoff picture to regroup and focus on making a big second half run. Here are the first four teams on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference and an assessment of the chances they have to get it done.

Memphis Grizzlies (29-23): After a 10-15 start through mid-December it was easy to forget that Memphis was in the Western Conference finals last season. This is a different team however as Head Coach David Joerger replaced a very successful Lionel Hollins in the off-season due to some internal differences. Memphis enters the All Star break as one of the hottest teams in the entire NBA, going 14-4 in the last 18 games to climb to the edge of the Western Conference playoff picture. Despite the winning record Memphis barely owns a positive point differential on the season and the Grizzlies are only 14-14 in home games as the only team in the NBA with a winning record that does not have a winning record at home.

On the flipside the Grizzlies are 15-9 on the road, better than everyone but Oklahoma City and San Antonio in the Western Conference. The Southwest division is certainly a difficult group and Memphis has been hurt by going just 2-11 in those division games but going 15-7 against the rest of the Western Conference. Memphis has had to play a top 10 schedule this season and the schedule in the second half starts favorably with only two of the first 10 games coming against winning teams. The Grizzlies do have a brutal gauntlet of games in the late March and early April part of the calendar but this team appears poised to climb into the postseason field.

Minnesota Timberwolves (25-28): In a season where Minnesota was expected to break through the Wolves have disappointed, playing right around .500 all season and unable to get over the hump. Minnesota has statistics that suggest a much better performance but this team has been burned by a great deal of close losses. Minnesota has also been outclassed in most games against the top teams in the league, going just 3-17 against the top 10 teams in the Sagarin ratings but 22-11 against the rest of the league.

Whether Minnesota can get back into the picture should be determined early in the second half with a very tough late February schedule, opening the second half with a home date with the Pacers and then going on a tough five-game road trip out west. March should be a strong month for Minnesota with a favorable schedule but there is not much more room for error needing to jump two teams and seeing how well Memphis has played lately. Minnesota should have a good chance to get above .500 which would be a nice step forward for the team but given the nature of the roster and the elevated expectations it might not be enough to stave off major changes in the offseason as this was supposed to be the year to make the leap.

Denver Nuggets (24-27): The Nuggets had the fourth best record in the NBA last season including an incredible 38-3 record at home. Brian Shaw replaced George Karl last summer and so far the results have not matched the great success that Karl had with the Nuggets. Denver is tied with Minnesota sitting six games behind Golden State for the last spot in the playoffs in the West at the break with surging Memphis sitting ahead in the race as well. The Nuggets have had to play one of the toughest rated schedules in the league so far and it has shown with a negative point differential and just a 14-11 record at home after the dominant results last season. After a strong month of January Denver is slumping into the break with four straight losses including a blowout loss at Minnesota on Wednesday in a key game in the standings.

Opportunity is ahead for the Nuggets in late February however as seven of the next 10 games will be at home. Denver will face one of the toughest closing schedules in the league however as the final 12 games on schedule feature two games each with the Grizzlies, Spurs, Rockets, and Warriors, as well as single matches with the Thunder and Clippers. Even if the Nuggets make a run in March it seems unlikely that this team will be able to hold on to a playoff spot.

New Orleans Hornets (23-29): The Pelicans are just 1-17 against the Sagarin top 10 this season but New Orleans enters the break with some growing confidence, having won eight of the final 13 games of the first half of the season. Jrue Holiday should return to action soon and the schedule lines up with some favorable opportunities ahead. New Orleans will be on the road for seven of the first nine games in the second half but only four of the first 11 games out of the break will be against winning teams. In March the Pelicans will play a stretch with 10 of 11 games at home so the schedule does line up with some promise, although sitting 7.5 games out currently with four teams to pass will make it a great long shot.

New Orleans has a closing schedule featuring Portland, Phoenix, and Oklahoma City and Houston twice each in the final six games for a brutal finish, though many of those teams could be locked into a playoff position in the final two weeks. While New Orleans is the deepest sleeper to have a chance to climb into the playoff picture, they are also much less likely to face an internal implosion like Minnesota and Denver appear to be on the verge of. Keeping up with Memphis and seeing Dallas, Phoenix, or Golden State crash out of the field seems unlikely but it has been a positive season for the Pelicans as they have almost topped last season’s win count at the break and this team has a bright future.

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