It’s time to check in on what is undoubtedly the most thrilling aspect of what remains of the NBA season, the race for the last three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference! Things have shifted since we last surveyed the landscape, with our Orlando Magic sadly still slightly on the outside looking in. Fourteen games yet remain to reverse those fortunes, although loss of hair and soreness of throat continues to be a real risk for fans following the Jekyll and Hyde masterpiece the team seems intent on delivering.
Once again let’s take a look at the field, starting in Central Florida.
Orlando Magic: 31-37, currently in 9th
Since we last checked in the Magic have gone 4-5, which on the surface doesn’t seem entirely debilitating; a couple of games under .500 is likely going to be enough to claim eighth so the pace is close enough. If I were to tell you that this stretch also included wins over the Warriors, Raptors and Pacers you’d likely be ecstatic. So what gives?
What gives, apparently, is the truly confounding and maddening inability of this team to account for sides below them in the standings. During this most recent stretch Orlando have lost to some of the lottery’s true luminaries, like the Knicks, the Cavaliers and the Bulls. This frustrating tendency boiled over in the last-start loss to a Grizzlies team actively hoping to not win games, with both Evan Fournier and Coach Steve Clifford getting tossed from the rapidly falling apart proceedings. If the Magic had simply taken care of business during these contests they would be a half game out of sixth; as it stands, they’re a full game away from going home early again this season.
Across these nine games the Magic have maintained their solid defense, ranking 8th league-wide in defensive rating during this stretch. Instead, the problems have primarily come with the ball in hand. The team’s offensive rating has plummeted to 22nd overall during the same time frame, with their previously hot shooting percentages coming back to the pack. They’ve reverted back to being an inefficient free-throw shooting team, both in terms of frequency and accuracy (which has dipped 15 whole percentage points when compared to the pre-break winning streak). Turnovers have also started to hurt the team; they’re coughing the ball up an extra three-and-a-half times again, which for a team that plays a pace as slow as Orlando’s (25th league-wide) can be quite costly.
Still, at this point the Magic project to be in the playoffs when it’s all said and done. FiveThirtyEight peg their odds at 64%, while ESPN’s BPI model has their chances hovering around the 53% mark. Their schedule remains favorable, particularly in comparison to Charlotte and Miami who each face a litany of tough opponents during the season’s final stretch. The biggest concern and potential impediment remains two previously identified factors: the seven remaining road games (where most of these bad losses have occurred), and the potential for injuries to derail a shallow team. With Isaiah Briscoe already out and Aaron Gordon reeling with a sore back we unfortunately might be starting to see this take place.
Brooklyn Nets: 36-33, currently in 6th
The wheels are starting to wobble on the feel-good train coming out of Brooklyn. Although they’re actually four of four across their last four starts, three of those wins were squeaked out against pretty weak competition; they’ve been trending down for a while now, best reflected in their 27th ranked offensive rating over the last nine contests. A loss to Miami actually temporarily dropped their record below .500, and with what is projected to be far and away the most difficult remaining schedule (a combined opponent winning percentage of .599) it could be headed back that way soon. They have a brutal seven-game road trip starting this week, finally returning home at the end of the month to tackle Boston, Milwaukee and Toronto in the span of five days. Caris LeVert hasn’t found his pre-injury form (and has toggled between starting and bench units), and the majority of the roster is untested. Will they have the resolve to handle what’s coming their way?
Detroit Pistons: 34-32, currently in 7th
The Pistons are surging. Before stumbling against the Nets they logged five straight wins -- including three by double figures and one over the Raptors -- that pushed them all the way into sixth, and has them looking like a dangerous lower seed. Andre Drummond is playing the best ball of his season (19 straight double-doubles), Reggie Jackson is scoring efficiently (over 51% from the field and 45% from deep across his last 10 games), and Blake Griffin just keeps motoring along. They have effectively done what Orlando have been unable to, which is to supplement the surprise wins over tough competition with results in the games expected of them. FiveThirtyEight has all but locked them into one of the remaining spots, and at this point it would seem unwise to bet against them.
Miami Heat: 31-35, currently in 8th
Good grief, they’re doing it again, aren’t they? Before a last-start loss to the Raptors, Miami had rattled off four consecutive wins, pushing themselves all the way into the eighth and final playoff spot. Their offense has been humming (good for third league-wide across their last nine games), as they seem to have settled on a rotation that involves simply putting their better players on the court for as much time as possible. The Justise Winslow-as-point-guard experiment continues to work, Kelly Olynyk has been reborn, and Goran Dragic lurks as a potential difference maker if he can get his body totally right. Oh, and they’ve shuffled Hassan Whiteside to the bench where his flaws are a little less pronounced. At the moment it’s working, but a tough late-season slate still needs to be navigated if they’re to hold on.
Charlotte Hornets: 30-37, currently in 10th
The Hornets are reeling. Losers of ten of their last fourteen, they’ve tumbled all the way from seventh to tenth in the standings, with the playoffs starting to seem like an insurmountable hurdle. They project to have one of the more difficult remaining schedules, with both FiveThirtyEight and ESPN souring on their chances of seeing postseason play (16% and 19%, respectively). It’s a thin roster in North Carolina, which when combined with the high number of road games remaining (ten in total) and recently porous defense (28th ranked over their last ten contests) makes the Hornets a legitimate long shot.
Washington Wizards: 28-39, currently in 11th
Okay, I think we just about stick a fork in the Wizards. Bradley Beal is an absolute monster, but the team still relies on Jeff Green for almost 40 minutes a night, is giving huge minutes to the Chicago-imported frontline of Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis, and doesn’t really have a healthy point guard in the rotation. They’re done, barring a miracle.
We’ve been saying it for a while now: if the Magic are legitimately good enough, they’ll be in the playoff bracket when all is said and done. At a glance the schedule seems favorable, but as we know, nothing seems to come easy for this team. Let’s hope for a greater level of certainty when we next check in.