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In this space last week, we detailed the need for Memphis, Houston and Sacramento to ramp up their intensity level due to Utah and Portland unexpectedly emerging as potential locks to land among the Western Conference’s top eight. This week, we’ll take a look at the East squads that need to beef up their intensity level.

Spoiler alert: There are far more than three candidates.

While the Cavs and Raptors appear entrenched in a two-team race for the No. 1 seed, the only teams that don’t currently harbor postseason aspirations are woeful Brooklyn and Philadelphia. To properly illustrate how bunched up all these East teams are, third-place Boston opens the week 10.5 games up on 13th-place Milwaukee. There’s basically a four-way tie for spots Nos. 6-9, while Washington and Orlando are a mere winning streak away from crashing the party.

Amusingly, outside of the phenomenally-coached Celtics, which seem to keep an even keel in following Brad Stevens’ lead, the crop of East playoff contenders can be separated into the panicked old guard and those currently surging.

Paul George enters the week questioning the toughness of his Indiana teammates. More accurately, he said there’s no backbone at all.

“There’s no toughness,” George told reporters following Sunday’s 111-102 home loss to Portland. “If you look at playoff teams 1-8, that’s one thing that every team has in common. That’s what we’ve got to find.”

Indiana gave up 117 points to Charlotte just before the All-Star break and, according to George, teams with shooters “spread us out and they do what they want with us.”

Despite making a concerted effort to play faster, the Pacers have been as successful as they’ve been over the past few seasons because they lock down defensively. It appears they’ve taken a step back guarding the perimeter without Roy Hibbert around as a security blanket to protect the rim, which allowed defenders to be more aggressive in closing out on shooters.

Beginning with Monday’s date at Cleveland, six of Indiana’s next seven games will be played on the road. Their only home game will come against San Antonio on March 7, so things could get away from the Pacers quickly unless they respond to George’s challenge positively. If they don’t, implosion awaits.

Chicago continues to hang around despite Derrick Rose joining Jimmy Butler in a fancy suit on the team’s bench due to hamstring trouble. Only Rose has a chance to play on the team’s road games this week at Miami and Orlando to open March.

While Doug McDermott has played extremely well given increased touches, the Bulls could be without enough ammunition to survive this Florida trip, which would knock them back to .500 with just 22 games to go.

The Heat are still holding out hope they’ll get Chris Bosh back from his blood clot issue at some point before the season ends, but Plan B is well underway. Joe Johnson has been plucked off the waiver wire after being bought out by the Nets and will be starting in a veteran-laden lineup featuring point guard Goran Dragic and fellow former All-Stars Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Amar’e Stoudemire.

Erik Spoelstra is adjusting on the fly, but does have the luxury of difference-makers in Hassan Whiteside and elite rookie defenders Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson on the second unit. If Josh McRoberts can stay healthy and remain productive, Miami has enough to win the Southeast Division even if Bosh doesn’t return.

The schedule these next couple of weeks should also aide its cause, starting with depleted Chicago coming into town on Tuesday before a date with the awful Suns and a home-and-home with the 76ers. The Heat are working with a deck they never anticipated being dealt, but in the midst of making the best of it.

The Wizards hoped they were going to be able to make up ground after the All-Star break due to the league’s lightest schedule, but seeing it come to fruition with wins in five of their first seven is definitely gratifying.

They’ll always be winning in spite of head coach Randy Wittman’s presence, but John Wall is playing the best basketball of his career, there’s more talent on the roster with Markieff Morris on board and Bradley Beal now healthy.

The Pistons came out of the break with consecutive losses, but won and covered their final four games of February, a stretch that included victories over the East-leading Cavaliers and Raptors.

Detroit will open March in San Antonio to begin a run of six of seven games on the road, so Stan Van Gundy will have to get a little extra from his young team in order to stay on pace. So far, they’re just 13-18 outside of Auburn Hills.

Although closing the month with a loss at Atlanta, Charlotte went 8-3 in February and opens March against lightweights Phoenix and Philadelphia. The Hornets will be home for 11 of their first 13 games in the month and have Al Jefferson back as a factor, so we’ll see whether they have some killer instinct to them.

Charlotte is 19-9 at home, the third-best mark in the Eastern Conference, so this is certainly the time for it to create some separation and cement itself as a playoff team.

Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at Email: [email protected].

About the Author
Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national writer for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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