By Reid McEowen
As we continue to close in on the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the new playoff format has many teams fighting to skip the potential chaos of the play-in tournament. This article will discuss the tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference and highlight three teams struggling to avoid the play-in games.
The Miami Heat
Although they were last year’s Eastern Conference Champions, COVID has put this team in a difficult position and for a large portion of the year, they were actually struggling to find a playoff spot. However, they are now sitting in the seventh seed in the Eastern conference one game behind the sixth-seeded Boston Celtics. With under 15 games left in the regular season, the Heat are going to struggle to fight their way out of the play-in tournament. This race will likely go down to the wire as the Heat and the Celtics have to play each other twice more before the end of the regular season. These two matches could have huge implications on the Heat’s season and determine whether they escape the play-in tournament or if they have to embrace potential chaos in what is sure to be an intense play-in tournament.
The Charlotte Hornets
The new and improved hornets were flying high during the early half of the 2021 regular season. However, after losing then Rookie-of-the-Year favorite LaMelo Ball, the wings started to fall off as the Hornets now find themselves in the eighth seed with under 15 games left in the regular season. One thing that is encouraging to the Hornets is they have the sixth easiest remaining schedule in the entire NBA, but two of those games will be against the Boston Celtics who are 2.5 games ahead of the Hornets. The play-in tournament will likely benefit the hottest teams with the most moment, so if the Hornets are able to get their season back on track, look for them to cause havoc in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. On the other hand, if they continue to limp into the play-in tournament, expect the Hornets to struggle to make it out of the chaotic play-in tournament.
The Toronto Raptors
The team up north has probably been more impacted by COVID than any other team in the entire association. They have been unable to play at their home stadium and have relocated to Florida for the 2021 season. This has not been easy on the team, and with the loss of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, the season has been less than stellar. Currently, the Raptors are sitting just out of the play-in tournament and are in desperate need of a turn around to keep their seven-year playoff streak alive. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and the new addition to the Raptors, Gary Trent Jr, are going to do everything in their power to ensure the Raptors are able to sneak into the play-in tournament. If Toronto is able to sneak into the play-in tournament, I could see them win a spot into the eighth seed. While it’s a stretch and a lot needs to happen, they could really give the first seed in the Eastern Conference a run for their money if they are able to win the play-in tournament.
Edited by Emma Moloney