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Eastern Conference playoffs suddenly wide open
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 1
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The Eastern Conference is certainly getting interesting, which is something no one has much said this season. So let’s take a look at the standings as the NBA heads into the final month of the regular season and fewer than 10 games remaining for most of the teams.
1. Brooklyn 30-12
2. Bulls 30-14
3. Miami 27-15
4. Toronto 28-17
5. Indiana 27-18
6. Charlotte 22-20
7. New York 23-22
8. Washington 24-24
There still are a few weeks to go before the playoffs begin April 19. But if the playoffs were to start now it would be Brooklyn and Washington to face the Toronto-Indiana winner and the Bulls in that tough bracket opening against the Knicks to face the Miami-Charlotte winner.
But with a strong second place showing in the regular season, you’d have to like the Bulls chances.
Hello! Did someone go to sleep and miss half the season?
You mean the part that didn’t mean all that much?
Yes, that’s November and December, which are for show, chest thumping and the early awards race.
But as the Bulls prepare to play the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday as the Hawks try to get a playoff spot, it’s significant to consider the NBA for the last three months.
That’s what the above standings reflect, basically the majority of the season and the teams who are playing the best coming into the playoffs.
Three months is hardly a small sample size. And the way teams play the last portion of the season often tends to reflect their strength even more so that the results over an entire season.
Yes, the NBA will still consider the records for the 82 games. And in that measure the Bulls currently are fourth, technically tied for third with Toronto but without the tiebreaker that the Raptors hold for leading the division.
But that could change as well because the Nets got another good win Tuesday as they defeated the Houston Rockets and won their 14th consecutive home game. They’ll be a tough out this spring with the home court advantage and Kevin Garnett due back later this week from back spasms. The Nets are just a game and a half behind the Raptors for the division lead, though the Raptors hold the tiebreaker. But the Bulls also are trying to wrest that third spot away from the Raptors with the suddenly sliding Pacers looking very vulnerable.
The Pacers are now percentage points behind Miami for the best record in the conference, but with still one more game between the teams, which will be in Miami. The Pacers appear to be fracturing internally as well as slumping with considerable finger pointing at culprits and Roy Hibbert even seeming to suggest Paul George is the problem. It’s not good there.
Suddenly, the Pacers are looking like the top team you’d like to face and no easy winner in any round.
The way the East standings technically set up going into Wednesday, the Heat opens against the Hawks in the bracket with the Bulls against the Nets. The other bracket has Indiana against Charlotte and the winner playing the Toronto/Washington winner. Though all that is very tentative with suddenly a serious race for positioning, home court and division winner down the stretch in a conference that was supposed to be all Miami and Indiana. That’s obviously no longer the case.
So let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference playoff power ratings from the last three months back to Jan. 1.
1. Nets: Jason Kidd just won his second coach of the month award a few months after it was assumed he could not coach. They’re probably the toughest offensive team in the conference now with their smaller lineup using Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston at the same time. With Garnett out, they’ve been able to develop Mason Plumlee, an athletic big. They’ve got a deep bench and plenty of scoring. You don’t want them early.
2. Bulls: One question is whether their short rotation can hold up in the playoffs, though everyone does cut their rotation in the postseason. They’ve probably got the best group of versatile big men and good chemistry with a long run of good health and the same group playing together. They’re the story of the East being a contender without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
3. Heat: Still the favorite because the defending champion always is. Their big question is the health of Dwyane Wade, though they have depth issues. Their season long experiments with Michael Beasley and Greg Oden seem to have failed and they’re going back to playoff rotations they’ve used before. The question everyone will have to answer is whether they can beat a LeBron James team four times.
4. Raptors: Going to be a tough out, at least early, with a high scoring, athletic wing group assuming Kyle Lowry can get over a bunch of late injuries. They don’t use their big men well or often enough, which could prove fatal in the playoffs.
5. Pacers: The biggest disappointment as they have gone from too cocky to too cockeyed. Their offense has fallen flat the last few weeks to be the worst in the league. They talked all season about beating Miami, and now they’re getting attacked from all sides and don’t seem to have an answer. They could regain strength if they begin to go back inside, their prior strength, though their perimeter guys seem at odds with their big guys.
6. Bobcats: The biggest culture changing team of the season, a historic loser in recent years who now plays every team hard and tough behind Al Jefferson. They defend tenaciously and don’t seem to understand they shouldn’t be there. Those teams are dangerous.
7. Knicks: It’s not Phil Jackson yet and they don’t much defend, but they’ve got the scoring and shooting to get hot and give someone a playoff scare. In the 82-game world it’s questionable whether they can get there. The Bulls will have a big say with the game against Atlanta Wednesday. If the Bulls win the collar gets tight on the Hawks, though the Knicks play the better teams down the stretch as well as a last Sunday of the season game against the Bulls.
8. Wizards: Lots of ifs with them like if Nene can return from injury and play at a high level and if their talented backcourt can remain under control. They still give up way too many late leads and games they seem to have. But their backcourt may be the toughest to defend, which always is a concern.
Heat/Pacers Conference finals? Not so fast.