The Orlando Magic have surged to within a half-game of the Boston Celtics for the Eastern Conference's second seed. The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to have locked up the top seed, with a 4-game advantage over both teams in the loss column and a favorable schedule the rest of the way; the Cavs are 29-1 at home this season, and play 7 of their next 8 games there. It would take a drastic meltdown over the course of the next few weeks for Cleveland not to retain the first seed.
The stage is indeed set for Orlando and Boston to slug it out for the second seed, which would give the winner homecourt advantage at least until the Eastern Conference Finals. Can the Magic realistically catch Boston? Let's look at their respective remaining schedules (with a tip of the hat to Mavs Moneyball for the HTML):
|OPP||OPP%||Against||Own b2b||Opp b2b||OPP||OPP%||Against||Own b2b||Opp b2b|
|7 road||11 vs East||.487||23-7||3||3||8 road||14 vs. East||.513||19-9||3||4|
Boston appears to have a clear advantage, playing an easier schedule with fewer road games, and a 5-game homestand to boot. One of the reasons for its recent slide--it's 5-5 in its last 10 games--has been the absence of team leader Kevin Garnett, who has not played in nearly a month due to a strained knee. Although he's still vocal in the locker room, the Celtics nonetheless miss him on the floor.
Another factor working against Orlando is the condition of its last four opponents. Yes, it's a combined 7-0 so far against New York, New Jersey, Milwaukee, and Charlotte, but all four of those teams are locked in a tight battle for the last seed in the Eastern Conference; just look at how similar their win percentages are as of today. All four of those teams will likely have something at stake when Orlando plays them. Getting soundly defeated by Cleveland in the first round is worth the extra money hosting playoff games brings the teams, and the playoff bonuses the players share.
Of course, Orlando will have something at stake in each and every game down the stretch as its jockeys for homecourt advantage and, perhaps more importantly, an opportunity to avoid the Detroit Pistons altogether. Detroit has eliminated Orlando in each of the last two postseasons, and is the only Eastern Conference team Orlando failed to beat this season.
As of right now, it looks like the Celtics have an inside track to the second seed, and homecourt advantage against the Magic in the second round. But with 15 games to go for Boston, and 16 for Orlando, with only a half-game separating the latter from the former, it's much too early to call the race one way or the other. Magic fans should keep that fact, as well as these immortal words from Garnett, in mind as they contemplate their team's chances at securing the second seed.
UPDATE: From Orlando Magic Daily, here's a great point about playing time, something I had failed to consider:
Ray Allen, 33, and Paul Pierce, 31, have played in every game this season. The Celtics' heart and soul - Kevin Garnett - is 32 and currently out with a knee injury.
Pierce played at least 45 minutes in three games against Detroit, Cleveland and Orlando in a span of week, and since then he hasn't looked the same. He's failed to cracked 18 points since then and the Celtics suffered losses to Miami and Milwaukee.
Besides the wear and tear involved with the Celtics playing hard to secure that No. 2 spot, it may force Garnett back early from injury.
It's a much different story than last year, when the Celtics coasted through the last month of the season with the conference's best record under wraps.All three stars played significantly less in the last month of the season. They won't have that luxury this year.
Now, some Celtics fans are commenting on blog posts like this one, calling for coach Doc Rivers to rest Pierce for a game or two.