Inside the NBA | Eastern Conference playoff race heats up
Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 09:03
The Western Conference playoff teams are still yet to be determined, but the Eastern Conference has a clear top-eight squad.
The playoff race in the East pretty much boils down to the Heat, and then everybody else.
This is deserved: Miami is currently in the middle of a 15-game win streak with no sign of cooling off. Leading the Heat is LeBron James, who is showing no championship hangover as he continues his incredibly efficient play. More surprisingly, James may even be developing a mean streak in the fourth quarter, which became apparent in this weekend’s game against the Knicks.
With the Heat up three with about 30 seconds to go, James picked off a lazy pass from J.R. Smith, streaked down the court, and threw down a hammer dunk to silence the crowd in Madison Square Garden and ice the game. If his strong play in the fourth quarter continues, every other team in the East is in big trouble.
Most likely to meet the Heat in the first round are the Milwaukee Bucks, who continue to try and see if they can get anything out of their combination of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. Though they make for an electrifying backcourt, the team is convinced that it only needs one ballhandling combo guard. There were rumors that the Bucks tried to move one of the two at the trade deadline, but instead traded for J.J. Redick, who combines with Mike Dunleavy to make an excellent Duke-bred 3-point shooting pair off the bench.
Regardless, enjoy the Jennings-Ellis combo (and their NBA BIG commercial) while they’re still together, because at least one of them will be leaving Milwaukee in the offseason.
One team that will definitely want to avoid the Heat early in the playoffs is the Boston Celtics, who are still reeling from being eliminated by the Heat two years in a row.
In seasons past, you could expect the Celtics to start slow but find their stride at the end of the season to be a dangerous No. 4 seed, but that isn’t the case this season after the injury to Rajon Rondo. Despite that, the Celtics soldier on with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and will hope to surprise their first-round matchup, though the loss of Rondo definitely makes them less of a threat.
The Chicago Bulls are also missing their point guard, as former MVP Derrick Rose hasn’t played since he tore his ACL in last season’s playoffs. Nevertheless, the team’s super role players have put the team in a battle for the No. 4 seed. They’ve earned their success with a defensive minded, grind-it-out system led by Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and even Carlos Boozer.
But their problem has been a lack of offensive firepower, something they once leaned on Rose for. There is no doubt that Rose makes this team a top-three team in the East, and Chicago is hoping that he can play in some capacity before the playoffs.
Battling with the Bulls are the sorely underachieving Brooklyn Nets. After a much-anticipated relocation and a lot of high profile offseason moves, this finally looked like the year the Nets would break through in a big way. One pleasant surprise has been that center Brook Lopez has been playing up to the big payday he received in the offseason, a move questioned by almost everyone in the league.
The Nets simply aren’t as good offensively or defensively without Lopez on the floor. Making the playoffs with Lopez is, in fact, a big improvement for the franchise, but simply making the playoffs isn’t what Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and the rest of the team had in mind at the beginning of the season.
Johnson’s former team, the Atlanta Hawks, aren’t doing any better than the Nets, but that’s par for the course for this middling franchise over the past few years.
The team has tried to move on with Josh Smith and Al Horford, but Atlanta still seems unsatisfied, as trade rumors abound about Smith at the deadline. Since Smith has been with the team, the Hawks have failed to get past the second round of the playoffs, which suggests that the team has peaked with this group of players.
One team that is actually having a lot of success with a boring brand of basketball has been the Indiana Pacers, who currently hold the No. 2 seed. Ever since Frank Vogel has taken over as coach, the Pacers have climbed up the Eastern Conference pecking order with great defense, and they have been able to do it this year without star forward Danny Granger.
Though Granger is back in the lineup now, the Pacers may not actually need him for the rest of the season and in the future because of the rise of first-time All-Star Paul George. Initially drafted as a shooting guard, he has grown into the small forward position, showing off a sweet touch from a long range as well as the ability to get to the hoop. The question moving forward is, whether Granger and George can coexist.
Last but not least, the New York Knicks currently hold the No. 3 seed. Though their spot in the standings is a vast improvement from last year, it seems like the Knicks still can’t get over the hump.