Nothin' but Net: East playoff spots up for grabs

Philadelphia, PA ( - In an NBA defined recently by who DOESN'T want to make the postseason, there is a playoff race for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference over the final six weeks.

The Atlanta Hawks are on the verge of clinching a postseason berth and lead the conference by 9 1/2 games. I'd have to both get a shower and go to confession if I told you that was going to happen.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are in and would be the favorite right now. The Chicago Bulls and their MASH unit will go. The Toronto Raptors haven't looked good in two weeks, but own a 12-game lead in the Atlantic Division.

The Washington Wizards, despite playing like the Washington Generals, will play into late April.

And, yes, the Milwaukee Bucks are going to the playoffs, despite having the worst record in the league last season, losing the favorite for NBA Rookie of the Year to a torn ACL, trading their fringe All-Star point guard at the deadline, and having a coach who was generally considered a joke about 13 months ago. It's a funny world. It snows in March, Matthew McConaughey has an Oscar and the Bucks are in the postseason.

That essentially leaves two spots, assuming epic meltdowns don't occur. Washington and Milwaukee are not playing well at the moment, but the Wiz are eight ahead of the eighth seed and the Bucks are 6 1/2 clear.

These final slots are wide open.

The Miami Heat, the four-time reigning Eastern Conference champions, own the seventh seed with a half-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets. Both are playoff- tested franchises with talent, but not enough to make them mortal locks come tax day.

The Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets, both playoff teams a season ago, trail Brooklyn by a half-game. The Boston Celtics are 1 1/2 games behind and the Detroit Pistons are 2 1/2 back.

I examined future schedules and data to best prognosticate who will get those two final spots.

As the seventh seed, the Heat are in the best position, but it's tenuous. They made a sensational deadline deal to bring Goran Dragic, an All-NBA third- teamer last season, to Miami. It's the kind of move that made most think the Heat would be a team no one wanted to see in the playoffs.

Then, Chris Bosh was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs. That's an All- Star big man, who was having a strong season, done for the remainder of the docket.

The Heat have 23 games remaining, 13 are at home and 10 are away. They play 11 games against opponents with winning records, 12 losers. What really works in Miami's favor is that the Heat close the season with a home game against the Orlando Magic and a road tilt versus Philly. That's cupcake city.

How much does Erik Spoelstra need Dwyane Wade to make the postseason? Does Spo play him in games he should normally rest in order to get to the playoffs? Can Dragic get acclimated quick enough? All fair questions.

The Nets have 24 games left and their home-road split is best among contenders, or so-called contenders. Brooklyn has 15 games at the Barclays Center and nine on the road. However, with 11 home wins, does it matter?

What can the Nets get out of Deron Williams, who has looked good recently? They have 20 conference losses, which is a lot considering the weakness of Eastern teams. A huge problem on the horizon for the Nets is that seven of their last eight are versus winning teams, including two with Atlanta.

The Pacers are the most interesting team lurking. With 13 home games and 10 road tilts, that's in their favor, but their last three are against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington and the season finale in Memphis. That's not a great set-up if the Pacers desperately need those wins.

The biggest factor in any Indiana postseason run is the availability of Paul George. He's ahead of schedule from that vomit-inducing leg break in the summer. He wants to come back in two weeks and could obviously be a huge difference maker. Head coach Frank Vogel won't throw George into the mix 30 minutes a night, but getting one of the 15 best players in the league back in time for a playoff push is obviously a huge advantage. He'll keep the defense strong and improve an offense ranked 24th in scoring, 23rd in field-goal percentage and 22nd in 3-point shooting.

Charlotte is in a similar position. They are waiting for Kemba Walker to get back from knee surgery and it could be another two weeks. Coach Steve Clifford is already planning on playing Walker and Mo Williams together. Williams has been crazy good since coming before the deadline.

The Hornets are scary when healthy because they usually defend. Williams won't help that, but Charlotte has 14 of its final 25 versus teams with losing records. The Hornets have a west trip still on the docket, but it's not overwhelming with stops in Utah, Sacramento and Minnesota.

The Hornets have to be a little concerned with three of their last four on the season as visitors. The home game is against the Houston Rockets, so that's no bargain and two of the road opponents are Atlanta and Toronto, the top two teams in the conference, but will those squads have anything to play for by then?

Boston also has been aided by a trade deadline move. Isaiah Thomas has already won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor in his first week with the Celtics.

Boston has 14 road games as opposed to 11 home contests. The C's last four opponents all have winning records. That doesn't bode well, but the bigger question for the Celtics is, do they kill themselves to try to make the playoffs? They'd be better served missing the postseason and continuing Danny Ainge's impressive rebuilding.

The Pistons have the tallest mountain to climb considering they're farthest down in the standings. Their season turned around as soon as they showed Josh Smith the door, but when Brandon Jennings' left Achilles turned into a fruit roll-up, their chances seemingly died.

Detroit has only nine home games left. The Pistons play only 10 games against opponents with winning records the rest of the way and five of their last six are against teams with losing records. Four of those five are versus Miami, Indiana, Charlotte and Boston and all four are at The Palace, so the Pistons won't have any excuses if they're still in it.

The easiest choices would be Indiana and Charlotte. Both teams are getting humongous pieces back that could easily sway the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.

Digging deeper, another reason to pick these two teams is that both rank in the top five in the NBA in opponents' scoring. Indiana is fourth and Charlotte is tied for fifth, and contrary to what you might read or however cliche it might be, defense still wins in this league.

However, I'm only going with one of those teams and that's the Hornets. Walker is much more of a sure bet when he returns than George. Williams is playing at an extraordinary level and offense is tough for a Hornets' team ranked 27th in scoring.

I'm not convinced George will be able to give the Pacers enough. His comeback is a good idea because the Pacers could be a viable threat with George in the postseason, but that's a brutal injury to return from, not just physically, but mentally. I have more faith in what Walker can provide the Hornets.

My other choice is Miami. The Heat have the most talented backcourt in the race and the secondary pieces have emerged. Hassan Whiteside has become a dominant big man, at least in the Eastern Conference. Luol Deng has to have some of that All-Star magic somewhere.

Dragic is a borderline star. Can he carry a team? I think so. His motivation has to be astronomical now that he forced his way out of Phoenix, or Phoenix forced him out. Depends on what side you're on in this Ross/Rachel debate.

Wade can still contribute at a high level. However, the three reasons I like the Heat over everyone else are: They are one of the teams the Hornets are tied for fifth with in opponents' scoring, young, enthused role players and Spoelstra.

Tyler Johnson scored 26 points on Monday. He won't do that a lot, but Michael Beasley, yes, Michael Beasley, was a good signing. Mario Chalmers is more suited to a bench role.

And, Spoelstra is a fantastic postseason coach. It's easy to dismiss him as someone who thrived with LeBron James, but he's more than that. He maximized what he got from players along the way. This Heat team looks like a fifth- grade CYO group compared to the Big Three days, but Spo will get the most from his guys and knows what it takes down the stretch.

There are plenty of game left to decide everything and this battle for the final two spots lacks the sex appeal of Oklahoma City trying to blow up the Western Conference race.

In fact, with these six teams a combined 46 games under .500, this race lacks the sex appeal of a shoe. Remember, the Hawks took the Pacers to seven games as the eighth seed last season. Anything is possible and with the likes of a Wade or George in the mix, these squads could be mildly dangerous in the postseason.