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15. Orlando Magic (18)
Terrence Ross scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter of last Monday’s spirited 115-113 win in Brooklyn, and Aaron Gordon logged his first career triple-double during Friday’s 136-125 victory over Minnesota.
So much of playing efficient offense is picking the low-hanging fruit. Orlando, which ranks 28th in “wide-open” three-point percentage on the year, harvested threes marginally better in February. As a result, its offensive rating for the month was a relatively high 111.8, 5.3 points better than its full-season figure.
If Evan Fournier could have converted a transition layup over Patty Mills’ scrambling contest on Saturday, the Magic would have ended the week with a perfect 4-0 mark. As it is, they’ve played well enough lately to remove any lingering doubts about retaining their playoff spot. In fact, with Brooklyn gagging away leads left and right, it’s starting to feel like the Magic will stick in the East’s No. 7 spot.
14. Miami Heat (12)
The Heat were 24-8 on Dec. 28 but have been a mediocre team since then, running up a 14-14 record and a plus-1.4 net rating in that two-month stretch of schedule.
The highs have been high: a 31-point undressing of the Sixers on Feb. 3.
But the lows have been low: back-to-back losses at home to Cleveland and Minnesota to start out this past week.
Miami has missed Tyler Herro, but it’s hard to blame its defensive shortcomings on the absence of a rookie guard. In February, the Heat ranked 21st in defensive efficiency. In the East, only the Cavs, Hawks and Bulls were worse.
Derrick Jones Jr. is now starting over Kelly Olynyk, who replaced the injured Meyers Leonard. Here’s hoping a little more bounce and mobility will get Miami the stops it needs.
13. Philadelphia 76ers (11)
With Ben Simmons already set to miss extended time, the sight of Joel Embiid’s left shoulder hanging limp after a collision Wednesday with Cavs center Ante Zizic was enough to turn stomachs across the state of Pennsylvania.
Fortunately, there’s no structural damage, but Embiid is expected to sit out for at least a week.
Not that it saves them from a rankings tumble (losing your two best players can’t have any other effect), but the Sixers can still field a respectable lineup in the meantime. Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford can keep things competitive in a pinch. Harris scored 34 points, one off his season high, in Thursday’s 115-106 win over the Knicks.
Still, this isn’t the ideal time for the four-game swing on the West Coast that kicked off with Sunday’s loss to the Clippers. Shake Milton’s 39 points weren’t enough to avoid a 136-130 defeat.
Philadelphia’s road struggles were pronounced even with a full roster (9-22, worst among playoff teams in either conference), so the remaining healthy Sixers have their work cut out for them.
12. Utah Jazz (10)
“It’s go time now,” Donovan Mitchell told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon last Wednesday. “We can’t sit here and say we have time. We’ve got to go out there and do it.”
With home losses to Phoenix and Boston running Utah’s post-break losing streak to four games before a 129-119 win over the Wizards on Friday, it appears Mitchell’s urgent message isn’t transmitting clearly.
The All-Star scored 75 points combined in those two defeats and saved the Jazz with 10 of his 30 points in a pivotal 82-second fourth-quarter surge to salvage Friday’s win. He’s doing everything he can from a scoring perspective, but offense hasn’t really been Utah’s problem.
It allowed the four opponents in its losing streak to score 121.9 points per 100 possessions, a number substantially worse than the Wizards’ 30th-ranked figure for the season. The Suns game was particularly discouraging, as a mediocre Phoenix offense lit the Jazz up for 131 points.
This is jarring for a team long defined by its stopping power, and it suggests lineup tinkering isn’t the answer.
Utah has to sort itself out, get Rudy Gobert back to his DPOY levels and rediscover its defensive identity. Otherwise, the only place the Jazz will be going is home. After a first-round ouster.
11. Indiana Pacers (17)
Myles Turner hit a dagger three from the top of the arc to secure Thursday’s 106-100 win over the Blazers, and the play that created it was a window into the potential Indy’s offense has yet to fully maximize. Domantas Sabonis, a dynamite roll man whose finishing and passing draw attention from every help defender on the floor, whipped a pass back to Turner, who slid into Sabonis’ vacated perimeter spot.
That sort of action makes use of each Pacers big man’s specific talents and presents no easy answers for a defense.
The Pacers didn’t face a great slate this week, but they’ll take a 3-0 mark and a 95.3 defensive rating.
With the Sixers facing injuries and Miami searching for consistency, that No. 4 seed in the East is suddenly looking attainable.