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Believe It or Not: Five NBA Takes, Analyzed

Just weeks away from the playoffs, we’re taking a look at the flaws in some of the league’s most accomplished teams and at how the Magic are … surprisingly good?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a weird time in the NBA. Everybody’s just trying to get to the finish line of the regular season, but with the exception of Doc Rivers’s roaring Clippers, nobody seems to really be in their best form as they hit their closing kick. The consistent inconsistency has led to a few odd recent results and surfaced (or, in some cases, resurfaced) significant questions about the teams we’ll see as the playoffs get under way.

In search of some answers, let’s play a little game of NBA Believe It or Not. What follows are five statements, five quick-hit examinations, and five attempts to figure out where I stand on just how real what we’re seeing at the moment might be. We begin our game where all things Ringer begin: in Boston.

1. The Celtics just aren’t going to figure it out.

The NBA’s most exhausting team remains unable to pick a lane. Coming off a run of five wins in six games—including a 3-1 West Coast road trip headlined by a 33-point annihilation of the Warriors following what was purported to be a season-saving cross-country flight—Boston has now lost four in a row. After a dire weekend that saw the team blow an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to the Hornets on Saturday and get crushed by the Spurs on Sunday, the Celtics sit two games behind the Pacers in the race for the East’s no. 4 seed, the winner of which will get home-court advantage in an Indiana-Boston first-round series that is all but a certainty at this point. (Inpredictable’s win probability rankings give the Celtics a 98 percent chance of finishing fourth or fifth and the Pacers a 99 percent likelihood.)

With two Pacers-Celtics games still left before the end of the regular season, Boston can still gain the upper hand and home court, but maybe just landing in that matchup matters more for the Celtics than which seed they wind up with. The Pacers have been struggling, going just 4-7 in March as they navigate a brutal section of the schedule. The last time the two teams played, Boston drilled Indiana (which, to be fair, was without defensive centerpiece Myles Turner) by 27 points. But even if the Victor Oladipo–less Pacers are the friendliest matchup Boston could draw, you’d imagine Celtics fans would feel a lot better about the team’s chances if it could just string together a couple of weeks without public sniping over strategy or extended postgame team meetings.

Boston finishes out the season with a fairly friendly slate, with road games at Cleveland, Brooklyn, Miami, Indiana, and Washington, and the Pacers, Heat, and Magic all coming to TD Garden. And as disappointing as their latest downturn has been, there’s some context to the grind: Gordon Hayward missed three of the four losses after entering the league’s concussion protocol; stalwart defensive center Aron Baynes has been on a minutes restriction as he works his way back from injuries; the 76ers loss came in a game that Baynes (left ankle sprain) and Marcus Smart (ejected for shoving Joel Embiid) exited early; and the Spurs loss came on the second night of a back-to-back without starters Al Horford and Jayson Tatum.

If the Celtics can get healthy and get whole over the next couple of weeks, the path lays out plainly: Knock off Indiana, then take your chances as an underdog in a series against a not-quite-full-strength Bucks team. Good teams have to beat other good teams to get to the NBA Finals. The Celtics have spent most of this season trying to convince us that they’re not all that great; I mostly believe them, but I won’t be ready to write their obituary until I see someone put the clamps on Kyrie four times in seven games.

VERDICT: 60 percent confidence rating that the Celtics bow out before the conference finals.

2. The Nuggets really are the second-best team in the West.

I took a look at the cases for and against Denver’s status as a legitimately elite team a couple of weeks ago. Since then, the Nuggets ripped off a six-game winning streak that tied them with the Warriors for the West’s top seed … and then promptly dipped back into second place after getting smoked in a 36-point waxing at the hands of the Pacers, an outing that Denver coach Michael Malone described as “an embarrassing effort by all of us.”

One bad Sunday afternoon doesn’t erase five months of excellent work, especially when it comes at the end of a four-game, eight-day East Coast road swing. The nature of the loss, though, highlights some of the areas of concern.

Is a Nuggets defense that ranks 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass, going to be stout enough to shut down top opposing scorers more menacing than the (admittedly very good) Bojan Bogdanovic, who hung 26 of his 35 points on Denver before halftime? If Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap, who combined for 10 points on 4-for-20 shooting in Indianapolis, don’t provide secondary scoring to complement Nikola Jokic, then who will? Can Jokic, a surefire top-six MVP candidate who is just four games and 208 minutes away from matching his career highs on a team that plans to be playing for quite a while longer, weather fatigue and reach another level in the biggest moments of his career?

That last question might be the most important. Denver has thrived all season thanks to an egalitarian approach—seventh in the NBA in passes made per game, fourth in secondary assists per game, and second in both assists per game and points per game created by assist—that flows from the pass-first ethos of its 24-year-old superstar center. The Nuggets’ success is predicated not on elite individual plays but on the small contributions that add up to big scores; as Malone recently told Paul Flannery of SB Nation, “A lot of times people want to go for that home run. It’s OK to hit singles and doubles, man. Get ’em on base, put guys in scoring position.”

That’s a recipe for an extremely fun watch and a lot of regular-season wins. In the playoffs, though, the time will come when Denver needs somebody to launch the ball into the cheap seats. Jokic absolutely has the talent to hit those kinds of moonshots; I just still feel like I’ll need to see him swing for the fences under the brightest lights before I’m all in on Denver.

VERDICT: 30 percent confidence rating that the Nuggets are actually the second-best team in the West, with Houston continuing to rise up that theoretical ranking.

3. Philadelphia still has a major problem.

I wrote Friday about how the Sixers’ marquee win over the rival Celtics showcased general manager Elton Brand’s plan, with MVP candidate Joel Embiid bossing Boston around for three quarters before Jimmy Butler came in out of the bullpen to close the door. But Philly’s Saturday loss to the Hawks highlighted an ongoing issue for Brett Brown’s club: struggles to defend pick-and-roll-playmaking guards.

Trae Young continued his second-half surge, torching the Sixers on Saturday to the tune of 32 points on 11-for-20 shooting and creating 28 more via assist. The rookie’s ability to put pressure on defenses with the threat of his quick-trigger long-range shot and his gift for puncturing coverages with pinpoint passing had Philly looking out of sorts all night long, opening the door to whatever kinds of looks the Hawks wanted; Atlanta knocked down 15 3-pointers and scored 66 points in the paint, four off its season high.

To be fair, losing to the Hawks now is nowhere near as galling as it would’ve been a few months ago; Atlanta’s been better than you might realize of late, going 7-9 since the All-Star break with a solidly middling net rating. Still: The Hawks are not a good team, but their success in the pick and roll is nothing new for Philadelphia opponents. The Sixers rank 21st in the league in points allowed per possession finished by a ball handler in the pick and roll, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data, 27th in points allowed per possession on dribble handoff plays, and 29th in points allowed per possession used by offensive players coming off screens.

All season long, the 76ers have had a hard time corralling dribble penetration at the point of attack. Philly does a great job of selling out to prevent 3-point looks; only the Jazz and Trail Blazers allow a smaller share of opponents’ field goal attempts to come from beyond the arc. But a conservative defensive approach in which Embiid drops back to protect the rim and other Sixers defenders hew close to their men on the perimeter leaves a lot of space for pick-and-roll playmakers to create after they come off a screen, especially if they’re willing to pull up from deep. And as Derek Bodner of The Athletic notes, on the rare occasions when the Sixers change tactics and try to more aggressively trap the two-man game, it doesn’t seem to go very well; it feels instructive that Kemba Walker, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, Zach LaVine, D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, James Harden, Victor Oladipo, CJ McCollum, and Bradley Beal—all pick-and-roll-loving creators, all willing rise-and-fire shooters—have put up 14 of the 20 highest-scoring games against Philly this season.

Brown tried just about every perimeter-defending option he had against Young, and the Sixers just kept coming up empty, unable to get the initial stop or string out the play with sharp help rotations. The trades that remade the Sixers roster have given Brown a huge and super talented starting five that can score on anybody and hunt mismatches up and down opposing rosters. It didn’t give him a lockdown point guard defender, though—I continue to wonder whether Patrick Beverley was just straight-up off-limits in the deal that imported Tobias Harris from the Clippers—so now the Sixers will have to hope that what they’ve got is enough to hold up in a path through the playoffs that will likely include Russell, Dinwiddie, and Kyle Lowry in the first two rounds.

VERDICT: 75 percent confidence rating that this particular defensive foible is going to jump up and bite the Sixers before they can get to the NBA Finals.

4. The Magic really have a chance.

The Clippers have the NBA’s longest active winning streak at five games. Second-longest? Well, that belongs to Steve Clifford’s Magic, who have won four straight and 15 of their last 22. Orlando enters Monday’s action just one game behind the Miami Heat for the East’s eighth and final playoff spot, and only 2.5 games out of the sixth spot occupied by the Brooklyn Nets.

Far away from the watchful eyes of most NBA observers, Orlando has posted the NBA’s third-best net rating since the start of February, fueled by the league’s best defense in that span. The Magic have given up only 102.4 points per 100 possessions over the past seven-plus weeks, a full 2.5 points-per-100 lower than second-place Utah. They have risen up the rankings by hammering the same fundamentals that Clifford emphasized with his Charlotte teams—stuff like preventing second shots (no. 2 in the league in defensive rebounding rate since February 1), taking care of the ball (sixth in turnover percentage and third in assist-to-turnover ratio), and hightailing it back in transition (first in points allowed per possession after a defensive rebound and second in points allowed after a turnover, according to Inpredictable). As it turns out, if you’re trying not to lose, not beating yourself is a pretty good start.

Magic brass elected to hold on to Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross at the trade deadline, despite the fact that both of them will enter unrestricted free agency after the season, in hopes that the two young veterans would help spark just this sort of late-season run to playoff contention. It’s working: The All-Star center continues to carry the offensive load, averaging 20.8 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game since February 1, while Ross remains Orlando’s most dangerous perimeter threat, knocking down 37.1 percent of his 8.4 3-point attempts per game in that span. Couple that with consistently steady play from the backcourt of D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier, strong work in the second unit from unheralded contributors like center Khem Birch and guard Isaiah Briscoe, and some exciting flashes from second-year prospect Jonathan Isaac, and the Magic have had enough to elbow their way into the fight for the conference’s final playoff berth.

Orlando has grabbed wins against weaker competition during this stretch—the current four-game winning streak includes victories over lottery-bound Cleveland, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Memphis—and has a tough finishing slate, with six of the Magic’s final nine games coming on the road, where they’re just 13-22 this season. FiveThirtyEight’s projections give the Magic a 48 percent shot of making the postseason—a hell of a lot higher than most of us figured the Magic might be at this stage of the game but still less than a coin flip. I wouldn’t bet on them overtaking either Miami, Brooklyn, or Detroit.

Even so: Winning two-thirds of your games over a two-month stretch is no small thing, especially for a franchise that hasn’t had much to celebrate over the last half-dozen years. Maybe the Magic will rue the path they took if Vucevic and Ross walk this summer and they don’t land difference makers to replace them, but there’s something to be said for going for it—for giving a shit about trying to win something, even if you’ve got no shot of winning everything. We should celebrate that more, and we should tip our caps to the work that Clifford and Co. have done to even be in the conversation in the season’s closing weeks.

VERDICT: 15 percent confidence rating that the Magic will complete the comeback and make their first playoff appearance since 2012.

5. There will be an upset in the West in Round 1.

It’s a fool’s errand to predict individual matchups with three weeks left in the season and just one game separating the fifth seed from the eighth. I will say, though: If the Nuggets land second and the Jazz—a team that might be a lot better than its final standing indicates—finish seventh, I’d be awfully interested in how Denver would handle Rudy Gobert guarding Jokic for a full series and how the Nuggets would go about slowing down Donovan Mitchell. (I’d also be fascinated to see how Gregg Popovich would try to go about neutralizing Jokic if San Antonio landed seventh.)

The Thunder are an intriguing choice, but they’ve been slumping of late, and their chances of springing an upset on any top seed likely rest on the health of Paul George’s shoulder. And as great as the Clippers have looked recently, you’d be within your rights to have some reservations about a team relying heavily on untested young players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, and Ivica Zubac in the postseason.

We shouldn’t be too surprised if an upset happens, though. We saw two Round 1 surprises in the West last season, with Utah going over Oklahoma City and the Pelicans blitzing the Blazers out in a jarring sweep; one in 2016-17, with fifth-seeded Utah knocking off the Clippers; and one in 2015-16, as Portland eliminated the fourth-seeded and injury-haunted Clips. Given the overall talent level in the West, and how congested the middle of the standings has tended to be, it seems like it would be more surprising at this point for the quarterfinal round to go chalk.

VERDICT: 75 percent confidence rating that we’ll see one upset in the West; 0 percent chance that it comes against the Warriors.