The Hopeful 8: Heat still hot offensively, Blazers charging

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) shoots a three-point basket as Miami Heat's Goran Dragic (7) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 19, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

This is Episode 8 of “The Hopeful 8” series, which monitors the NBA teams hoping to find their way into the playoffs as the eighth seed.

Eastern Conference

9th seed — Miami Heat (34-36) — Last 10 games: 7-3

The Heat are better than what their record might suggest: the ninth-best team in the East. Their 13-game win streak has looked less and less fluky in the weeks that have passed since, from how Goran Dragic has continued to lead their offense to solid defensive grit. Dragic playing at his best has been at the center of the Heat remarkably maintaining the third-best offense since Jan. 1 with 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Add the ninth-ranked defense to that and the Heat have ranked second in net rating with a tremendous +8.7 since the start of January.

Last week ended with a 115-104 loss to Portland for the Heat, but before that they dealt with the Pelicans and Timberwolves with relative ease as they scored 120+ points against both. With the offense firing so effectively, the Heat are now tied with the Pistons at 34-36 for the eighth seed. With such continued momentum, it’s hard to see that they can’t at least come in at least eighth or perhaps even seven in the East, even with Dion Waiters hurting.

10th seed — Chicago Bulls (33-37) — Last 10 games: 3-7

It’s a good thing the Heat have been winning so much, because otherwise the Bulls would have a much better chance at backing into the playoffs. They’ve been a mess, whether you’re looking at the front office, the trade for Cameron Payne or their ugly offense/painful lack of shooting. And now Dwyane Wade is done for the season with an elbow injury.

As a basketball fan and someone who doesn’t have any allegiance to Chicago sports, I think I can safely speak on behalf of all other fans of the same mindset that the playoffs would be better off without the Bulls. They may be average defensively and they’ve grabbed offensive rebounds at a higher rate than everyone except the Nuggets this season, but there are too many problems and they’re frustrating to watch on the court and hear about in the news. Besides a 95-86 win against the Jazz to close last week, they’ve kept falling off:

11th seed — Charlotte Hornets (30-39) — Last 10 games: 5-5

If the Hornets weren’t removed from playoff contention a few weeks ago, they are now. Despite a 98-93 win to finish against the Wizards on Saturday, they went 1-2 last week with losses to the Bulls (115-109) and Pacers (98-77). Such losses were more reminders of how far the Hornets have fallen since last season.

The fact that Frank Kaminsky is the team’s third-best scorer at 11.6 points per game really shows just how little scoring they have outside of Kemba Walker. Kaminsky has been better lately with an average of 16.9 points over his last 15 games and some solid 20-point showings, but he’s still a bad defender, rebounder and is below average from three (33.7 percent in this span and 31.3 for the season).

The Hornets are also only 18th in defensive rating since the All-Star break, and allowing the sorry Bulls to score 115 on them last week was another reminder of that. While there are only five wins between the 10th-seeded Hornets and sixth-seeded Pacers (four teams are at 34 or 35 wins), things won’t be falling Charlotte’s way for them to make the cut.

Western Conference

9th seed — Portland Trail Blazers (32-37) — Last 10 games: 8-2

The West playoff race is still underwhelming, but we can at least be satisfied with how much more interesting it’s gotten lately. The Blazers are a big part of that, with a lot of thanks going to Jusuf Nurkic. There’s no doubt he’s given them a major boost since arriving from Denver in the Mason Plumlee trade, whether he’s been passing effectively from the high post, setting tough screens for their shooters or protecting the rim. Nurkic looks revitalized in Portland, making the Blazers 7.1 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor. Most recently he had 21 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in a 115-104 win against Miami.

Damian Lillard, as always, was another huge factor for the Blazers last week. He had two 35-plus-point outings (36 against San Antonio and a sensational season-high 49 against the Heat) to lead his team to a 3-1 week:

The Blazers have improved defensively somewhat since the All-Star break, climbing from 26th in defensive rating to 20th. Nurkic’s rim protection has been essential to that. However, as is always the case with this team, everything comes back to their offense, specifically how they’ve ranked fourth in that regard following the break. They’re now just one game behind the Nuggets in the race for the eighth seed.

10th seed — Dallas Mavericks (30-39) — Last 10 games: 6-4

The Mavericks have pushed closer to the playoffs than anyone could have expected before this season began and even after the first month or two. Dallas was one of the NBA’s worst few teams not that long ago, yet have strung together more wins behind their overachieving youngsters (Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell) and Dirk Nowitzki still getting buckets.

There was more of a struggle last week, though, as they went 2-2 and suffered two blowout losses, falling 100-78 to the Kyle Lowry-less Toronto Raptors and an awful 116-74 defeat in Philly. The Mavericks were outrebounded 55-34 and shot 34.5 percent against the 76ers, and such an ugly loss to one of the league’s worst teams was demoralizing for their playoff push:

11th seed — New Orleans Pelicans (29-41) — Last 10 games: 6-4

The Pelicans have two wins in a row, but they’ve still had plenty of struggles integrating DeMarcus Cousins to their team. Lapses in effort with running the floor as fast as possible or getting back on defense haven’t been eradicated as many hoped for when he left Sacramento and, more importantly, the offense has struggled to jell with him and Anthony Davis together. The Pelicans have scored a startling 11 fewer points per 100 possessions when Cousins is on the floor, sending them all the way to a useless 94.5 when he’s in the game.

A lack of shooting around the new big-man pairing hasn’t helped, which is partly why the Pelicans looked to Jordan Crawford, someone who has been out of the NBA for two years. Even though Crawford can’t fix the Pelicans’ shooting issues by himself, he couldn’t have done much more so far. Crawford has earned himself a two-year deal after starting out his career in New Orleans with an average of 14.3 points over his first seven games while shooting a sizzling 51.3 percent overall and 50 percent from three. There will obviously be regression with his shooting and he has other flaws, but the veteran has been a pleasant addition so far.

I still think the Pelicans can figure out how to make a Boogie-AD pairing work. It was always going to be difficult and take time, especially on the fly late in the season during a playoff push. Clearly, making it was too ambitious. All the team and fans can hope for is a few more wins and increased chemistry between the two superstars and surrounding players when they share the floor.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.

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