By: Robert Bishop
Back again, and Cleveland officially joined the Eastern Conference play-in field ranks on Tuesday night with an inexcusable defeat against the Orlando Magic. The Magic ended a six-game losing streak with the win, who managed the victory despite being without Wendell Carter Jr. (wrist) and Cole Anthony (left toe), along with Franz Wagner being forced from action after only a handful of minutes with an ankle injury. Cleveland’s storybook run to start the season is now a distant memory, and the Cavaliers are reeling. Cleveland has lost four of five. Injuries to the frontcourt duo of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley have ended the playoff hopes of the upstart franchise. The Cavaliers have a few games left to figure things out before a likely play-in matchup against the Atlanta Hawks.
Joel Embiid ensured Philadelphia didn’t suffer a defeat against a non-contending opponent, carrying the 76ers to a win over the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday. Embiid bolstered his MVP resume with 45 points and 13 boards to lead Philadelphia to victory. The win keeps Philadelphia tied with Boston and Milwaukee for the second-best record in the East, though the 76ers sit in fourth place due to tie-breakers. Up next for Philadelphia is a showdown against the Toronto Raptors, which right now would be the first-round matchup in the playoffs. Toronto will enter the game coming having ended Atlanta’s winning streak.
Integral to Toronto’s surge has been Pascal Siakam’s return to superstardom. Siakam struggled much of last season, and he didn’t get off to the best of starts this year. However, he has returned to being an All-NBA level player in recent months. Siakam paced Toronto on Tuesday with 31 points, 13 boards, and six dimes to defeat the Hawks. On the downside for Toronto, Fred VanVleet’s struggles continued, with the All-Star guard shooting an abysmal 4-of-21 from the field. For Atlanta, the loss ends the team’s momentum-building run through the season’s final stretch, but the Hawks remain in control of the top spot in the play-in field, setting the team up favorably to emerge as a playoff team.
Minnesota entered Tuesday night’s tilt against the Timberwolves with hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament with a winning streak to end the season. The plan ended with a thud as the Timberwolves were trounced by the Washington Wizards, a team that continues to play hard on a nightly basis despite being out of contention. Washington is effectively using the end of the season to evaluate midseason acquisition Kristaps Porzingis, who was once again excellent. Porzingis’s long-term fit is of critical importance to Washington. The Wizards are getting on-court evidence that he can coexist in a frontcourt alongside Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, and Daniel Gafford. Minnesota’s loss keeps the team two games behind the Nuggets for the final playoff spot with two games to play. The Timberwolves end the season against the Spurs and the Bulls, needing a pair of wins and Denver to lose both of its remaining contests.
Improbably, the San Antonio Spurs clinched a play-in spot with a win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. Despite Dejounte Murray missing a third consecutive game, the Spurs were able to win with relative ease against the Nuggets, a team fighting to avoid relegation to the play-in tournament. The Spurs continue to rely heavily on the trio of Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Jakob Poeltl, hardly a group of stars. Meanwhile, Nikola Jokic continues to make a case for a second straight MVP, erupting for 41 points, 17 boards, and four dimes in the loss. Denver needs to win one of its two remaining games to avoid the play-in, and fortunately for the Nuggets, the season’s final game comes against the Los Angeles Lakers.