NBA playoff chase: Everything to know about 12 Eastern Conference contenders

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The NBA’s Eastern Conference is deeper than it has been in decades, setting up what should be a wild sprint to the playoffs over the final seven weeks of the 2021-22 NBA regular season.

With five teams within 2.5 games of first place in the conference, and just six games separating sixth through 11th place, teams will be swapping spots in the standings on a nightly basis. And, no matter how it shakes out, some good teams — including the preseason title favorites Brooklyn Nets, who currently find themselves in eighth place — will be playing in the play-in tournament.

On top of teams jockeying in the standings, the biggest trade of the season — the James HardenBen Simmons swap between the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers — continues to reverberate across the league, and will require both teams to adjust to the arrival of big-name stars over the next several weeks.

The upshot of all of that? It should be a heck of a lot of fun to see how the East playoff picture shakes out. Here’s a look coming out of the All-Star Break at the 12 teams with a shot to make the postseason, listed in order of each team’s conference standing.

When we last saw them … Miami was rolling going into the break. They won six of their past seven and had found a strong rhythm playing behind Jimmy Butler and a solid core of guys who play just like him.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +550
Caesars title odds: +1100
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 9%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: The Heat won 11 of 14 games during a stretch from Dec. 21 to Jan. 19, and they did it almost entirely without Bam Adebayo — who missed all but two games while recovering from thumb surgery. The fact Erik Spoelstra and his staff were able to navigate through the tough times and continue to rack up wins set them up to be atop the East heading into the break.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Nets at Heat, March 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV): This game could be a preview of what’s coming at some point in May. A healthy Nets squad with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Simmons comes to town for a showdown with Butler and Co.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: The key for this veteran bunch is being able to stay healthy. With Butler leading the way, and Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker in the fold, the Heat have a variety who play and think about the game with the same tenaciousness Butler does. One of the main questions for Miami as it heads into the postseason will be who will be able to create offensively besides Butler and Tyler Herro. Lowry has done some of that in the past, and they’ll need the 35-year-old (who turns 36 on March 25) to help.

— Nick Friedell

When we last saw them … The Bulls entered the break on a five-game winning streak on the shoulders of a hot-shooting DeMar DeRozan. Despite the team being depleted by injuries, DeRozan has kept Chicago afloat, becoming the first player in NBA history to score 35 points on 50% shooting in seven straight games.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +1500
Caesars title odds: +3000
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 0.5%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: DeRozan hits back-to-back game-winners on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. There were a few highlight reel moments to choose from during DeRozan’s heater of a first half, but becoming the first player in NBA history to hit buzzer-beaters on consecutive nights embodies the exceptional fit he has been in Chicago so far.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Bucks at Bulls, March 4 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): Several members of the Bulls organization were furious at the flagrant foul from Grayson Allen that resulted in Alex Caruso‘s fractured wrist the last time these two teams met. So this rematch should have a little extra edge.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: The Bulls did not make a move at the trade deadline because of their belief in the team when it’s at full strength. Whether the Bulls will be able to get there before the end of the season will be crucial. They lost both Lonzo Ball and Caruso to extended injuries during a one-week span, but both players along with second-year forward Patrick Williams, who hasn’t played since October, are eyeing returns in mid-March. How quickly they can get on the floor, get up to speed and revive a struggling defense could make the difference.

— Jamal Collier

When we last saw them … The 76ers had a wild final few days before the All-Star break. They introduced James Harden, lost big at home to the Celtics, then picked up a huge road win in Milwaukee to head into the break on a high note — led by the latest dominant performance from Joel Embiid in a season full of them.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +340
Caesars title odds: +650
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 7%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: It came about two hours before the Feb. 10 trade deadline, when the 76ers and Nets completed the Ben Simmons-James Harden swap. Suddenly, the 76ers went from being down an All-Star and wondering how they would replace him, to reuniting Harden with Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, forming arguably the league’s toughest 1-2 scoring punch with Embiid.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Nets at 76ers, March 10 (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT): What else could this be, when Simmons and the Nets come to Wells Fargo Center to face Embiid, Harden and the 76ers? There isn’t a more anticipated game the rest of this regular season across the NBA.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: How will Harden fit? With Simmons missing all season, the 76ers have overachieved thanks to what has been the best season of Embiid’s career. But now the Sixers have to acclimate themselves to one of the league’s biggest — and most ball-dominant — stars in 24 games between now and the start of the playoffs.

— Tim Bontemps

When we last saw them … The Cavs dropped their final two games entering the break, but it hardly slowed the momentum for the biggest surprise contender in the conference. It was the first time since the end of December the Cavs have lost multiple games in a row.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +2500
Caesars title odds: +5000
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 0.1%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: The immediate impact rookie Evan Mobley made upon arrival in Cleveland is the biggest reason the Cavs have transformed into a contender. The No. 3 overall draft pick has made himself the favorite for Rookie of the Year honors with 14.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, while helping anchor a Cavs defense that ranks fourth in the league.


Must-see game left on the schedule: 76ers at Cavs, April 3 (6 p.m. ET): Led by Mobley and center Jarrett Allen, the Cavs’ biggest strengths — their defense and front court — will be tested in each meeting with the Sixers and Embiid. Philadelphia will have Harden in the lineup by then, so this game could provide a solid measuring stick for the upstart team as Cleveland prepares for its return to playoff basketball.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: What kind of an impact will Caris LeVert have? Cleveland lost two of its top three guards — Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio — to season-ending injuries, so the team made a move before the deadline to pick up LeVert. He has played four games for his new team so far, but if he can help take some of the playmaking and scoring burden off of All-Star guard Darius Garland, Cleveland could have a chance to go from pleasant surprise to making noise in the postseason.

— Collier

When we last saw them … Giannis Antetokounmpo was going back and forth with Philly’s Embiid in the last game before the All-Star break. Each time the Bucks appeared ready to start rattling off wins in the first half — such as winning five of six games, including their West Coast swing earlier this month — they followed up with a setback, dropping three of four heading into the break.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +300
Caesars title odds: +600
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 13%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: The Bucks cruised to a comfortable victory over the Nets on opening night in Milwaukee, but it would be the only night their team was at full strength. Brook Lopez hasn’t played another game this season, and the Bucks would spend all of the first half shuffling players in and out. They needed 24 different starting lineups to get through 60 games.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Bucks at 76ers, March 29 (7 p.m. ET): Any chance to see Antetokounmpo and Embiid go head-to-head is worth watching, but this game could help decide the winner of this year’s MVP award. A few weeks before the playoffs begin, it could also be Milwaukee’s first chance to see Philadelphia with Harden in the lineup.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: Count the Bucks among the teams hoping to get healthy before the postseason begins. Milwaukee has reiterated it expects Lopez, who is recovering from back surgery, and guard Pat Connaughton, who fractured a finger the night of the trade deadline, to return before the end of the regular season. The Bucks had been carried by the strength of Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday for most of the first half.

— Collier

When we last saw them … Although Boston dropped its final game before the All-Star break, it’s been a banner few weeks for the franchise, which has won 11 of its last 13 games and outscored teams by more than 250 points during that span. Suddenly, the season has been infused with a massive burst of energy and excitement.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +1100
Caesars title odds: +2500
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 21%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: This could be the return of Marcus Smart on Jan. 23, which coincided with Boston’s recent hot streak, but we’ll instead say it was the acquisition of Derrick White just before the trade deadline. White is exactly the kind of player the Celtics needed, one capable of playing at both ends of the court and, equally important, makes smart, quick decisions with the ball. It’s no surprise White has immediately become a fixture in Boston’s closing lineup.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Heat at Celtics, March 30 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): When Miami comes to town at the end of March, there will be less than two weeks to go in the regular season, making it a potentially massive game for seeding purposes for both teams. It also could be a potential first-round playoff preview.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: The Celtics have looked like one of the NBA’s absolute elite teams for close to a month. Is that real, or will things start to backslide? One thing to watch: Boston’s 3-point shooting. The Celtics, if healthy, have an elite defense. What’s unclear is whether they can hit enough shots to truly take advantage of it.

— Bontemps

When we last saw them … Toronto dropped two of its final three games before the break but has gone 18-8 since Dec. 31, revitalizing its season and going from a team hoping to get into the play-in tournament to one hoping to avoid it by finishing among the top six in the East. Toronto has made its unique blend of athletes surrounding All-Star guard Fred VanVleet work, and it has made for an entertaining season north of the border.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +4000
Caesars title odds: +8000
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 0.3%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: Beating the LA Clippers on Dec. 31. It would have been impossible to know at the time, but that win jump-started Toronto’s season. A six-game winning streak followed, and after a brief lull in January the Raptors then rattled off another eight straight wins into mid-February.


Must-see game left on the schedule – Heat at Raptors, April 3 (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Miami visits for the second time this season in what could be Kyle Lowry’s first game back in Toronto since leaving after nine seasons this summer. Lowry, the greatest player in franchise history, missed the first game in Toronto on Jan. 17 because he was away from the team for personal reasons. If fans are able to be in the stands by then, and Lowry is back, expect a big celebration for the championship-winning point guard’s return.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: Can the Raptors hold up? Coach Nick Nurse hasn’t hesitated to lean on his stars. VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are first, second and fifth in the NBA in minutes played per game this season, with rookie Scottie Barnes and guard Gary Trent Jr. both inside the top 25. If those players stay healthy, the Raptors have a chance to be a threat. If they’re not? Things will fall apart quickly. Something else worth monitoring: whether fans will be allowed in the building soon, as the Raptors have been playing in empty arenas for weeks now. That would certainly be a boost to the team’s fortunes as well.

— Bontemps

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Stephen A. Smith sees James Harden as having more questions to answer about his future than Ben Simmons.

When we last saw them … The Nets had all kinds of drama surrounding them heading into the break after trading Harden — and enduring an 11-game losing streak — but they finally appeared to turn things around as they headed into the break having won two of three, which included a 28-point come-from-behind win against the Knicks.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +300
Caesars title odds: +600
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 0.9%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: The Harden trade. As the losses piled up leading into the All-Star break, it became clear the All-Star guard wanted out — which led to the deal that sent him to the 76ers and brought Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks to Brooklyn. The Nets are still confident they can contend for a title this season, but the trade changed the team’s course in the middle of a trying season in which they are still dealing with Durant’s knee injury and Irving’s part-time status.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Nets at 76ers, March 10 (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT): If Simmons is ready to play, this is arguably the most interesting game left on the NBA’s regular-season calendar. Simmons didn’t want to play for the Sixers anymore and will hear it from the Philadelphia crowd. On top of that, Durant and Irving should both be on the floor to square off against Harden and Embiid.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: What happens with Irving’s playing time? The Nets remain hopeful New York City mayor Eric Adams will roll back the city’s vaccination mandate, but nobody knows for sure if or when that will happen. If it does, the Nets have a legitimate chance to contend for a title. If it doesn’t, it will be very difficult for Brooklyn to reach its ultimate goal given Irving can only play in away games.

— Friedell

When we last saw them … On Jan. 26, the Hornets scored a franchise-record 158 points. Two days later, the Hornets topped the Los Angeles Lakers to improve to 28-22 on the season. They’ve lost nine of their last 10 games since, including the two prior to the All-Star break in overtime and double overtime.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +10000
Caesars title odds: +20000
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 0.1%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: Charlotte is hoping the acquisition of center Montrezl Harrell can help turn things around. Harrell has averaged 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds on 65.1% shooting since being acquired at the deadline.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Hawks at Hornets, March 16 (7 p.m. ET): The Hornets are 2.5 games back of the eighth spot held by Brooklyn and are percentage points ahead of the Hawks for the ninth spot. If Charlotte can defeat Atlanta, it would tie the season series and avoid the Hornets losing that tiebreaker for play-in seeding.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: The Hornets have proven they can win, but they have a chance to get off on the right foot after the All-Star break with five of their first seven games at home before a road trip to New Orleans and Oklahoma City. If LaMelo Ball continues to play at his All-Star level (20.0 points, 7.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds) and the team gets Harrell going, they could make their push sooner rather than later. When Gordon Hayward (left ankle) returns, it will also give the Hornets a much-needed boost.

— Andrew Lopez

When we last saw them … Atlanta has won 11 of their last 16 games to vault themselves back into the play-in conversation. They came away with a big victory over Cleveland (when Trae Young notched another 40-point performance) while continuing their climb toward .500.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +5000
Caesars title odds: +10000
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 0.3%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: The Hawks traded away Cam Reddish (as well as Solomon Hill and a 2025 second-rounder) in January for a protected 2022 first-round pick and Kevin Knox. It freed up minutes on the wing and gave the Hawks a pick to potentially use down the road to continue to build the roster.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Heat at Knicks, March 22 (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT): Health and safety protocols robbed fans of seeing Young return to Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day, so this will be his first trip back since the playoff series last year that ended with him taking a bow at halfcourt. Against a reeling Knicks squad, he could be on pace for an encore.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: Atlanta starts with a tough slate after the break — at Chicago, vs. Toronto, at Boston, vs. Chicago — but at least the Hawks are trending in the right direction. While John Collins’ recent foot injury that kept him out of the final three games of the break is something to monitor, the Hawks have shown they are capable of going on winning streaks under coach Nate McMillan both last season and this one. Atlanta’s big stretch under McMillan that led them to the 2020-21 conference finals showed he can push the right buttons down the stretch.

— Lopez

When we last saw them … The Wizards beat the Nets for the second time in five games with Rui Hachimura having his best game of the season with 20 points. Washington has won three of its past five but is still waiting for Kristaps Porzingis to make his Wizards debut since he was traded to the team on Feb. 10.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +50000
Caesars title odds: +100000
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 0.1%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: Losing Bradley Beal (wrist) for the season has changed the outlook for a team that started off 10-3 but was struggling when Beal played his last game of the season on Jan. 29. Washington did try to address its chemistry issues and loosen the logjam of minutes and roles by trading away Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Mavericks at Wizards, April 1 (7 p.m. ET): Dallas comes to town, setting up a reunion between Luka Doncic and Porzingis. The duo’s working relationship ended at the trade deadline when the Mavericks sent Porzingis and the two seasons remaining on his five-year, $158-million deal to the Wizards. If he’s healthy, Porzingis will certainly be motivated facing his old team.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: After their blazing start in October and November, the Wizards looked like a team ready for the season to end just days before the trade deadline. But the Wizards still have a shot at the play-in, despite losing Beal for the season. They’ll need a healthy Porzingis down the stretch.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

When we last saw them … It has been a rough ride for coach Tom Thibodeau’s team this season. The expectations were high after the Knicks surprised the league and vaulted to the fourth seed in the East last year, but they have come crashing down to earth in a season filled with inconsistency — especially on the defensive end. The Knicks came into the break having lost 13 of their last 16 games.


Playoff and title projections:
Caesars’ Eastern Conference odds: +25000
Caesars title odds: +50000
FiveThirtyEight’s chance of winning the Finals: 0.1%


Most impactful moment during the season’s first half: Julius Randle running down the floor during a Jan. 6 win over the Celtics with his thumb down in the direction of the Madison Square Garden faithful symbolized the Knicks’ entire first half. Randle played at an All-Star level throughout last season but has been unable to replicate it. He let his frustration out in a moment that will be remembered long after the season ends.


Must-see game left on the schedule: Nets at Knicks, April 6 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): Will the Knicks still be in the play-in picture? Will Irving be able to play at the Garden by then? How does Derrick Rose look after returning from ankle surgery? These are all questions that hover over the final cross-town game of the season.


Pivot point for the rest of the season: If the Knicks want to make a push down the stretch, they’ll need more intensity on the defensive end. They also have to hope Rose can come back at a high level and stabilize New York’s bench. The Knicks need him to be the engine of the second unit that he has proven to be when healthy.

— Friedell

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