How the NBA's race for the 2-seed in the East playoffs will be decided

Jefferson: 76ers don't have anyone that bonds them together (1:08)

Richard Jefferson and Tim Legler are concerned about the 76ers' lack of a key player to help connect them together as a team. (1:08)

While the Milwaukee Bucks have put some distance between themselves and the rest of the Eastern Conference, there's still a significant playoff race to watch near the top. Approaching the midpoint of the season, the next five teams are separated by just 4.5 games, with 18 games left on the schedule that pit two of those teams against each other.

"They're gonna be impactful," Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, hours before his team won one of these games against the Boston Celtics in late December. "They're really going to become impactful later on in the year, when you look back.

"There's going to be jockeying for position, there's no doubt about it."

On Thursday, the third-place Celtics visit the fifth-place Philadelphia 76ers in another of those matchups. Assuming the Bucks are out of reach, the winner of this five-way battle gets to avoid facing one of the other four teams in the first round, instead drawing a potential matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic or one of the other losing teams at the bottom of the East playoff race. It also guarantees avoiding Milwaukee until the conference finals.

Let's handicap this unusual and somewhat surprising race:

All projections via ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI)

Miami Heat

Projected record: 55-27
Projected seed: No. 2 (38.8% likelihood)
Record against other four teams: 6-2

Season to date: The Heat have been an NBA afterthought for the past few seasons, without star talent or playoff success. Those days appear over. After acquiring Jimmy Butler in July and jettisoning Hassan Whiteside to open up playing time for Bam Adebayo, Miami now has two All-Star-level pieces surrounded by a cast of under-the-radar finds and young players -- a formula Pat Riley has employed repeatedly during his quarter century at the helm of the franchise.

Injuries to watch: Justise Winslow has been out for the past month with a bone bruise in his back and has played only 10 games this season. At age 33, Goran Dragic could be a leader for this year's Sixth Man of the Year award, but he missed nine games with a groin injury and is playing with a knee brace.

Trade targets: As usual, Miami is a subject of trade speculation. The problem is the Heat have relatively little of value they would be willing to deal. Would they move Winslow or promising rookie Tyler Herro to upgrade at power forward, for instance? That's the kind of calculation Miami has to make over the next four weeks.

High-profile games:

  • LA Clippers (home 1/24, road 2/5)

  • Boston (home 1/28, 4/11, road 4/1)

  • Philadelphia (home 2/3)

  • Milwaukee (home 3/2, road 3/16)

  • Indiana (road 3/20, home 4/7)

  • Toronto (home 4/14)

Schedule breakdown: The Heat, beneficiaries of playing in a division with four sub-.500 teams, are tied with Denver for the eighth-easiest schedule thus far, per ESPN's BPI, and have the third-easiest schedule going forward.

Present and future outlook: The Heat are back. Miami has reestablished its identity as a hard-nosed team full of grinders surrounding a couple of tentpole stars now that Adebayo has emerged as one of the best young centers in the league. That alone makes this season a success.

But the Heat have always been aggressive. Whether they can find a way to upgrade the roster once again will determine if they can leap from the lottery to the upper echelon of the East in a single season.


Pippen: Pacers can be a top seed with Oladipo

Scottie Pippen is impressed by how the Pacers are playing without Victor Oladipo and sees them as a 2- or 3-seed when he returns.

Boston Celtics

Projected record: 55-27
Projected seed: No. 3 (27.0% likelihood)
Record against other four teams: 3-4

Season to date: Coming off a disappointing season, followed by the departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in free agency, Boston has exceeded expectations overall but has hit a skid of late, struggling in wins over the Hawks and Bulls before dropping back-to-back games to the below-.500 Wizards and Spurs.

Still, Kemba Walker has been the stabilizing presence Boston needed. Jaylen Brown signed a contract extension in October and immediately began outplaying it, putting him in the All-Star conversation. Jayson Tatum's all-around game has already made him an advanced-stats darling at age 21. Gordon Hayward has looked very good when healthy. Daniel Theis has admirably replaced Horford at center, playing to a level no one saw coming. And Brad Stevens has restored his reputation after it took a hit for the first time last season.

Injuries to watch: Hayward's health is a constant subject of scrutiny after he missed virtually all of his first season in Boston with left leg and ankle injuries and then spent last season trying to regain his All-Star form. He has missed time this season with a broken bone in his hand and a sore left foot that has required multiple cortisone shots to address a nerve problem. That latter issue bears watching going forward. The same goes for center Robert Williams III's hip, which has kept him out for the past several weeks with no timetable for his return.

Trade targets: The Celtics seem unlikely to make a move at the 2020 trade deadline for a couple of reasons.

One, team president Danny Ainge rarely makes in-season deals. The only two he's made in recent years are the Isaiah Thomas trade in 2015 and the move to dump Jabari Bird's guaranteed contract last year.

Two, the Celtics have shown no interest in trading any of their five high-profile perimeter players (Walker, Brown, Tatum, Hayward and Marcus Smart), and they are the only players on the team making more than $5 million per season. While Boston has lots of draft capital to move in prospective trades, the lack of filler salary would make a deal difficult.

For all of the focus on whether Boston should upgrade at center, the Celtics could actually use another wing player to deepen their rotation. Regardless, their most likely path to enhancing the roster is via the buyout market.

High-profile games:

  • Philadelphia (road 1/9, home 2/1)

  • Milwaukee (road 1/16 and 3/12, home 4/5)

  • LA Lakers (home 1/20, road 2/23)

  • Miami (road 1/28, 4/11, home 4/1)

  • LA Clippers (home 2/13)

  • Indiana (road 3/10, home 4/8)

  • Toronto (road 3/20)

Schedule breakdown: To date, the Celtics have had the NBA's easiest schedule, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index. Boston has the eighth-hardest remaining schedule. Among Eastern Conference teams, only the Hornets have a more difficult closing stretch.

Present and future outlook: This Celtics team has made a remarkable turnaround from last season's disappointment, making a case for the value of team chemistry. That alone has this season feeling like a success. But now that the Celtics have the second-highest probability of getting the No. 2 seed in the East playoffs -- and potentially avoiding both the Bucks and the Sixers on the path to the East finals -- fans in Beantown are beginning to dream bigger.

Toronto Raptors

Projected record: 54-28
Projected seed: No. 4 (29.0% likelihood)
Record against other four teams: 2-6

Season to date: Toronto has stayed in the thick of this race despite the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and a rash of injuries. Coach Nick Nurse has tried combinations he probably never imagined he would. And yet somehow it has worked.

Injuries to watch: Where to start? Pascal Siakam, who was beginning to look like a borderline MVP candidate, is out indefinitely with a strained groin. Ditto for Marc Gasol with a hamstring injury and Norman Powell with a shoulder injury. A thumb injury and a sprained ankle sidelined Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, respectively, for several weeks. Fred VanVleet has played through nagging injuries but is now expected to miss extended time with a right hamstring strain, and Patrick McCaw missed the first 20 games of the season after having knee surgery.

Trade targets: Toronto could go in wildly different directions between now and the trade deadline. Ibaka and Gasol have large expiring contracts that, if Toronto decides to be a seller, could be flipped elsewhere. The Raptors signed Lowry to a one-year extension in the fall that likewise makes him a very attractive target for contenders.

Or the Raptors could be buyers, pouncing while Siakam, Lowry and their depth and infrastructure keep them positioned for another run to the NBA Finals.

High-profile games:

  • Philadelphia (home 1/22, road 3/18)

  • Indiana (home 2/5 and 2/23, road 2/7)

  • Milwaukee (home 2/25 and 4/3, road 4/1)

  • Boston (home 3/20)

  • LA Lakers (home 3/24)

  • Miami (road 4/14)

Schedule breakdown: The Raptors have had the 10th-hardest schedule in the league so far, according to ESPN's BPI, by far the most difficult of any of these five teams. That leads to Toronto having the league's second-easiest schedule the rest of the way, behind only the Hawks.

Present and future outlook: The Raptors entered the season as defending champions but without any expectations of a repeat, due to Leonard's departure. Yet Toronto has played like a team with a point to prove. The next four weeks will reveal whether the Raptors are still in win-now mode.

Philadelphia 76ers

Projected record: 52-30
Projected seed: No. 5 (38.6% likelihood)
Record against other four teams: 5-4

Season-to-date: On Christmas Day, the Sixers dominated the Bucks. They proceeded to lose their next four games, with Joel Embiid declaring that losing was "taking a toll" and Brett Brown excoriating his team. Yet Philadelphia remains in the top 10 in net rating, and the Christmas game is a reminder of what this team, picked by many to win the East, can be.

Injuries to watch: Embiid dislocated his finger in Monday's win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Sixers announced Thursday night he will have surgery Friday morning in New York and be reevaluated in one to two weeks. While signing Horford was motivated in part to protect against this type of situation, it still is going to hurt the Sixers to be without the face of their franchise.

Horford has missed time with knee tendinitis, the same issue that plagued him last season. Matisse Thybulle has been out for a couple of weeks with a right knee sprain and bone bruise, but the promising rookie has begun to practice and should be back fairly soon. Josh Richardson has had lingering issues with his hamstring. Embiid has remained largely healthy, although he's dealing with a left hand injury at the moment that will require surgery and will be reevaluated in one to two weeks.

Trade targets: The Sixers are all-in with this powerful but flawed group, 37 years since their last NBA title. Shooting and playmaking are clear needs, so it will be surprising if Philly doesn't make a move by the deadline.

High-profile games:

  • Boston (home 1/9, road 2/1)

  • Indiana (road 1/13, home 3/14)

  • Toronto (road 1/22, home 3/18)

  • LA Lakers (home 1/25, road 3/3)

  • Miami (road 2/3)

  • Milwaukee (road 2/6, 2/22, home 4/7)

  • LA Clippers (home 2/11, road 3/1)

Schedule breakdown: Philadelphia has had the 13th-easiest schedule thus far, according to ESPN's BPI, and it has the fifth-easiest remaining schedule. If the 76ers need to make a late playoff push, they'll be helped by an April schedule that sees them play just one game out of eight against a team that currently has a winning record.

Present and future outlook: The up-and-down nature of this season has made it hard at times to remember what this team can be when it is healthy and engaged. And the Sixers' lack of consistency could leave them in an undesirable position come April, as Philadelphia could find itself starting every playoff round on the road.

Indiana Pacers

Projected record: 47-35
Projected seed: No. 6 (70.8% likelihood)
Record against other four teams: 3-3

Season to date: Victor Oladipo's continued absence as he recovers from last January's knee surgery makes Indiana's presence on this list impressive. Coach Nate McMillan has blended newcomers and holdovers nicely, with Malcolm Brogdon taking on playmaking responsibilities and the combination of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner holding up better than expected -- they are at plus-7.0 per 100 possessions when they play together.

Injuries to watch: Oladipo, who hasn't played since Jan. 23, 2019, is targeting Jan. 29 against the Chicago Bulls as his return date. Brogdon, meanwhile, has missed several games due to back spasms and has a history of nagging injuries. For this team to advance, it likely needs both guards healthy and playing at a high level.

Trade targets: Teams around the league have been watching the Turner-Sabonis pairing since last season, wondering if and when the Pacers might decide to break it up to recalibrate their roster. If such a trade were to happen this season, it would likely include Turner, given the difficulty of trading Sabonis' poison-pill deal due to the extension he signed before the season. All in all, a major trade by the Pacers appears unlikely.

High-profile games:

  • Philadelphia (home 1/13, road 3/14)

  • Toronto (road 2/5 and 2/23, home 2/7)

  • Milwaukee (home 2/12, road 3/4)

  • Boston (home 3/10, road 4/8)

  • Miami (home 3/20, road 4/7)

  • LA Clippers (road 3/30)

  • LA Lakers (road 4/1)

Schedule breakdown: The Pacers have had the fourth-easiest schedule thus far, according to ESPN's BPI but will have the 12th-most difficult schedule from now until the end of the season. In the eight games between Oladipo's slated return and the All-Star break, the Pacers will face the Raptors twice and host the Mavericks and Bucks.

Present and future outlook: A healthy Oladipo might be the biggest addition any of these teams will make in the next four weeks. If he can return to form, Indiana can make a run. Regardless, the Pacers have shown they will, at the very least, be a tough out for the team that gets matched up with them in Round 1.