Philadelphia is 3-1 vs. Toronto but is 0-3 record against eighth-seeded Milwaukee. The Sixers have one more home game against Milwaukee, and if they want to catch the Bucks, Philadelphia will need to find at least five wins and four Bucks’ losses. The biggest obstacle Philadelphia has in making the playoffs is a brutal April with a final stretch of seven road and just two home games.
Milwaukee has dropped nine of its last 12 overall and seems to be free falling. Its saving grace is the five-game gap between the Bucks and the Sixers and Raptors. At 275/1, the Bucks hold the highest-valued futures ticket for a team currently in the playoffs. The Celtics still have 10 games remaining vs. teams in the bottom five of each conference, which means it will be very difficult for teams like the Sixers and Bucks to even think about catching the seventh seed.
If I told you a Western Conference team went 6-15 in its last 21 games, you would probably agree with me in saying they do not have a great shot of making the playoffs. The Blazers have dropped seven of their last eight and need to start winning games now to gain ground on the eighth-seeded Rockets.
Understanding the Blazers currently hold more futures value than the Mavericks, I still think Dallas is the better bet. The one part of Portland that should hurt it down the stretch is an extremely difficult April schedule. In their final 26 games, the Blazers face just seven teams outside the current playoff picture, and that does not include having to play the Lakers and Mavericks at home and the Sixers on the road.
When you compare the Warriors and Nuggets, the numbers get interesting. Denver is fifth in the West and Golden State is sixth, 2 1/2 games back. The Warriors offer close to two times the amount of value Denver does, but there is a reason: The Nuggets hold all the cards the Warriors don’t – coaching experience, better home record and health. Home games in the final month and a half of the regular season will not be at a premium for either of these teams, with 14 for the Nuggets and 16 for the Warriors. The difference will be Denver’s huge home-court advantage. The Pepsi Center has been an absolute house of horrors for visitors teams for six-plus seasons (177-47, 79%) and this season has been no different, with Denver winning 24 of 27 (88.8%).
The other comparison can be seen with their potential matchups. The Grizzlies and Clippers seem to be the two teams most destined to see the Warriors and Nuggets in the first round. I can easily make cases for why each of these teams would and would not want to face each other, but the most intriguing matchup would be the Grizzlies and Nuggets because of the offensive and defensive pace wars the teams would wage. Memphis leads the NBA by allowing 87.9 points per game while Denver is third in scoring at 105.4 points.
The NBA playoffs are all about one thing – winning road games. As soon as a team wins a road game, the entire complexion of a series changes and puts all of the pressure on the other team to reassemble. If you decided to sort the NBA standings by road records, you would notice the best teams in the league usually float to the top.
What is interesting about doing this experiment is noticing the teams that do not fall into place. The only team with more road wins than Oklahoma City is not a top-four team in its conference but is Chicago Bulls, who are 17-11 on the road and an impressive 14-5 on the road vs. the East.
To win the East and reach the NBA Finals, a team must be efficient in protecting the rim. The defending champion Miami Heat are shooting an absurd 72.3% at the rim this season, which is 8.4% higher than last season (63.9%). The Heat also have attempted the second-fewest shots at the rim this season, so efficiency is the name of their game.
There is an area of the court I like to call the “runway,” which is the nine-foot area to the rim (the taking-off point for LeBron James, basically). Miami is shooting 65.5% from the “runway” this season, which is absolutely through the roof. For comparison, the athletic Denver Nuggets are shooting 61% from the “runway” this season.
James is shooting 74.5% from the “runway” this season, a career high by a large margin. There seems to be only two teams in the East suited to clog the “runway” and actually contend with the Heat based on these numbers: Indiana and Milwaukee.
The Pacers are holding steady at second in the East and the Bucks are eighth. Opponents are shooting 51.4% from the “runway” against the Pacers and 53.9% against the Bucks. Obviously, protecting the rim is not the be-all end-all in determining whether a team can beat the Heat four times in seven games, but I will tell you this: Outscoring them on a nightly basis won’t get you past them in a playoff series.