Believe it or not, we’re just 2 months away from the NBA Playoffs. With so much of the discussion centered around the Warriors, the #1 pick, and impending free agency, I’d like to remind everyone that there are teams besides Golden State and the East’s “Big 4” that still desperately want to make the playoffs. The next 25 games are absolutely crucial for them.
The time to play your best ball is now. There’s nothing better than being ahead on a hot team and playing them every night until the market adjusts. Here are three teams that I think are about to get really hot:
I might be a little late to this party, but it is so quiet around the Southeast division that I don’t think most have quite caught on to the Magic yet. Orlando low-key has the best net rating in the league over their last 10 games, outscoring opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions over that time frame. The Magic went 7-3 in those 10 games, and won 5 straight heading into All-Star Weekend. They racked up wins over Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Indiana, three teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and their only losses came to OKC (twice) and Houston.
There is no doubt that Orlando is playing their best basketball of the season; despite not making any major moves at the deadline, their rotation has tightened and is really starting to come together. In Terrence Ross, Nikola Vučević, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier, they honestly just have four damn good NBA players. In an Eastern Conference playoff race starved for talent outside of the Big 4, that means a lot.
Aside from the on-the-court reasons, there’s a lot to love about Orlando’s situation right now from a bandwagon perspective. They have the 3rd-easiest schedule remaining league-wide, and are only a half-game out of the 8-seed in the East.
The Magic need to make the playoffs like they need blood. They’ve been withering away in the lottery ever since Dwight left and are arguably the most irrelevant franchise in the league.
The mediocrity of the Jazz so far this season has been tough to explain. Preseason, I expected the Jazz to be unquestionably one of the five best teams in the league this year. But they just haven’t been to put it all together in the same way that they did last year around this time… which reminds me, this is exactly the time when the Jazz became the Jazz last season…
Donovan Mitchell is finally back to being Spida, averaging 26, 5, and 5 over his last 20 games on 43/37/80 shooting splits. He’s a dog. As the last year and half has proven, the Jazz go as Mitchell goes. With him getting back into form (and arguably playing the best basketball of his young career), I expect the whole team to follow suit.
They’re also a strong candidate to get hot because they have the 2nd-easiest schedule remaining in the league. The playoff standings likewise show that they’ll have plenty to play for down the stretch. They’re just 2 games behind the 4th-seeded team in the conference and, after taking down OKC in the first round last season, should have the confidence in stow to go toe-to-toe with anyone outside of Golden State.
What I like most about this team though is just the quality of the group they have. Utah has a great Coach in Quin Snyder and have a no-nonsense group of veterans that prioritizes winning over everything. This Jazz team was supposed to be awesome, and while they haven’t been terrible, they’ve definitely fallen short of expectations. With that in mind, I expect an extraordinary level of focus within this group to reach the level of play that they were ascending towards at the end of last season. The Jazz know how good they can be, and I’m counting on a group of veterans to begin to access that level and start playing their best ball the rest of the year.
The Raptors have had a quietly weird season. Despite having the 2nd-best record in the East and being only a game back from Milwaukee, they still haven’t been able to get Kawhi Leonard in the flow of their offense. They also still have a giant Demar Derozan-sized elephant in their locker room, plus lingering questions about Kawhi’s free agency and the Ibaka-Siakam-Gasol playing time distribution question.
Regardless of these chemistry issues, it’s officially go time. This was always what the Kawhi trade was all about, and the fact that they’ve managed a 43-16 record with this stuff in the corner of the room is impressive in its own right. Toronto’s roster looks fucking scary with the additions of Jeremy Lin and Marc Gasol.
A playoff run is the perfect way to heal chemistry and playing time concerns. Toronto has the easiest-schedule in the league remaining and should continue to feast on bad teams down the stretch. They won six straight games headed into the deadline and the entire organization must realize that it’s now or never. If they fail this year again, Kawhi walks and they’re likely headed into a rebuild. This is their year to make the finals and they’ve got the roster to do it. I expect a balls-to-the-wall effort and focus level the rest of the year and for this team to ever-so-slightly overtake Milwaukee for the #1 seed in the East.