Inside the NBA | The pathetic chase for quasi−mediocrity
Three teams battle for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot
Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 07:03
With approximately 10 games left in the NBA's regular season, the playoff picture has begun to form, and while Memphis appears to have the Western Conference's eighth seed under wraps, the Eastern Conference's final playoff berth still remains up for grabs. The Indiana Pacers (33−42), Charlotte Bobcats (31−42) and Milwaukee Bucks (29−44) are all vying for the last spot.
The three teams, with a combined record of 93−128, form a mildly pathetic triumvirate and with the pressure mounting, the Pacers (6−4 over their past 10 games), Bobcats (5−5) and Bucks (4−6) have all done little to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Indiana has held the eighth spot for much of the regular season. After firing Jim O'Brien, who led the team to a 17−27 record, the Pacers have played relatively better under new coach Frank Vogel. They have notched a 15−15 record, which in the Eastern Conference is nothing to sneeze at. The Pacers have also recently benefited from the resurgence of former North Carolina star Tyler Hansbrough, who, upon seeing the calendar turn to March, decided to regain the form that made him a two−time First−Team All−American in college. Hansbrough has averaged 17.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this month after being inserted into the starting lineup.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, Hansbrough's positive performances have been countered by the struggles of leading scorer Danny Granger. Granger, who played for the World−Champion U.S. team during the summer, has seen a decline in his production this season. He has played particularly poorly of late, scoring just 18.9 points per game during March while shooting a paltry 38 percent. The scoring average is below the 20.5 Granger has averaged for the season, but both are well below the 24.1 points per game he scored a season ago.
The Pacers have also struggled since the departure of forward Mike Dunleavy, losing 12 of 19 games since the former Duke star went down with a thumb injury. With his return expected this week, the Pacers will bolster the key advantage they have over the two other "contenders": the ability to score.
Both the Bucks and the Bobcats suffer mightily from anemic offenses. Charlotte and Milwaukee have the 29th− and 30th−ranked offenses in the league, respectively, and are prone to go long stretches without putting anything on the scoreboard. The Bucks also rank last in the league in shooting percentage (.427) and their struggles have largely been a result of the man who catapulted their late−season charge a season ago: guard John Salmons.
Salmons came over in a mid−season trade from the Bulls in the 2009−10 season, averaged nearly 20 points a game and led the Bucks to a 22−8 regular−season finish, yet has scored just 12.2 points per game this season on 40 percent shooting. Joining Salmons on the struggle bus is point guard Brandon Jennings. While avoiding an all−out sophomore slump, with only a 39 percent field−goal percentage (and just 32 percent from 3−point range) he has certainly not progressed as much as Milwaukee fans would like. And with offensively inept players like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Larry Sanders and Keyon Dooling getting considerable minutes, it's no wonder the Bucks average just 91.5 points per game.
The Bobcats haven't fared much better, averaging just 93.0 points per game. Charlotte has been particularly bad without forward Gerald Wallace, their leading rebounder and second leading scorer, compiling a 6−10 record since the star was dealt to Portland.
Like the Pacers, the Bobcats underwent a coaching change this season, with veteran coach Paul Silas replacing Larry Brown. And while Charlotte shares Milwaukee's offensive woes, the Bucks at least have their defense (third−ranked 92.6 points against per game) to be proud of, something the Bobcats cannot say. Charlotte allows 96.9 points per game, which gives them a minus−3.9 point differential, by far the worst among any team still in playoff contention.
So where do all these negative attributes leave the three teams as they hope to sneak into the playoffs? Indiana certainly has the easiest path with five of its remaining seven games at home, including four home games against teams with sub−.500 records. Plus, the Pacers have already played two more games than the other two teams, and when all three teams lose more often than they win, that counts for more than one would think. If Hansbrough continues his improved play and if Granger can regain some of his early and past−season form, this is the Pacers' race to lose.
Charlotte also has a favorable schedule, with five of nine remaining games at home, but the Bobcats definitely took a step backwards after the Wallace trade. As for Milwaukee, history is not on its side: The last time the league's worst offense made the playoffs was in 1995, and it doesn't appear that stat will change this season. Seven of the Bucks' final nine games are on the road, and for a team with a 10−25 record away from home, that just about seals the ill fate.
Of course, whoever comes out the victor will likely face the surging Chicago Bulls in the first round, and none of the three look poised to become just the fourth No. 8 seed to upset the top seed in the first round. Regardless, the three teams are holding out hope that they will earn the right to at least challenge that top seed.