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The Run Home: Where our Aussies stand in the NBA playoffs race
As the calendar flips over to March, the NBA regular season undoubtedly enters the business end of proceedings. With the battle for playoffs seeding in both conferences unbelievably tight, each night brings a plethora of crucial contests, with serious post-season implications.
In what would be an amazing acknowledgement of the growing legion of Australians in the NBA, seven of the eight currently rostered players are right in the mix to take part in this year's NBA playoffs. With most teams inside their last 20 games on the schedule, it is the perfect time to take a peek at the run home, and the possible hurdles their teams might confront on the road to the first round.
Aron Baynes: Boston Celtics - 44-20, 2nd in East
The Boston Celtics have been at the pointy end of the standings all season, and find themselves in a battle for the number one seed and home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. They currently sit 2.0 games behind the Toronto Raptors for that top spot, with a tough schedule ahead. Eleven out of their last eighteen games have come against teams with winning records, and only seven home games remain on tap.
For Baynes, a mainstay in the starting lineup for the Celtics, it's all about continuing to play his physical style of play down low for the league's best defensive unit. Baynes has never been a man to fill the box score, but he is more then capable of sneaking under the opposition's guard when given the opportunity.
The Celtics are a lock for the playoffs, and out of all the Aussies likely to feature in the Playoffs, Baynes may be the most likely to go deep into May.
Ben Simmons: Philadelphia 76ers - 34-28, 6th in East
The leading candidate for the NBA's Rookie of the Year award, Ben Simmons has his team finding form at the right time. Before dropping a wild affair to the Bucks on Monday afternoon, the Sixers had won ten out of their last thirteen contests to climb into the 6th seed. They are currently 5.5 games clear of the ninth-placed Detroit Pistons and only 2.0 games back of the LeBron-led, third-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers.
Simmons has continued his assault in the paint during the run, and is averaging an elite 68 percent of his attempts within 5 feet of the basket. With that dominance in the paint, he continues to give opposing defenders nightmares, as the Sixers surround him with a bunch of lethal outside shooters, forcing opponents to pick their poison.
Philly have by far the easiest run home of all the mentioned teams in this article, with only 5 of their remaining 20 contests coming against team with winning records. Simmons is certain to be featuring in the post-season, it's just a matter of seeding for his team.
Thon Maker & Matthew Dellavedova: Milwaukee Bucks - 34-29, 7th in East
Before regaining control of their season against Philadelphia, the Bucks had just endured a season-high four-game losing streak, all coming against fellow playoff hopefuls. They do however remain in a relatively comfortable position for the run home, holding a 5.0 game lead on the Detroit Pistons, who remain on the outside looking in.
For Matthew Dellavedova and Thon Maker, it's been an indifferent couple of weeks for two key rotation players for the Bucks. Dellavedova has been sidelined since he turned his ankle badly on the 6th of February against the Brooklyn Nets. The original timetable of 3-4 weeks is nearing expiration, and by all reports his rehab is moving along nicely. Maker on the other hand has seen his minutes dwindle over the past few games as Bucks coach Joe Prunty turns to the more experienced Tyler Zeller for backup center minutes.
You can still expect Thon to play a key role in the Bucks' plans moving forward, as his ridiculous length and outside shot will prove invaluable in certain situations.
The Bucks are confronted with 11 road games over their last 19, but should be able to take care of business and make a late push for home court advantage in the Eastern conference logjam.
Patty Mills: San Antonio Spurs - 36-27, 6th in West
This is where it gets interesting.
For a team that's long been a powerhouse in the NBA, the dominant franchise's 20 year playoffs run is in a vulnerable position. Mills' Spurs find themselves just 1.5 games ahead of the 9th seeded Los Angeles Clippers. Their schedule is absolutely brutal in the run home, with 15 of their last 19 games against teams with winning records. They face off against Golden State, Oklahoma City and Houston twice, while also having a Washington/Milwaukee road trip on tap.
Patty Mills has again remained a staple in the Spurs rotation, averaging 9.7 points per game whilst draining 38 percent of his three pointers.
Mills is an NBA champion and one of the most experienced among current Aussies in the NBA, when it comes to a playoffs setting. If the Spurs are going to make it, they will have earned it, and Mills will once again get the opportunity to delight us with his explosive offensive prowess on the big stage.
Joe Ingles & Dante Exum: Utah Jazz - 33-30, 10th in West
The Utah Jazz are making a strong late push for the playoffs that is unfortunately being quelled by the teams above them. Winners in 14 of their last 16 contests, they still find themselves on the outside looking in. With less then half their games coming against playoff contenders on the run home, they remain in the mix, as they sit just 2.0 games outside of 8th in the standings. A pivotal three-game stretch against San Antonio, Golden State and Boston could prove vital to their chances.
In a boost to their hopes, Dante Exum is nearing his long awaited return from what was thought to be a potentially season ending shoulder injury. Whilst Exum would certainly need some time to return to game shape, his ability to knock down shots from the outside and break down his opponent off the dribble would be welcomed.
Joe Ingles on the other hand continues to flourish, with the 'jack of all trades' wing averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and three point percentage at the ripe old age of 30. 'Average Joe' has become a cult hero in Utah, and figures to play a major role in their run to the playoffs. They are in with a chance, and it may just come down to Joe Ingles against Patty Mills for that 8th spot out west.
The Wildcard: Andrew Bogut
Former number one overall pick, Andrew Bogut remains without a team as the NBA season reaches its climax. Interestingly enough, his agent was confident in Bogut finding a home with a contender in the week after All-Star break. That time has now come and gone without a whisper. NBA squads have until the last week of March to make final signings with playoffs eligibility, so Bogey has time, but not a lot.
Whether or not he gets what may be one last crack at postseason success remains to be seen, only time will tell.
One thing's for sure, this season's NBA playoffs are poised to be a bonanza for Aussie hoops fans. Here's hoping there are plenty more highlights to come, in what has been a brilliant season for our Boomers in the top flight.
*Note: Mangok Mathiang's Charlotte Hornets are 5.5 games out of the playoffs race and would need a dream run to sneak in.