The Playoff Race is Heating Up (East)

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As we enter march, the time is now for many NBA teams on the bubble. One look at the standings and the picture is pretty clear. There are still teams with aspirations to push into the final seeds of the playoffs. Naturally, the West is much tighter, but the East is not without intrigue on it’s own. Two things are happening here, not only are the lower teams fighting for the coveted bottom three spots, the top teams are about to slug it out for home court advantage through the series (let’s face it, no one wants to face Indiana or Denver in their respective arenas). So what does the picture look like? Let’s see. 


EASTERN CONFERENCE

Top Half: Miami Heat seem to have this on lock. Six games ahead of the 2nd place and on a 12 game winning streak, it looks unlikely someone who will catch Miami at this point of the playoffs. With LeBron increasingly becoming more alike to a video game character than an actual NBA player, the team is riding a wave of momentum the size of Godzilla. They don’t have too many tough games coming up, and no one seems likely to slow down the South Beach roll until the 10th when they will face the Pacers. That’s going to be a huge game if either team wants to establish momentum going into the playoffs. Another game to keep a look out for is the Spurs match-up in San Antonio as a possible Finals preview.

Bottom Half: I know, it would probably make more sense to keep the top half to top four teams, but it would also be nice to ride the unicorn into a sunset while eating a delicious ice cream cone. The truth is, Miami has swept the conference and it’s hard to see anyone actually catching them in the first place barring a Chernobyl like meltdown.

The team that stands the most chance of catching them is Indiana Pacers, currently 6.0 games behind. The Pacers have been on an absolute romp. They don’t care if you’re a top team or a bottom, they will maul you just the same, just ask Detroit or NYK fans. Such disregard for opposition’s morale has Indy rolling on an 8-2 stretch. Their schedule is much tougher though, facing the Clippers twice as well as teams such as Lakers, OKC, Bulls and Celtics. It will be a tough ride, and as Indy tries to hold on to that 2nd spot (or maybe challenge for the first) it will be paramount to use the newly redressed Granger wisely. Given their stifling brand of D, it is hard to see the team slip too far down the pecking order. Do pay attention to the away stretch out west at the end of March where they face Houston, Dallas and Clippers in the same stretch broken up by a free win at Phoenix.

New York Knicks recently surrendered their 2nd spot, but are just one game behind the Pacers in the standings. Unfortunately they’ve been spotty in the last 10, only hitting the .500 win mark. J.R. Smith has been on and off as the 6th man candidate this month and it’s easy to see the team get frustrated as the going gets tough. It’s hard to see the Knicks pass Indiana though as they have one of the tougher schedules of the top teams, facing Miami on the 3rd (home) and a really tough West road trip. For NYK to hold on to their spot they’ll need Melo to play his best. Watch for how Mike Woodson starts to manage minutes as well, because team Metamucil needs to conserve for the playoffs.

The Brooklyn Nets started on a rise, but it’s been increasingly hard to predict where they will end up come the end of the season. Currently in fourth, 1.5 games behind NYK, the Nets will battle to stay in the top 4, but I just can’t see it. It seems to be a trend that the East will travel a lot as the season closes and Brooklyn just drew the short straw. They have an eight game trip, most of it in out west, to cap off March, including Melo’s return to the high altitudes of Denver. With D-Will’s ankle crumbling and Joe Johnson undergoing the biggest transformation since Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, don’t be surprised to see this team drop into the bottom half.

Once the Nets drop off, the best bet to usurp their top 4 spot is the Atlanta Hawks. It’s hard to see where the team is with the Josh Smith impasse, but for now they seem to be rolling. The Al Hortford – J-Smoove high-low pick and roll has been a killer and if Smith can continue to exercise grown man judgement when it comes to shot selection they’re in prime position to catch-up to the Nets, who they’re trailing by only .5 games. They have a really tough first half of March, taking on the Lakers twice as well as travelling to South Beach. It does ease up towards the end. Hawks’ position will fluctuate towards the end, but it’s not a stretch to see them break into the top 4.

Boy, the Chicago Bulls could use some offense right about now. While I applaude their patience with letting Derrick Rose come back, this seriously hurts their chances of keeping a good playoff spot. With their curent schedule, it’s likely we will see the Bulls drop to 7th and have to take on Indiana, which at this point, no one wants. Their season hinges on when and how close to a 100% Derrick Rose comes back. I’m sure the return would power them somewhere into a half-decent playoff run. Unfortunately, until that time Tom Thibodeau has to rely on Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng to stimulate a resemblance of an offense. This team is not going up any time soon.

The Boston Celtics have one of the easiest schedules going into the final stretch. There are some marquee match-ups (OKC away on the 10th, Heat 18th, NYK 31st) but overall, it is a balanced run of both top and bottom teams, with the emphasis being on the bottom. The addition of Jordan Crawford should be enough to push the Celtics into 6th spot and a possible shot at the Knicks in the “soon to be in a nursing home” match-up. If that happens, stock up on Cheerios because that series will go bananas. For now, Doc Rivers better hope Paul Pierce gets out of his current slump and starts getting the team some wins.

Milwaukee Bucks have made a manageable effort to stay afloat behind Monta Ellis entire disregard for the pass. They have to hope that bringing in J.J. Redick can improve the ball movement and the team’s abysmal 3pt percentage. Their March stretch isn’t particularly tough, and I’d task the team to stay at least 2.0 games ahead of the bubble teams in order to stand a chance come April when they hit the road to New York, Miami, and OKC as well as hosting the red-hot Denver Nuggets.

On the bubble: The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers are the two teams struggling to knock off the Bucks, but both are 5.0 games behind, making it an uphill climb. One could lump the Pistons in here, at 7.0 behind, but let’s be honest here, giving that team any credit to climb into post seasons would just disappoint. The Raps have by far the easier schedule and have been on a romp since Rudy Gay’s arrival. Unfortunately, Gay is still way too eager to let it bomb and his FG% reflects that. The return of Andrea Bargnani will be good to watch. I personally believe Toronto is better without his soft Euroball approach, but he could spread the floor for Rudy and DeMar to penetrate. If they can keep up the high, and let Lowry and Telfair control the floor while limiting the number of obnoxious attempts by Rudy the Raps can definitely sneak into the 8th spot.

Philly will have a tougher go of it. The return of Thaddeus Young is huge at this stage, but last night’s loss to Orlando was not. The Andrew Bynum saga has been deserving of it’s own MTV Movie award (preferably for best hair and make up). The team just can’t get any traction, and even if Bynum comes back, it’s hard to see them pulling it together (they’ll more likely fall apart with chemistry issues). The brightest spot has been the play of Jrue Holiday, and Evan Turner finally figuring out how to play basketball. Better luck next season.

West coming later today or tomorrow.

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