The Wizards, Hawks, Bulls and Magic picked a bad year to be awful. If they could have raised their standards a little—if, say, their play had been simply crummy—these teams could have found themselves entering the final weeks of the schedule in contention for a postseason berth.
The Eastern Conference playoffs are the NBA's version of the NIT: Mediocrity is sufficient to gain admission. At week's end the Knicks had gone 19-17 since Dec. 22, when Isiah Thomas replaced Scott Layden as team president, and at 29-35 they held a one-game lead for the No. 6 spot. Seventh place belonged to the Celtics (28-36), while three teams with 27-36 records shared eighth (the Heat, Cavaliers and Raptors), followed by the ever-bumbling 76ers (page 74) at 25-38.
Look for Miami and Cleveland to join the Knicks in the playoffs. Of the Heat's final 19 games, nine are on the road, and only three of those are against winning teams. Miami has established a surprising home court advantage (19-12 at week's end), including last Saturday's 102-96 upset of the Kings behind forward Lamar Odom (30 points, 19 rebounds, 11 assists). Heat coach Stan Van Gundy called Odom's triple double "one of the best games played in this league for the entire year."
The least of the East's elite eight may be decided on April 9 and 10 when Miami and Cleveland have a home-and-home—games that appeared devoid of all meaning in December, after the Heat lost its first seven games and the Cavaliers got off to a 6-19 start. Cleveland went 11 months between road wins before a Dec. 19 victory at Philadelphia. As they stood outside the locker room that night celebrating the end of the 34-game drought, coach Paul Silas said to owner Gordon Gund, "I told the players, 'Now let's start thinking about making the playoffs!' " They both laughed, but seven wins in their last nine games has made that a serious prospect.
The bubble race in the West is no joke for the Nuggets (33-31), whose once firm hold on the final spot is slipping. Through Sunday, Denver had dropped eight of its last nine, including a 97-66 home loss to the Pistons last Saturday in which the Nuggets became the first team to fail to produce a double-digit scorer since the NBA introduced the shot clock in 1954-55. Adding to the humiliation was the failure of the arena's scoreboards during the first half, forcing the public address announcer to call out the ever-building deficit. Despite playing six of its next seven games on the road, Denver should recover and hold off the Andrei Kirilenko-led Jazz (31-32) and the Trail Blazers (30-33), who have gone 6-7 since acquiring Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff from the Hawks for Rasheed Wallace.
The only involved party who recognizes the futility of these races—and the opening-round loss sure to follow—is Celtics G.M. Danny Ainge, who admits that he would rather be in the lottery. "I'm not going to lie about it," Ainge told The Boston Herald last week. "For the long-term part of this, it is obviously better for us to get a higher draft pick." Take heart, Danny: Your team's difficult schedule includes games at Dallas, San Antonio, New Jersey and New Orleans. With no luck at all, Boston should miss the playoffs for the first time in three years.