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15. Brooklyn Nets (18)
Will playoff opponents employ switching schemes that negate D’Angelo Russell’s skills as a pick-and-roll scorer? Can a Nets offense that likes its mid-rangers a little too much and ranked 22nd in field-goal percentage at the rim generate enough high-value looks to do any damage against postseason defenses?
The answer for now is: Who cares?
Brooklyn is back in the dance, having built a roster with real long-term promise despite not controlling its own first-rounders since 2013.
The Nets closed out their unexpectedly terrific 2018-19 season with three straight wins to reach 42 in all, 14 more than they managed last year.
14. Indiana Pacers (13)
Indiana went 10-14 with the No. 17 net rating after the All-Star break, relying heavily on a stout defense to reach the playoffs as the fifth seed in the East.
That defense, anchored by Myles Turner, should hold up in postseason play. But unless the Pacers make the absolute most of their limited chances from deep (they ranked 29th in three-point attempt rate), points will be tough to come by.
Indy’s first-round matchup with the unsteady Celtics will be a popular upset pick, but the talent disparity between these two teams is immense. It’ll take a fantastic collective effort from a gritty Pacers squad to advance.
13. Orlando Magic (14)
The Magic punched their ticket to the playoffs with Sunday’s 116-108 victory in Boston, completing a second-half push that makes their season-long mediocrity somewhat deceiving.
Since Jan. 31, Orlando is first in defensive efficiency and fourth in net rating. Basically, once opponents stopped hitting every three they took, the Magic’s defensive profile improved and the wins piled up. They may not have the offensive punch to make a first-round upset likely, but the Magic’s firmly established defensive identity gives them something to build on going forward.
12. Los Angeles Clippers (8)
The Clippers had the No. 17 defense after the All-Star break, the lowest of any West playoff team and just narrowly ahead of the Pacers in that timeframe. Pitted against a Warriors team that just set the all-time record for scoring efficiency in a season, L.A.’s regular-season strategy to simply outscore their opponent doesn’t seem ideal.
The Clips traded their best player at the deadline and still won 48 games in a transitional season. They’re going to get smoked in the first round, but 2018-19 will still count as an unequivocal success.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (12)
OKC climbed out of a 14-point fourth-quarter hole to beat the Rockets on Paul George‘s game-winning three Tuesday. That 112-111 victory, combined with Wednesday’s defeat of the resting Bucks, secured the No. 6 spot in the West and a date with Portland in the first round.
The Thunder, suspect on offense all season and under .500 since the All-Star break, looked extremely shaky after a hot start. But at least they finished on a high note, winning five straight to close with a 49-33 record.
If OKC can summon its former defensive prowess and get hot shooting from George, there’s a realistic path open to the conference finals. Unfortunately, we’ve seen neither of those things for a couple of months.