The Western Conference has had its top-eight settled for weeks. The Kings managed to outlast the Lakers, but ultimately dropped off the pace too. The Eastern Conference playoff picture still hasn’t come together. The race will probably remain compelling until the final night (April 10) since four teams are vying for three spots and each entered Wednesday with 38 or 39 wins.
Since March didn’t supply a Cinderella due to fate being cruel to my UCF Knights, it falls on the NBA to supply one if there’s going to be a little engine for basketball fans to collectively get behind.
Golden State is poised to squash all little guys in the West, so the most likely underdog capable of pulling off multiple series upsets is going to come out of the East if one is to emerge.
The Pacers are in pole position to be the team that emerges given the uncertainty behind them. Indiana is currently at 100-to-1 to win the conference per the Westgate SuperBook’s latest odds update. Indiana is at 300-1 to win the championship, so if you have it coming out of the East, you might as well get in a little action there too for karma’s sake. If you’re going to live in a fairy tale, you may as well go for the optimal happy ending.
Indiana will play Boston in the first round and may even open Game 1 at home as the No. 4 seed depending on how the final week plays out. There have been some rough patches since losing Victor Oladipo to a ruptured quad tendon on Jan. 23, but the Pacers have still battled and remain a tough out. The league’s top shot blocker, Myles Turner, has had some health issues. But he is back in a rhythm and continues to supply the backbone of the team’s identity.
They picked up Wes Matthews in the buyout market to fill Oladipo’s spot in the lineup, and few mix it up on defense the way he does. He’s a grinder. Tyreke Evans has had a disappointing season that has fallen well below expectations, but Indiana’s most impressive offseason pickup has been better of late and can still salvage things with a strong finish. Shooter Bojan Bogdanovic has emerged as the Pacers’ top scorer, averaging 23.1 points in February and 21.8 in March. Over the month’s final four games, he averaged 30.
Nate McMillan is likely going to finish in the top-three of the NBA’s Coach of the Year balloting and has done a great job in keeping his veteran team motivated through all the injuries, so if they can keep the remaining pieces intact entering the playoffs, they’re the long shot to keep an eye on.
Among the other candidates, Detroit, Brooklyn, Miami and Orlando have all had some nice moments down the stretch. The final Sunday of the regular season will see only the Pistons favored among the group, but they’ve suffered a scare with Blake Griffin nursing a sore knee after feeling discomfort in warmups on March 30. He’s hopeful that a little rest will take care of the issue, so as long as you see him back in the mix by week’s end, Detroit is certainly worth considering and are the lock to reach the playoffs among the quartet of hopefuls.
The Pistons will have the easiest schedule over the last three games, hosting the Hornets and Grizzlies before visiting the Knicks. They closed March with an 11-game home win streak that dates back to Feb. 2 and have been impressive thanks to the emergence of Wayne Ellington, who joined the team after being waived by Phoenix, who acquired him from the Suns in a cost-cutting move for Miami that also shipped out Tyler Johnson. Between Ellington, Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway, Detroit has shooters who can really fill it up when defenses look to double Griffin or throw an extra body at NBA rebounding leader Andre Drummond.
Reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey has done a nice job connecting with his group in his first season and will be an asset in any series. If the Pistons can secure the No. 6 spot, they have the ability to pull off upsets over the 76ers and Raptors. They went 1-2 against Philadelphia and 3-0 against Toronto as Casey won three tight games against former assistant Nick Nurse and the team that replaced him. At 200-to-1 to win the East, the Pistons are a decent Hail Mary option.
The Nets and Magic are too young to trust, so Miami would be next up on the list, but it is just looking to extend Dwyane Wade’s career at this point and has the toughest remaining schedule of the group. I’d stay away from all three on any futures.
Nets at Pacers (Sunday): We’ll ride the Pacers to deal the Nets a blow to their playoff aspirations in Indianapolis. You’ll likely be laying 4-to-5 points in a matinee affair. PACERS
Magic at Celtics (Sunday): Later that night, Orlando should fare well enough in Boston to cover a spread of about six points, riding a defense that has been among the NBA’s best since the All-Star break. MAGIC
Last week: 0-2
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