Earlier in the week, we noted that a fascinating race is shaping up in the 5-7 range of the Western Conference and asked whether you expect the Mavericks, Lakers, or Trail Blazers to finish in the seventh spot, making them subject to at least one play-in game.
While it may not have a narrative as compelling as the defending champions being forced to participate in a play-in tournament, the Eastern Conference is also producing a fascinating race in the 4-7 range.
Currently, the Knicks (37-29) control the No. 4 seed, followed by the Hawks (37-31) at No. 5. The Celtics and Heat are in a dead heat for sixth place, though their 35-31 records mean they’re actually tied with Atlanta in the loss column.
New York and Atlanta were among the Eastern Conference’s bottom-feeders a year ago, whereas Boston and Miami met in the 2020 Eastern Finals and entered the season expecting to be among the top five teams in the conference again. Now it seems very possible that either the Celtics or Heat will finish at No. 7 and host the first play-in game.
Here are the four teams’ remaining schedules:
- Knicks: at PHX, at LAC, at LAL, vs. SAS, vs. CHA, vs. BOS (one back-to-back)
- Hawks: vs. WSH, vs. WSH, vs. ORL, vs. HOU (one back-to-back)
- Celtics: at CHI, vs. MIA, vs. MIA, at CLE, at MIN, at NYK (two back-to-backs)
- Heat: vs. MIN, at BOS, at BOS, vs. PHI, at MIL, at DET (one back-to-back)
Although the Knicks have the most room for error, they also have the most challenging schedule of these four Eastern teams, especially if LeBron James and Anthony Davis are available for the Lakers in the final game of that West Coast road trip. The Knicks will finish their season with three games at home, but all three of their opponents in those games will be competing all-out for playoff positioning.
As hot as Washington has been, the Hawks easily have the most favorable remaining schedule of these four teams, with only four games left, including a pair against bottom-five teams in the NBA, Orlando and Houston. They’re in good position to clinch a top-six seed, especially if they win at least once vs. the Wizards.
The two upcoming games between the Celtics and Heat loom large in the race to avoid the play-in. Boston is 1-0 against Miami so far this season and will host both of those games, giving the Celtics the upper hand to clinch the tiebreaker and stay ahead of Pat Riley‘s club in the standings.
The fact that the Heat will follow up those two games vs. the Celtics by playing Philadelphia and Milwaukee while the C’s take on Cleveland and Minnesota further tilts the scales in Boston’s favor, though Jimmy Butler doesn’t sound worried about the Heat’s schedule.
One factor working in the Heat’s favor is that they hold a tiebreaker edge over the Knicks (but not Atlanta). The Celtics, meanwhile, are the only one of the four teams with two back-to-back sets, which may hurt them a little.
What do you think? Will the defending Eastern Conference champs end up in the No. 7 seed, taking part in the play-in tournament, or will they be able to pass one of the teams above them to clinch a top-six spot?
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