Unlike in the wild, wild West, the East play-in picture was pretty much clear in the past few weeks. It was just a matter of where the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, and Chicago Bulls would end up in the standings. Now that the matchups are set, here are the two teams most likely to make it out of the play-in and into the playoffs.
Miami Heat, 7th seed
There’s a lot to not like about the Heat.
First of all, they have an imbalanced roster that’s severely top-heavy. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro can be counted on. However, the rest of the team is a mixed bag. Some days Max Strus or Victor Oladipo will help you win games. On other days, they’re just doing cardio out there.
Then there’s the fact that this team has a clear offensive problem. Defensively, they’re still okay, ranking 8th in the league in terms of defensive rating. Offensively, they’re 25th in the league in terms of offensive rating and 21st in true shooting percentage. The Heat just can’t put the ball in the hoop to keep in step with the top teams in the league.
There’s also the dip in the play of Adebayo to be worried about. In January and December, Adebayo looked like one of the best bigs in the East. He was regularly putting up 20 points, sometimes even leading his team in scoring. He gobbled up boards, dished out dimes, and was a beast defensively. In March, he lost some steam. His numbers dropped to 18-7-3 per game and he hasn’t looked much like his early-season self. That’s a big problem for the Heat as they head into some all-important games.
While this team has a lot of things to figure out, it’s hard to bet against Butler come playoff time.
Butler looks like a happy-go-lucky guy, goofing around in the regular season. But as soon as he steps into the postseason, he locks in and becomes one of the most stubborn players in the league who refuses to lose.
Last season, Butler averaged 21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in the regular season. Those numbers jumped up to 27.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in the playoffs. He was far and away the best player in each of the series he played in last season. Against the Hawks in the first round last year, Butler averaged 30-7-5 in four games.
The Hawks have made some improvements to their team from last season. But those improvements can’t match the jump Butler’s game takes when the season is on the line.
Toronto Raptors, 8th seed
The Raptors’ net rating for the season is a plus-1.5, good for 12th in the league. They’re borderline top-10 in terms of offensive and defensive rating. That might not be mind-blowing but taking a look at all the teams above them for that stat, there’s only one other play-in team, the New Orleans Pelicans. The rest are playoff teams. The Raptors have a better net rating than all the other East play-in teams, as well as a couple of playoff teams.
This just means that Toronto could possibly be a raptor in sheep’s clothing.
For most of the season, they looked like a lottery team posing as a play-in team. But there was one stretch where they looked like an actual playoff team. In February, the Raptors went 8-3. That allowed them to climb all the way from 12th to 9th in the East and held steady until the end.
It’s no coincidence that February was also one of Pascal Siakam’s best stretches this season. He led the team in scoring putting up 26.3 points per game at a highly efficient 49.8 percent clip. He also assumed some playmaking duties with Fred VanVleet sitting out some games, dishing out five assists per game.
When Jakob Poeltl came on board after the trade deadline and the two played together, Siakam was unburdened of manning the middle. He was freed up to do all the little things that helped his team win, like passing, rebounding, and defending. In March, Siakam averaged eight rebounds, 5.7 assists, and nearly a steal a game. Poeltl’s numbers were steady at 14-10 with one block.
Siakam filling in the holes and Poeltl’s steady play is Toronto’s clear advantage over the Bulls and Hawks. Poeltl can give Nikola Vucevic problems in the paint while Siakam can alternate defending Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan, depending on who’s hot. The Hawks, on the other hand, don’t have anyone that can match up with Siakam and Poeltl for long stretches of the game. These two are the difference-makers in their two do-or-die games in the play-in.