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The Three-Team Race For Eighth

With approximately two weeks remaining in the NBA regular season, the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is a three-team race. The New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers all have a chance to qualify for the right to face either the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs.

Let’s take a look at how the race has intensified over the last several weeks. 

New York Knicks

The Knicks' troubles are mostly on the defensive end where they rank 25th in defensive efficiency, but they haven’t improved much defensively as of late. Rather, their improvement at the other end of the floor is the reason for their 11-3 record over their last 14 games.

Stat

Offensive Eff

Defensive EFF

Net EFf

Full Season

105.2

106.7

-1.5

Last 14

112.8

106.2

+6.6 

One might think the improved offense is a result of some new strategy but it seems that the Knicks are simply making more of the shots that they have been taking all season. They have traded some of their 2-point attempts for more 3’s but not by a significant amount. And they aren’t assisting much more or turning it over much less than their season average either. The two main reasons for the offensive uptick have been increased playing time for Amar’e Stoudemire and more accurate shooting from J.R. Smith.

Mike Woodson has bolstered the offense simply by giving Stoduemire more minutes. Stoudemire's field goal percentage has hovered right around 55% all season and he’s able to get to the free throw line better than anyone on the roster other than Carmelo Anthony. More time for an efficient scorer like Stoudemire has unsurprisingly led to improved offense.

Over the last 14 games, J.R. Smith’s field goal percentage has been about 6 percentage points better than his season average but it’s not because he’s taking better shots. In fact, he’s taking and making more unassisted 3-pointers, which are shots that don’t tend to be the most successful. His 3-pointer on the first possession of Wednesday night’s game against the Nets exemplifies the kind of shot that Smith has been making more of recently.

http://on.nba.com/1q7zil8

Stoudemire’s increased playing time and Smith’s improved shooting accuracy have enabled the Knicks to vault themselves into serious contention for the 8th seed in the Eastern conference. 

Atlanta Hawks

Many thought the Hawks would fall apart when they lost Al Horford to a torn pectoral muscle for the season in late December. Initially, it seemed as if they would be able to hang on to a playoff position, as they garnered a 9-8 record in their first 17 games without Horford. Since the start of February, however, they have fallen apart because of injuries to first time all-star Paul Millsap and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. 

When Millsap sat out for five games at the end of February and beginning of March, the Hawks’ defense collapsed. They allowed over 100 points to the Bulls and Celtics (two of the bottom three eams in the league in terms of offensive efficiency) and 129 points to the Suns. Losing Millsap forced Hawks Mike Budenholzer to play Mike Scott and DeMarre Carroll at the power forward position where both are unequipped to deal with opposing big men. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah had their way with the thin Hawks frontline and the Celtics badly took advantage of Atlanta on the offensive glass.

Korver’s injury demonstrated his value to the team’s offense, as the Hawks were largely incapable of scoring during his absence. The Hawks failed to break 90 in three of the six games that Korver missed, two of which were against average defenses in the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Those poor showings reflect the Hawks reliance on Korver’s perimeter excellence (and simply the threat of him being there) to fuel their offense, especially without Horford.

Since Horford Injury

 

Minutes

Offensive Rating

Korver ON

1281

103.5

Korver OFF

841

99.0

http://on.nba.com/1lG3u7C

Check out this play where the threat of Korver coming off a curl screen creates an opening for Millsap to get a look at the rim. Plays like this one demonstrate how Korver’s value on offense comes from his shooting and his ability to create openings for others. His shooting prowess enables him to attract the attention of the defense just by being on the floor and the result is easier shot attempts for his teammates.

The Hawks record hasn’t been good without Horford, but that is largely due to the fact that they are 1-11 when either Millsap or Korver has had to sit out. With Millsap and Korver playing (since Horford went down) the Hawks’ record is a respectable 15-18. Atlanta can ill afford to lose Millsap or Korver again during their final 8 games if they want to make the playoffs over the Knicks and the resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers' newly assembled roster was finally starting to mesh when they were victorious in consecutive games on the road against the Suns and the Warriors. Unfortunately, Kyrie Irving went down with a biceps injury in the following game and the Cavs lost their next four. However, that losing streak included competitive games against the Heat, Thunder, and Rockets. Further positive signs emerged when the Cavs defeated the Knicks, Raptors, and Pacers in the same week without Irving. 

It is tempting to point to Irving’s absence as the explanation for the aforementioned victories but in reality, those wins represented an extension of the positive signs that were on display in the wins against Phoenix and Golden State.  In the 9 games without Irving, the Cavs offensive efficiency didn’t improve much but it didn’t decline either, which is surprising given that they were missing their leading scorer. The offense was able to maintain its level of production because everybody became more willing to share the ball. The Cavs averaged 21.1 assists per game in the first 11 games with Hawes and 23.6 assists per game in the following nine games in which Irving sat out. Two players in particular increased their number of assists in the aforementioned nine games.

2/21 – 3/14 (With Kyrie & Hawes)

Player

Assists/48

USG

AST/USG

Dion Waiters

4.1

31.2%

13.14

Luol Deng

2.9

20.2%

14.36

3/16 – 3/30 (With Hawes & No Kyrie)

Player

Assists/48

USG

AST/USG

Dion Waiters

6.2

27.9%

22.22

Luol Deng

5.0

20.8%

24.04 

Both Dion Waiters and Luol Deng averaged more assists per 48 minutes after Irving’s injury. And that’s not only because they had the ball more. Waiters, in particular, increased his assists despite seeing his usage rate decline. He has showed an increased willingness to create plays for his teammates rather than for himself. 

http://on.nba.com/1lG7oNO

This sequence against the Toronto Raptors illustrates how the Cavs have operated more smoothly on offense as of late than they were early in the season their offense consisted mainly of stagnant isolations. In the clip, Waiters catches the ball on the wing after a pin-down screen from Hawes and then quickly moves into an elbow pick-and-roll with Varejao, which results in an easy layup.

The Cavs offense was getting better before Irving’s injury not because of it. If Coach Mike Brown can find a way to combine Waiters’ and Deng’s increased assist levels with Irving’s unique offensive skill set, the offense should improve dramatically. Perhaps even enough to vault the Cavs into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

That’s how the bottom of the Eastern Conference got to where it is now. With two weeks to go, it’ll be interesting to see which team is able grab the eighth seed and whether that team can pose any kind of a threat to the Pacers or Heat in the first round of the playoffs. 

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