With five (or, in some cases, fewer) games remaining, the Eastern Conference middle class is scrumming for the final playoff spots. Their most recent games have inspired some of the best (hello, Indiana) and worst (Chicago, WYD) basketball of the season, and with just a two-game difference between the 7-seed and the 10, Tuesday’s games mixed up the standings for nearly everyone. Here’s where each Eastern Conference playoff hopeful stands now and is projected to be for the remainder of the regular season:
Trending Up: Pacers
While it might sound like a reach to call the Pacers — a team that lost four straight before Tuesday’s win over the Raptors — trending upward, it’s true! Before beating Toronto, Indiana squared off in the game of the year against the Cavaliers. LeBron came out triumphant, but the resurrection of 2013-14 Playoffs Paul George was complete.
Against the Raptors, George scored 18 of his 35 points in the third quarter to lead his team back from a 19-point deficit. Lance Stephenson (it truly is a 2014 playoffs #TBT; someone find Roy) received a standing ovation beforehand, in his home game back in Indiana. He earned every bit of his $12 million, three-year deal, draining two 3s during the comeback, doubling his season high of … one. Indiana shot almost 70 percent (9-of-13) from deep in the second half. DeMar DeRozan was fully activated himself, scoring a team-high 27, but most notably shoving Stephenson after he made a stat-padding, audience-pleasing, late-game layup.
Didn’t Vince Staples just warn us not to mess with DeMar?
Prior to the four-game skid, Indiana was tied for the fifth seed. Tuesday’s victory kept the Pacers in the hunt, tied for the eight spot. Their four remaining games — Thursday against Milwaukee, at the Magic, at the Sixers, and at home against the Hawks — are against a mix of desperation playoff teams and should-be-easies. With the Pacers on the wrong side of tiebreakers against both Miami and Chicago, they need all the W’s they can get.
Trending Down: Hornets
A quiet, late-season push had Charlotte entering Tuesday’s game against the Wizards knocking on the 8-seed door. After winning seven of its past nine, coming away with a win against Washington certainly wasn’t implausible, and it would’ve moved the team within a half-game of the 8-seed.
Kemba Walker did his best Devin Booker impersonation, still losing after hitting six 3s and ending the game with 37 points, but it wasn’t enough. He could have used some help from his usual outside threats — Marvin Williams went 0-for-3 from deep (and a painful 0-for-6 overall) and Nicolas Batum made just one of his five attempts from behind the arc. Frank Kaminsky and Marco Belinelli were the only other players to add 3-pointers.
On Wednesday, Charlotte faces Miami, another team trying to claw its way to the postseason. The Heat are injury depleted, but still have the edge in ferocity (meaning no offense to the Hornets, but one team has both Johnson brothers).
Charlotte’s loss to the Wizards was also the team’s first game without assistant coach Patrick Ewing, who will be moving back to Washington full time. What a relief for the big man, and his new Hoyas, that the Ewing Theory doesn’t apply to coaching.
Trending Down: Bulls
In the 2012 Olympics, badminton players were accused of throwing games to achieve easier seeding. I, knowing nothing about the sport, feel extremely comfortable saying it’s the most scandalous thing to ever happen in the badminton world. Though each side tried desperately to be its worst, both were eventually penalized, and neither could pull off what it wanted most: to lose.
Watching the Knicks, who needed to lose, blow out Chicago, who needed to win, was reminiscent of that Olympic spectacle. Playing sharp for a few games and then falling to a dud is nothing new to the Bulls this season, who entered the game winning four in a row (and six of their past eight). Even with the loss — just to reiterate, the loss to the Knicks, without Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick Rose, or Joakim Noah — Chicago kept the 7-seed.
Knicks debacle aside, the Bulls are looking better in most facets than they have all season. Jimmy Butler is doing his best to make every team who wants to trade for him salivate that much more, and Rajon Rondo entered the Knicks game averaging 15 points and 9.8 assists during his past four (contract pushes are so fun). The team’s shooting — they once owned the worst 3-point percentage in the NBA — is on a substantial uptick. Over the win streak, the Bulls claim a top-10 accuracy from deep. Dwyane Wade recovering sooner than later even seems realistic, and although this newfound Flash-free floor-spacing is helping Chicago, there must be a positive way to fit in a career 23-point scorer.
However, the old demons returned against New York, like being outrebounded, giving up careless turnovers, and letting a first-time starter dance his way to a double-double (have your moment, Maurice Ndour).
The good news for Chicago is its remaining schedule: away at Philly, at the Nets, then home against the Magic and Brooklyn. The bad news is Chicago doesn’t play that well against bad teams.
Happy to Still Be Trending: Heat
Miami is the one Eastern Conference team of these four that did not play Tuesday. Indiana’s victory over the Raptors wasn’t helpful to the Heat’s cause, and Miami still sits just a half game back from Chicago’s 7-seed. But this is not a healthy team, and Luke Babbitt could be the latest to join Dion Waiters in street clothes against the Hornets on Wednesday. But there’s still reason to be optimistic for that Heat-Cavs first round, as Erik Spoelstra is already hinting that this three-game road trip may make a stop at Waiters Island. Miami is 3-5 since Dion’s most recent injury and needs him back for a tough remaining stretch: at the Hornets, at the Raptors, at the Wizards, home against the Cavs (!), and home against the Wizards.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the result of Tuesday night’s Pacers-Raptors game. Indiana won, not Toronto.