Most NBA teams will have hit the 60-game mark by the end of this week, leaving only 22 games as the final stretch to determine their playoff fate. Teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, and the Indiana Pacers have major questions to answer.
The East has a lot more than the West, where the same powerhouses have taken control of the top four spots. Yet a lot of these teams will go through the boiling cauldron that is the end of the regular season, jostling for position and determined to get the right seed to put them in a decent spot come playoff time.
So where do these six teams stand in the panic meter?
5th in the NBA Eastern Conference (36-23 overall, 27-2 home, 9-21 away)
Panic score: 8/10
The Sixers have been an easy team to figure out thus far — God-like at home and lottery-bound on the road.
Philadelphia has by far the worst road record of any team in playoff contention. For the sake of comparison, their 9-21 road mark is equal to that of the 17-win New York Knicks. Yeah, let that soak in.
Delving into details, the Sixers have made the necessary moves to bolster their bench with the acquisitions of Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks, who they received in a trade with the Golden State Warriors. Yet that does little to address the absence of Ben Simmons, Al Horford’s new role as a bench cog, and the series of chemistry issues this team has faced this season.
The 76ers are virtually jostling for the fourth spot and a first-round home court advantage and nothing more, which bodes horribly for them considering their struggles on the road. Even if they manage to get the fourth spot in the East and draw a matchup against the Miami Heat, a potential second-round matchup against the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, or the Milwaukee Bucks could be their doom, considering their strong home and away records.
4th in the NBA Eastern Conference (36-22 overall, 23-4 home, 13-18 away)
Panic score: 5/10
The Heat also face some of the same issues as the Sixers, just not as heavily pronounced. Yet Miami has lost seven of their last nine games.
Initially a Cinderella story to start the season, the Heat have managed to bomb what could have been an easy February schedule in a ridiculous way. Since Feb. 5, when the Heat embarked in a six-game West Coast road trip, Miami has taken losses to the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, and the Atlanta Hawks — a would-be five-game losing streak stopped only by a measly win over the league-worst Golden State Warriors.
The Heat haven’t been able to count with the presence of Jimmy Butler, who’s dealt with a few nicks this month, but even in games when he’s on the court, he hasn’t given them the punch a scorer of his caliber should be giving his team in these dire stretches.
If Butler can channel his inner scoring demon like he did in the final stretch as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017-18 and in Philly last season, the Heat could right this ship in time to hold onto that fourth seed.
8th in the NBA Western Conference (28-30 overall, 16-13 home, 12-17 away)
Panic score: 4/10
The Grizzlies have lost six of their last 10 games, and if it weren’t for the massive gap between them and the other playoff-aspiring teams, they would have surely descended outside of the playoff bubble.
Things don’t necessarily get easy for this Cinderella team, considering they recently lost their second-leading scorer Jaren Jackson for two weeks and the same can be said about his rookie backup Brandon Clarke. Those injuries have thrust Gorgui Dieng into a prominent position with no viable power forwards left in the roster.
Most importantly, Jackson’s synergy with rookie standout and leading scorer Ja Morant will no longer be a factor for the next few weeks. Dillon Brooks’ struggles shooting the ball are coming at a horrific time and their need for shooting has greatly increased with Jackson out of the lineup.
While things could get hairy for Memphis, they have lost three games to top-four teams in the West (Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets).
The Grizzlies have a 2.5-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers, who they beat at home before the All-Star break in their first encounter of the season. They have two more games against them on the road, which could likely determine their playoff fate.
Here is the pickle — the Grizz have lost their first two games against the New Orleans Pelicans and will have to play them in back-to-back games in late March. They are three games back of Memphis, but if they manage to get some steam in the next few weeks, the Grizzlies could be looking at a situation that is too close for comfort.
Did someone call Sebastian Janikowski? because here’s the kicker — the Grizzlies will play a very important home game against a red-hot Sacramento Kings team on Friday. They have won three straight and seven of their last 10 games. They’re 1-1 against them and only 3.5 games ahead in the playoff race — beating them on Friday would not only put an end to their four-game losing skid, but also greatly reduce the chance that the Kings could take their spot come April.
7th in the NBA Eastern Conference (26-31 overall, 16-13 home, 10-18 away)
Panic score: 0/10
The Nets had managed to sneak into the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that is top-six heavy, currently boasting two playoff teams with a sub-.500 record.
Having ruled out Kyrie Irving for the remainder of the season, Brooklyn is simply not holdiing up as well as they did before with Spencer Dinwiddie at the controls. While they’ve gotten their share of luminous performances from Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen in recent games, the consistency is simply not there to help them win games consistently.
The Nets could easily slide out of the seventh spot with the Orlando Magic only a half-game behind them, yet other teams outside the bubble have proved too awful to actually merit any palpable consideration to strip them from a playoff spot.
Even if they did, the Nets are using this as a potential gap season, hoping Irving and Kevin Durant will be ready to make waves once they team up in 2020-21. This is a no-pressure situation that will be only rewarded with the sales of first-round playoff tickets.
6th in the NBA Western Conference (36-22 overall, 20-9 home, 16-13 away)
Panic score: 3/10
The Jazz are one of the few playoff teams actually struggling in the West, the only other being the aforementioned Grizzlies — both in the midst of four-game losing skids.
What’s most important is that Utah has already taking some steps to address their problems. Following a lineup change snafu, the Jazz have plucked the struggling Joe Ingles out of the lineup in favor of the versatile Royce O’Neale.
The Jazz slipped to sixth place after a fourth straight loss on Wednesday, but they have a favorable three games coming up (vs. Washington Wizards, @ Cleveland Cavaliers, @ New York Knicks) that could help their regain their footing.
They’ve already won the season series against the seventh seed Dallas Mavericks after beating them their first two encounters, which should aid them in case they need a tiebreaker.
6th in the NBA Eastern Conference (34-24 overall, 20-10 home, 14-14 away)
Panic score: 5/10
The Pacers have struggled to get a firm grasp of their season and threaten the top-four of the Eastern Conference, as they looked to do in the first half of the season.
Victor Oladipo’s inclusion has given them a few things to think about, considering he’s yet to be at full strength. The season-ending injury to Jeremy Lamb adds another layer of complications for a team that has gone 3-7 in their last 10 games.
Indiana won’t slide as far back to where they will fear missing the playoffs, and even if they muster the fifth or fourth spot in the East, that makes matter inconsequential.
Their main concern should be getting Oladipo, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis ready enough to take on the playoffs, as they will be acting as the underdog in nearly any playoff scenario, considering the top three spots are vastly out of reach.