When Kevin Durant did CJ McCollum’s “fuckin podcast” over the summer, he measured the distance between his two-time-defending-champion Warriors and McCollum’s yet-to-reach-the-conference-finals Blazers in one short, straight line: “Don’t worry about what goes on at the top of things.” It was a withering underscoring of the levels of the league—the hierarchy of power dividing the teams that matter come the Finals from the ones that don’t.
But as someone who devotes most of his year to watching basketball played by “the ones that don’t,” Durant’s smirking punch line also struck me as a worthwhile (if unintended) reminder to enjoy what comes before we reach the championship rounds. Like, for example, what’s happening at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Boston Celtics on Tuesday became the fifth Eastern team to punch its postseason ticket, leaving three spots remaining with five teams in hot pursuit. (The 11th-place Washington Wizards haven’t yet been mathematically eliminated from contention, but they’re seven games out of the no. 8 spot with seven games left, so for the purposes of this conversation, they’re done.) Entering Wednesday, the Brooklyn Nets sit in sixth place at 38-37 and the Charlotte Hornets are 10th at 35-39, with the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, and Miami Heat all tightly bunched between them. With 2.5 weeks left in the regular season, only 2.5 games separate sixth from 10th, making every game crucial—especially games in which the combatants face each other, like in Orlando’s 104-99 win Tuesday in Miami, which bumped the Magic past the Heat and into sole possession of the no. 8 spot.
We often see a jumble of average-or-slightly-worse teams engaged in late-season jostling for the right to get smoked by a top seed; it’s not exactly the stuff of thrilling legend. What’s made this season’s skirmish somewhat more interesting than your typical low-East rat king, though, is that it’s not just a bunch of shitty teams stepping on rakes: Shockingly enough, things are getting tight at the bottom of the Eastern standings as the result of some actual good basketball. No team better embodies that than the Magic, co-owners (with the rampaging Clippers) of the NBA’s longest winning streak at six games, as well as the East’s second-best record and the league’s no. 1 defense since February 1.
I wrote about some of the reasons for Orlando’s rise Monday, and Tuesday’s win in Miami offered a sufficient summary. The Magic clamp down; the Heat shot just 36.4 percent in the second half. They ride Nikola Vucevic: 24 points, 16 rebounds, and five assists for the All-Star center, muscling his way through Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside. They coax vital contributions out of complementary players, like an 11-point third quarter from sophomore forward Jonathan Isaac, or six rebounds and six assists off the bench from 10-day-contract reclamation project Michael Carter-Williams. Eventually, it all adds up to wins. The Magic trailed by 17 with eight minutes to go in the first half, but it never seemed like the game was out of reach; you just kind of knew that their Vooch-plus-defense-plus-ball-sharing approach would wind up working. Orlando is a good team that’s gotten demonstrably better over the past two months, and that’ll be true whether or not it winds up getting its doors blown off by Milwaukee or Toronto in a few weeks.
The Magic will need to keep it up, too, because they’re not the only lower-tier team on a run. The Hornets—who currently hold tiebreakers over Orlando (a 2-1 head-to-head edge with one last meeting coming on the final day of the season) and Heat (2-2 head-to-head, but Charlotte’s got a better record in their shared division)—have won four straight. Three of those wins have come against playoff teams, capped by a 125-116 overtime win over the visiting Spurs on Tuesday that saw Kemba Walker offer a gleaming reminder of why he’s going to get all that money (whether in Charlotte or somewhere else):
The All-Star point guard scored 22 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including 14 straight between the 3:08 mark of regulation and 1:51 to go in OT, to carry Charlotte past the finish line. He also kick-started the mammoth 30-5 run that stole victory from the jaws of defeat against the Celtics on Saturday and battled through cold shooting on the second night of a back-to-back to dish 13 assists and just one turnover in Toronto, helping to keep Charlotte alive long enough for Jeremy Lamb to make a miracle happen:
Charlotte has definitely benefited from good luck, but beneath the hero ball and answered prayers, there have also been some encouraging grace notes. Elevated to the starting lineup last week, 2017 second-round pick Dwayne Bacon has shined, scoring 44 points in his past two games in Nicolas Batum’s place alongside Walker in the backcourt. Afforded extended minutes, rookie Miles Bridges has played with infectious energy and shown flashes of an advancing all-around game, averaging 13 points on 56 percent shooting to go with 8.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.8 steals in 32.4 minutes per game over his past five outings. Rookie point guard Devonte’ Graham has similarly flourished in a longer look as Charlotte’s primary backup, dishing 25 assists against just two turnovers in his past five games; the Hornets have outscored opponents by 16 points in his 90 minutes, a welcome respite for a team that has historically gotten drilled whenever Kemba’s not on the floor.
“There is a spirit about us,” veteran forward Marvin Williams told Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer after Tuesday’s win. “And I feel like we haven’t had it in a long time.”
Even the teams that are stumbling have shown some version of that kind of spirit. The Heat have dropped two of three to fall to ninth place, but Miami is 9-4 in March, with the East’s fourth-best net rating and the NBA’s fifth-stingiest defense. Dwyane Wade is still closing out games, too; the farewell-touring shooting guard is tied for ninth in the league in fourth-quarter scoring since the All-Star break.
The Nets have struggled to find a consistent rhythm with all three of their top playmakers—All-Star D’Angelo Russell, critical reserve Spencer Dinwiddie, and injury-derailed rising star Caris LeVert—back in the fold, ranking just 25th in offensive efficiency since March 1. But Kenny Atkinson’s team has continued to battle through a brutal seven-game, two-week-long road trip and is one Lou Williams buzzer-beater and a double-OT loss in Portland from being comfortably clear of the churning below. And the Pistons, who went from being the NBA’s hottest team to losing four of five to slip into seventh place, haven’t let go of the rope. After digging a 27-point hole in Denver on Tuesday, they roared back with a dominant second half behind Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson, and came up just a couple of shots shy of one of the season’s biggest comebacks.
That Jeremy Lamb shot completely changed the East playoff race. Charlotte has a chance to win tie-breakers over Nets, Pistons, and Orlando. Last day of season: Heat @ Nets, Magic @ Hornets. Yowza.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 27, 2019
These teams will never generate the same kind of headlines as the superteams and superstars, but they’re doing their damnedest to make things interesting. Down there at the bottom of the East, a fair few of tiers below The Top of Things, there’s something worth watching. It’d be a shame if you missed it.