Most NBA teams have only about 10 games remaining. Even so, the playoff seeding in both conferences is still very much up in the air. About 18 teams in the league are definitely gunning for wins at this point.
Every little stretch of extreme play, either positive or negative, can mean a big move in the standings. A few teams stood out on each end of that spectrum last night, so let’s highlight them.
NBA Week 22 Risers
Orlando Magic (34-38, No. 9 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 2-0)
The Magic had a light week of competition, playing only two games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Atlanta Hawks. However, both were decisive wins, as was Orlando’s previous game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the end of last week.
Defense continues to be a major strong point for Orlando. The team is still struggling on offense, but the Magic have been the league’s best defense for more than two months. Their defensive rating since January 16 leads all squads.
Even though the team is still a ways from being a major player in the Eastern Conference, things are looking up for the Magic. They have a shot at making the playoffs this year and are on pace for 39 wins, which would be their highest total since 2011. Young prospects like Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz, Wesley Iwundu and Khem Birch have this team’s future looking bright.
Philadelphia 76ers (47-25, No. 3 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 4-0)
Another year, another late run up the Eastern Conference playoff bracket by the 76ers. Philadelphia tacked on four wins this week to extend its winning streak to six games. The Sixers have extricated themselves from the 3-4-5 logjam with the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics and are now the clear American sportsbooks’ favorite to take third in the East.
What we are seeing now is an absolutely stacked lineup starting to build chemistry. Philadelphia’s starting unit of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid is the NBA’s best collection of talent on one team outside of the Golden State Warriors. Those five are now outscoring opponents by 17.7 points per 100 possessions in their 135 minutes together on the floor. In the last six games, all five of them are averaging at least 16.8 points per game.
Philadelphia is going to ride those five very strongly in the playoffs. However, is it possible for at least one or two of their teammates to make more of an impact? We have yet to see any major influence coming from the likes of Mike Scott, James Ennis, T.J. McConnell or Boban Marjanovic.
Miami Heat (35-36, No. 8 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 3-1)
A lot of people are paying close attention to the Western Conference playoff race. The top eight teams in the West are just 7.5 games apart and there is still a lot of potential for movement between those teams.
Don’t forget about the East. There has been some interesting jostling for position at the bottom of the playoff bracket. The Heat have used a 3-1 week to stay close to the Detroit Pistons and the Brooklyn Nets ahead of them. Miami still has the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets within three games behind it.
Miami has now turned in three fantastic wins in a row against teams that are gunning for good playoff positioning. First, the Heat beat the Hornets by 18 points then they went on the road to beat both the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, two West teams who play very well on their home court.
The Heat were able to get all three wins despite missing point forward Justise Winslow, who is dealing with a thigh injury. Unlike the 76ers, though, the Heat are an extremely deep team without a true star that thrives on teamwork. Let’s see if Miami can continue to maximize its roster as it aims to stay hot.
NBA Week 22 Fallers
Oklahoma City Thunder (42-30, No. 5 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
The Thunder may be fifth in the West, but they have the exact same record as the three teams directly below them. Potentially finishing eighth in the conference is a far cry from the third place that the squad was in for most of the season.
Oklahoma City is a very fast, athletic team, but the squad has had a bunch of trouble scoring in half-court settings. The Thunder’s perimeter shooting is a major weakness and the shot selection of guards Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder can be confounding. On defense, the Thunder show great flashes, but they also lose focus easily.
Oklahoma City has a difficult closing schedule. Five of their last 10 games are against teams with records of at least 44-29. The Thunder really need to lock in on defense and focus on using their athleticism to their advantage on offense if they want to reverse their current trajectory.
Indiana Pacers (44-29, No. 4 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-4)
The Pacers’ 0-4 week was somewhat understandable. They played four consecutive games on the road against West playoff teams. However, it still has to be disappointing that Indiana couldn’t get even a single win in the stretch. The Pacers are now 3-15 against teams with a better record than them and 41-14 against everybody else.
It seems that Indiana is finally starting to run out of gas after an initial push following Victor Oladipo’s injury. The quality of the Pacers’ key perimeter players (Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Cory Joseph) just isn’t befitting of a team challenging for home-court in the first round of the playoffs. Give a lot of credit to the squad for pushing through adversity, especially on defense, but the talent on the roster is just OK.
All that to say, the Pacers still have a shot to win a playoff series if the Boston Celtics continue to struggle with chemistry. Right now, that’s the likely 4-5 matchup in the Eastern Conference first round.
Minnesota Timberwolves (32-40, No. 10 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
The spotlight has turned to other teams ever since the Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the 76ers last November. Minnesota has hovered pretty close to .500 since then but a recent slide has them moving closer to .400. The Wolves have gone 3-9 over their last 12 games.
Minnesota also announced recently that Derrick Rose, Robert Covington and Jeff Teague will all be out for the remainder of the season with injuries. That seems like a very clear sign that the franchise won’t be chasing too hard for wins in their final 10 contests.
Moving forward, the team needs to find a way to be less reliant on superstar center Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns has averaged a ridiculous 31.3 points, 14 rebounds and 3.9 assists on a 56.1/49.3/77.9 shooting slash since the All-Star break, but his team has only gotten worse.
The Wolves are in a tough position financially with Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, Teague and Covington all tied up on lucrative contracts, so they will have to be smart in the draft and with free agency and trades.