Which Eastern Conf. teams will rise and fall after the All-Star break?
BOSTON -- The bad news for the Boston Celtics is they play a really tough schedule the remainder of this season.
The good news?
They play a really tough schedule which, thus far, has been when they have been at their best as a team and is one of the reasons why so many still feel they are the team to beat coming out of the East regardless of where they finish in the conference standings.
But for most of the East, playoff position really does matter when all is said and done.
The East has the kind of balance this season where matchups more than talent will prove to be the difference in one team moving ahead in the postseason.
And so that puts an even greater premium on teams finishing strong so that they can control where they wind up seeding-wise as much as they can.
When it comes to the playoffs, there’s seemingly one team every year whose play after the break catapults them up the standings, while at least one other squad drops like a dead weight, and if they’re fortunate enough to still be in the playoffs, they’re usually dead on arrival.
We saw the Philadelphia 76ers last year go into the All-Star break seventh in the East, only to string together an impressive 22-5 record after the break to leapfrog their way all the way up to the No. 3 seed.
And at the opposite end of that spectrum was the Washington Wizards who went into the break fourth in the East, only to limp into the postseason as the eighth seed after losing five of their last six games.
So who will be the high risers and sliders in the East this season?
HIGH RISERS: Orlando Magic (27-32)
Currently 10th in the East, no team in the East seems more poised to break through among the non-playoff teams before the break to garner a spot in the postseason. They are currently riding a five-game winning streak which includes their last two wins by at least 30 points - the first time in franchise history they put together back-to-back wins by 30 or more points.
They have an All-Star at center in Nikola Vucevic, a double-double machine averaging 20.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 38.0 percent from 3-point range.
And most important is the Magic's schedule.
They open with two of their first three games against teams with losing records, and the one team that has a winning record in that trilogy -- the Toronto Raptors -- suffered a 29-point loss to the Magic the last time they faced them on Dec. 28. And you can’t call their play against the Raptors a fluke on that night when you consider the only other meeting between the two teams this season resulted in a two-point win for the Raptors.
Once they get past this first week, Orlando’s schedule continues to be one of the softest in the NBA. In fact, tankathon.com ranks the Magic’s remaining schedule as the third-softest schedule in the NBA.
Look for the Magic to rise as high as sixth in the East.
HIGH RISERS: Boston Celtics (37-21)
One of the more hard-to-predict teams this season, the Celtics are currently fourth in the East but playing with tremendous confidence nonetheless. They have won their last two games, and 12 of their last 15 overall.
That success has been fueled by a wide array of players stepping up, the kind of thing that plays to their strength - depth.
And while their schedule will certainly increase in terms of its degree of difficulty, that too has been a good thing for this team all season.
Their record against the top four teams in the East this season - Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana, and Philadelphia - is an impressive 7-3, which includes them having already won the head-to-head series with the Sixers.
The Celtics have something else on their side as well - history.
During Brad Stevens’ five seasons as the Celtics head coach, he has compiled a 73-61 (.545 winning percentage) after the All-Star break. More telling is how the C's have fared lately, with Boston finishing with a top-3 record in the East after the break in three of the last four seasons.
Based on the level of expectations for the Celtics this season, coupled with their recent history in finishing the season strong, no one should be surprised if Boston winds up with one of the top two or three records in the East.
HIGH RISERS: Detroit Pistons (26-30)
They went into the break feeling good about themselves, having won five of their last seven games with the two losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and the Boston Celtics, both in playoff position at the time of the defeat.
Detroit opens the break with back-of-the-pack opponents like the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat (losers in six of their last eight), and Indiana Pacers (no Victor Oladipo) - all winnable games that should bolster their playoff position, which is currently eighth in the East.
Leading the way for the Pistons has been Blake Griffin, delivering the kind of all-around game that they absolutely need from him on a nightly basis if they are to secure one of the last postseason spots and get Detroit into the playoffs for what would be only the second time in nine years.
The Pistons will also benefit from what should be an awesome April for them, as they face a number of teams that likely are either just playing out the schedule and not focused on winning (New York and Memphis) or may have their playoff position set by then (Oklahoma City and Indiana) and might be more inclined to limit their top players to ensure they’re healthy for the postseason.
SLIDERS: Charlotte Hornets (27-30)
Of the teams fighting for one of the last playoff spots, the Hornets really needed to add a difference-maker at the trade deadline.
They were apparently close to dealing for Marc Gasol, the kind of deal that would have certainly solidified their position as a playoff team. Instead, they closed out the trade deadline with no changes.
They added Shelvin Mack from the buyout market, but that’s not going to put them over the hump. Kemba Walker has been one of the best guards in the East and was rewarded with a starting nod in last weekend’s All-Star game. But they need more than Walker to hold on to their current playoff seeding (7th) in the East.
And the road ahead does not look good for them, with five of their first six games against teams currently bound for the playoffs, which is part of a schedule that according to tankathon.com is the second-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA.
SLIDERS: Indiana Pacers (38-20)
The Pacers are arguably the most likeable team in the East this season, not just because they have won a lot of games, but how they have gone about it.
Losing a player like Victor Oladipo (ruptured quad tendon) for the season can devastate a team. To the Pacers' credit, they have refused to allow Oladipo’s absence be a prerequisite for losing. After losing the first four games without Oladipo, Indiana has since reeled off wins in six of their last seven games.
They have been a .500 team in Oladipo’s absence, and they’re likely to remain that way the rest of the season which likely will result in them dropping down a spot or two in the Eastern Conference standings. They will easily get into the postseason, but it’s unlikely they will be able to hold on to home-court advantage through the first round.
SLIDERS: Brooklyn Nets (30-29)
The Nets are a legit playoff team this season, with contributions coming from a lot of different sources with All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell leading the charge.
But they come out of the All-Star break no longer seen as a team that’s in the hunt, but more so a team that others are targeting and preparing for a lot differently than past years. Before, the goal was to avoid a letdown against Brooklyn. Now, it’s more about stepping up your effort and energy level against them because they are capable of beating any team at any given moment, which is evident by them having the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference coming out of the break.
However, there’s a good chance they will lose some ground in terms of the standings after this first week of the post All-Star break portion of their schedule, with games against Portland, Charlotte, and San Antonio - all solid playoff contenders.
The key for them is to continue to play competitive basketball, win the games they should, and that should be enough to get them into the postseason as a seventh or eighth seed.