It’s not necessarily that things are getting tighter atop the standings – Indiana and Miami remain a country mile ahead of their Eastern Conference brethren – but with less than a month to go before the playoffs, things are growing a whole lot more competitive.
Once an affront to James Naismith, Massachusetts, and peach baskets, the bottom 3/4ths of the playoff ladder has taken on a totally new look since the All-Star break.
Specifically: Records since the circus left New Orleans:
-Brooklyn: 13-4 (3rd in the NBA)
-Chicago: 12-6 (7th)
-Charlotte: 11-6 (8th)
-Toronto: 11-6 (9th)
-Washington: 11-7 (T-10th)
Meanwhile, the presumed conference titans are scuffling along relative to their earlier levels. Indiana is tied with Washington at 11-7, while Miami is 10-7.
For the Heat, it’s easier to slough it off as a team pacing itself for what it hopes will be a fourth straight Finals run, virtually unprecedented in modern NBA history. Miami still has a robust 22-9 record against teams above .500, and despite seven losses in 13 games this month, have beaten Charlotte, Washington, Houston and Memphis. Yes, all at home, yes, some by close margins, but overall the Heat’s efficiency differential (not the be-all, but a decent reference point) looks very similar to first-half numbers, and is top five in both cases.
Not to say there isn’t some danger, but I’m willing to accept the very real possibility they Heat will be themselves again come late April.
The Pacers are more worrisome.
While they’re still the NBA’s sixth-most efficient team defensively since the break (100.8 points per opponent’s possessions), the gap between that and their first 52 games (93.6) is staggering and explains why their overall efficiency differential is down from a league-best 8.6 points per 100 before the break to just 1.2 after (16th overall). The Pacers aren’t a team unconcerned with the rewards of home court in the playoffs, either. There’s no cruise control, or at least shouldn’t be.
So if the elites aren’t just sleepwalking for the time being, suddenly the conference semifinals – or even the first round – could become more interesting.
“I don’t know if you can say exactly what it is, but there are a lot of different teams now (playing well),” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said Friday in Los Angeles. “It’s very competitive now, night in and night out. I can’t give you a reason why it has transpired now rather than at the start.”
But whatever it is, Wittman says the change has been tangible.
For his guys, Wittman points to a couple of ingredients. First, road success. Washington was 12-14 away from home before the break and 7-4 after, the third-best mark by percentage in the league.
The second, John Wall.
“Your point guard, the guy that has the ball in his hands, is vital. He’s got to be the ringleader. We’ve seen John evolve into that. That’s a really big plus,” Wittman says. “He knows his responsibility and shoulders it. That’s the biggest thing. Understanding that does fall on him.”
Wall’s improvement, Wittman says, is evident not just in his numbers, but the team’s improving fortunes.
So Wall is playing well in Washington. Joakim Noah has been incredible in Chicago, as has Al Jefferson in Charlotte (and Steve Clifford, for figuring out how to make him less of a defensive liability). The Nets have found a style that suits them, and Toronto is consistently solid on both sides. You wouldn’t pick any of them to beat the Heat or Pacers in a series right now, but if the “next five” keep playing well, nobody should presume cakewalks, either.
On to the rankings.