With less than 20 games left in the NBA schedule, five teams in the Eastern Conference are left fighting it out for one of the final four playoff positions.
And except for the 9-1 Milwaukee Bucks, the other three lucky playoff teams may be backing their way in. Thanks in part to what looks like one team’s sacrifice of talent on the altar of cap space for the summer of 2010.
Over the past 10 games, the other four teams supposedly trying to fight their way into the playoffs have managed:
Raptors 3-7, lost their last three games.
Bobcats 5-5, won their last four games.
Heat 5-5, won their last game.
Bulls 3-7, lost their last six games.
The schedules are known and each team’s opposition is set. So who are the four teams most likely to round out the Eastern Conference playoff picture?
The Milwaukee Bucks have built a two game lead over the pack courtesy of that 9-1 record and with 19 games remaining have the most home games of their adversaries at 11.
But the Bucks also have the toughest schedule left with 12 contests against teams in playoff contention and seven of those games are against a top four conference contender. And the Bucks face Miami, Charlotte, and Chicago before the season ends.
The Raptors backed their way out of fifth in the East during Chris Bosh’s injury and now sit in a virtual tie with Charlotte and Miami. And the Raptors still have to face the Bobcats, Heat, and Bulls one more time.
With 19 games remaining, the Raptors have nine home dates and face 11 teams in playoff contention. They play a top four conference contender six times.
By winning their last four games, Charlotte has put their playoff hopes back into their own hands. The Bobcats play 10 of their remaining 19 games at home which is a good thing as the Cats have been pussycats on the road this season.
Only three games left against top teams and 10 games total against playoff contenders says the Bobcats look to be in good shape down the stretch. They just have to watch out for the: Bulls twice; Miami; Toronto; and Milwaukee.
The Miami Heat have the fewest games remaining at 17. But nine of those games are at home and the Heat have the easiest schedule of the five teams competing for a playoff spot.
The Heat only have seven games left against teams still in playoff contention. But those games include: Bulls twice; Bobcats; Bucks; and, Raptors.
At the trade deadline, the Chicago Bulls decided to trade Thomas and Salmons to Charlotte and Milwaukee respectively. Thus strengthening their direct competition and weakening their own team. And while the trades might pan out from a salary cap standpoint in July, in March and April those trades are likely to be the difference between making and missing the 2010 playoffs.
The Bulls must face 13 teams in playoff contention over their final 18 game schedule. And while only four of these games are against elite competition, a six game losing streak says the Bulls are in trouble.
The only good news for the Bulls is that they face their direct competition six more times playing: Miami twice; Charlotte twice; Milwaukee; and Toronto before it’s over.
The Bulls fate is in their own hands. Too bad about those cap driven trades.
The schedule is strongly in favour of the Bucks, Raptors, Heat, and Bobcats for those last four playoff spots. The Bulls will only have themselves to blame when they are on the outside looking in.
And the fight for fifth should go to the team who is playing their best ball at the right time of the year and made the best trade deadline acquisition. Right now, Milwaukee looks to be that team. Current trends indicate, the five teams will finish:
No. 5 Milwaukee Bucks
No. 6 Miami Heat
No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats
No. 8 Toronto Raptors
No. 9 Chicago Bulls
But the NBA schedule makers did get the end of season games setup well this time. Five teams fighting for four spots with head-to-head contests between them likely determining who gets in.
Nothing is carved in stone just yet.