Darren Collison and the Pacers have perhaps the best shot at earning the last playoff spot in the East. (AP)
The race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is as pathetic as the race for the bottom four spots in the Western Conference is exciting.
The Pacers, current holders of the eighth slot, have lost four straight games and have gone into a major defensive slump. The Bobcats, pursuing the Pacers as if they were lazy house cats and not predators, have lost five straight. Their combined ineptitude has allowed the Bucks to stay in it even though they’ve been declared dead several times and had lost four of five before blowing out the putrid Wizards on Tuesday.
You know I have a soft spot for the Bucks, and that I’ve been rooting for them to find their 2009-10 groove, sneak into the playoffs and give the top seed some Andrew Bogut-style hell. But the more I watch Bogut struggle with a rib cage muscle strain and a right elbow that clearly still isn’t right, the more I wonder if it might be best for Milwaukee to miss the playoffs, get its core players healthy, take a swing in the lottery and hope Brandon Jennings makes a leap next season.
Even if the Bucks were actually trying to tank (which won’t happen), the Pacers and Bobcats just won’t let them escape playoff contention. This battle for the eighth spot — combined with the sterling play of the Sixers, who are seventh and only a half-game behind the Knicks for sixth — has made it clear that whoever wins the battle for the top seed between Boston and Chicago will have a small but important edge in the playoffs.
As things stand now, facing the Pacers instead of the Sixers or Knicks is a big deal, particularly for an older team such as Boston. Philadelphia and New York always seem to play Boston tough, and having an easy five-game series against Miami last year — as opposed to the bloodbath seven-gamers of Boston’s prior two playoff runs — helped set up the aging Celtics for a Finals run.
So does any team have the edge in this three-team race? I’d rank them like this:
1) Pacers: The heavy favorite, with a one-game lead in the loss column over Charlotte and a two-game lead over the Bucks — and the most favorable schedule of all three clubs.