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Breaking down the race for the East’s final playoff spots
On Friday, the Wizards begin their eight-game, 13-day run aimed at the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. At 24-40, they sit 5.5 games back of the Magic (30-35) for the eight seed and six games back of the Nets for the seven seed, though they won’t have to make up that entire deficit to qualify for a playoff spot.
In late June, the NBA announced plans and protocols for the league’s return to play that we see playing out in Orlando right now. That announcement, among all the tweaks and wrinkles to normal NBA procedures, included an updated method for playoff qualification, specifically related to each conference’s eighth and final seed.
According to a league announcement: “If the team with the eighth-best combined record in its conference is more than four games ahead of the team with the ninth-best combined record in the same conference, then the team with the eighth-best record would earn the eighth playoff seed.”
“If the team with the eighth-best combined record in its conference (Team A) is four games or fewer ahead of the team with the ninth-best combined record in the same conference (Team B), then Teams A and B would compete in a play-in tournament to determine the eighth playoff seed. To earn the eighth playoff seed, Team A would need to defeat Team B once and Team B would need to defeat Team A two games in a row.”
What that means is that the Wizards don’t need to make up their full deficits to the Magic and Nets during the eight-game seeding period. Instead, they just need to get within four games of whichever team is in the eight spot. Washington only needs to close a 1.5-game game gap to get within those four games and then win the double-elimination series to qualify for the playoffs.
Here, we’ll break down the bubble outlook for both Brooklyn and Orlando, as well as keys for the Wizards closing the gap as they head into the seeding games.
Out of all 22 teams participating in the restart in Orlando, no team has undergone more change to their regular season rotation than the Nets. Kyrie Irving, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in early March, was never expected to be with the team during the restart process. Later than month, after the season was suspended, the team announced that four players tested positive for COVID-19. Kevin Durant, who had already missed the entire season with an Achilles injury suffered in last season’s playoffs, announced that he was one of the four.
Four of Brooklyn’s most impactful rotation players – Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler – opted out of participating in the Orlando restart. Michael Beasley, one of the four replacement players signed to fill out the Nets roster, tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival and will not be a part of the restart.
To fill those four roster spots, the Nets signed Jamal Crawford, Donta Hall, Lance Thomas and Justin Anderson. Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year and one the premiere shot creators of the last decade, has yet to play a game this season and last appeared with the Suns in 2019. Hall appeared in four games with the Pistons this season and 38 games with Detroit’s G League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive. With the Drive, Hall averaged 15.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Thomas, an eight-year NBA vet, has yet to play this season and last appeared with the Knicks in 2019. Anderson, who spent 2019-20 training camp with the Wizards, averaged 20.6 points per game and was named All-NBA G League Third Team with the Long Island Nets and appeared in three games with Brooklyn on a 10-day contract.
Heading into the suspension of the season, the Nets had won three consecutive games and four of their last five, including wins over the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs. Though with all the roster turnover the Nets have experienced in recent months, it’s difficult glean too much from their regular season results or performances.
Brooklyn’s reputation for balance and a deep rotation will be put to the test when play resumes. Despite the key opt outs, the Nets still have at their disposal a trio of impact players. Caris LeVert, who averaged 27.4 points per game in the team’s final five games before the hiatus, will likely take on more usage and scoring responsibility. Jarrett Allen, who leads the team with 1.3 blocks per game and leads the active roster with 9.5 rebounds per game, will man the paint. Joe Harris leads the active roster with 30.9 minutes per game and will need to provide the same long-range scoring threat he has all season to open up a depleted Brooklyn offense. Harris is averaging 41.2% from 3-point range on nearly six attempts per game.
During the seeding period, the Nets will take on the Magic (twice), Wizards, Bucks, Celtics, Kings, Clippers and Blazers. Their meetings with the Magic and Wizards could decide whether or not they’ll fall into a play-in series with either team. Outside of those three games, Brooklyn has a tough road laced with matchups against title contenders and desperate teams on the outside looking in.
Entering the seeding games, one storyline stands above the rest for the Orlando Magic: the return of Jonathan Isaac. While veterans Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross rank 1-2-3 in scoring and will carry most of the weight over the next couple weeks, Isaac is the most promising member of Orlando’s young core and the most intriguing variable in their rotation.
In a January 1 game against the Wizards at Capital One Arena, Isaac was stretchered off the court after suffering a knee injury that, at the time, many thought would end his season. However, when the season was suspended and the start of the playoffs bumped from April to August, Isaac’s return was back on the table. At 22 years old, Isaac stands 6’11”, touts an overwhelming wingspan and is recognized widely as one of the bright young stars of the league, specifically on the defensive end of the court. Isaac is re-joining a Magic team that ranked ninth in the league in defensive rating prior to the season’s suspension.
In his return to competitive play in Orlando’s final exhibition game on Monday, Isaac played just seven minutes. In that time, he scored 13 points on 5-6 (.833) from the field and 2-2 (1.000) from three, grabbed seven rebounds and registered a plus-18 rating.
Don’t expect the young big man to receive too heavy a workload during the seeding games. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said the following: “Jonathan has been working extremely hard with our performance staff for a long time, and he has been in overdrive since we got back into our practice facility in mid-May…But it’s been a very long time since he’s played. As always, we will take a very cautious approach, and his playing time will be placed under a very limited minute restriction as he gets reacclimated to the NBA game.”
During the seeding period, the Magic will face the Nets (twice), Kings, Pacers, Raptors, Sixers, Celtics and Pelicans. The two matchups with Brooklyn will be of the utmost importance as the battle for the final Eastern Conference seeds play out, as will their four-game run against East teams that have already clinched a playoff spot.
Vucevic’s 19.5 points per game lead seven Magic players averaging at least 10.0 points per game. Vucevic does most of his damage from the paint with an array of post moves and a consistent finish at the rim, but can also step out and knock down a jumper (49.2% on catch-and-shoot attempts from outside 10 feet this season). At 18.8 points per game, Fournier serves as the team’s primary perimeter threat, shooting 40.6% from beyond the arc on 6.7 attempts per game. As they have all season, Orlando will depend on its defense. Whether or not it is able to get consistent play on the opposite end of the court could determine how long they’ll be on the Disney campus.
KEYS FOR THE WIZARDS
With ground to make up and only eight games to play, time is not on the Wizards’ side. A fast start to the seeding period, including an opening game win over Phoenix, who ranks just above Washington in the overall league standings, will be vital. If the Wizards can capture the game one win, they’ll meet the Nets in game number two with more on the line than they’ve played for all season. The night after facing Brooklyn, they’ll take on Indiana in their only back-to-back of the seeding period. Washington’s first three games represent three of their most friendly matchups on the schedule. Two or three early wins and the Wizards will have fast-tracked their path to a play-in.
If the Wizards are unable to tally a couple early wins – and perhaps even if they can – they’ll need help from Orlando and Brooklyn. The two games between the Magic and Nets (July 31 and August 11) will play a sizeable role in how much work Washington must do to close the gap.
Packed into the middle of Washington’s seeding schedule is a difficult trio of matchups against the Sixers, Pelicans and Thunder. The Sixers are one of the most talented teams in the league, looking to turn around a disappointing regular season. The Pelicans, like the Wizards, will be fighting relentlessly to earn a play-in berth and the opportunity to expose a young roster to early playoff experience. The Thunder, one of the surprise teams of the season, boast a three-headed point guard attack that has carried them all year. The Wizards will need to steal one or two of these games in which they’re likely to be underdogs.
Lastly, the Wizards close their schedule with a difficult stretch against East’s current top two seeds: the Bucks and Celtics. However, facing two elite teams that late in the seeding schedule and that close the first round of the playoffs means rest could be on the table for both Milwaukee and Boston. If the Bucks or Celtics solidify their playoff positioning early, look for stars or banged up players to sit. If Washington takes on either of them at less-than-full strength, they may have a chance to steal an extra win or two before the seeding period ends.
Since the league announced that the Wizards would be one of 22 teams participating in the restart, Tommy Sheppard and Scott Brooks have stressed that Washington’s primary goal is to win games and make the playoffs. With in-market individual workouts, travel, quarantine, training camp and a trio of scrimmages all in the books, their opportunity to chase that goal looms on the horizon. A young, eager roster is on the brink of an invaluable experience and the organization, somewhere down the line, will look back on the Orlando restart as a key point in the group’s development. Until then, their eyes are on the eight seed.