Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference
With the NBA playoffs now just three weeks away, it is time to start taking a close look at the playoff picture in each conference. Below we breakdown the remaining schedule of each team in the East and take a brief glimpse at the current state of affairs in each city…
#1. Chicago Bulls (43-13)
Remaining Schedule (5 Home, 5 Away): @NYK, NYK, MIA, @DET, WAS, @CHA, @MIA, DAL, @IND, CLE
Outlook/Prognosis: The story of the second-half of this Bulls season has been Chicago remarkable ability to string together wins despite playing without their best player, reigning NBA MVP, Derrick Rose. Consider this interesting fact courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau: “Earlier this month, Derrick Rose became only the fifth player to miss as many as 20 games as the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player. To their credit, Chicago has fared much better without Rose this season (15-7) than the Lakers did without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1977-1978 (8-12) or the 76ers did without Allen Iverson in 2001-2002 (7-15). The other MVPs to miss at least 20 games missed the entire season: Bill Walton (MVP in 1977-1978) and Michael Jordan (following Retirement #2 in 1998)…” However, as we all know, the Bulls are only a legit championship contender if D Rose is at, or at least close to, 100%. And there was some encouraging news out of the Windy City on Thursday, when Rose stated he would suit up on Sunday when the Bulls take on the Knicks at MSG. More good news for Bulls fans: Chicago plays just 10 times (fewest in the NBA) over the next 20 days, which should give Rose more time to rest.
#2. Miami HEAT (39-14)
Remaining Schedule (8 Home, 5 Away): MEM, DET, BOS, @CHI, CHA, @NYK, @NJN, TOR, CHI, WAS, HOU, @BOS, @WAS
Outlook/Prognosis: Coming off arguably their most impressive victory this season (a 98-93 triumph over the West’s top team – Oklahoma City Thunder), the HEAT served notice that, as the defending Conference champs, they are still the team to beat in the East. Miami has hit some minor speed bumps during the regular season, but we all know they will be judged solely by how they perform in the postseason. The HEAT players know this as well, so a lack of focus here and there is somewhat understandable. But now that we have reached April, except LeBron and D Wade and company to ramp up the effort and intensity as they prepare to stake claim to their first NBA title as teammates.
#3. Indiana Pacers (33-21)
Remaining Schedule (9 Home, 3 Away): OKC, BOS, TOR, @CLE, CLE, @MIL, MIN, @PHI, MIL, PHI, DET, CHI
Outlook/Prognosis: The steady, consistent Pacers have been one of the East’s more pleasant surprises this season. Viewed as a fringe playoff team coming into the 2011-2012 campaign, Indiana has reeled of win after win on their way to a possible top-3 seed. Indiana finishes up with 10 of their final 12 games at home, but they face some stiff competition during this final stretch. Interestingly, the Pacers have been able to feast on the teams they should beat (18-8 versus teams with losing records), but have had plenty of problems with the league’s elite.Indiana is just 15-13 against teams above .500. Indiana will need to prove they can beat the best in order to advance.
#4. Boston Celtics (30-24)
Remaining Schedule (5 Home, 7 Away): @IND, PHI, @MIA, ATL, @TOR, @NJN, @CHA, @NYK, ORL, @ATL, MIA, MIL
Outlook/Prognosis: Many pundits predicted that window had already closed on the Celtics, and that the aging Big 3 would quickly wear down during this hectic and compacted 66-game schedule. Well, the demise of the C’s appears to have been greatly exaggerated. Despite some early season stumbles, Boston has leaped into the lead in the Atlantic Division, thanks in large part to a recent two-week stretch which saw them win seven of eight games and pass the sliding Sixers. With their dangerous combination of talent (Rondo is as crafty and effective as ever; Pierce has been his usual, splendid self; and KG has been the team’s all-around MVP) and experience, the Celtics are the quintessential “team nobody wants to face in the playoffs.” Does Boston have enough gas in the tank to make one last run with the Big 3? We shall see…
#5. Atlanta Hawks (32-23)
Remaining Schedule (7 Home, 4 Away): DET, @CHA, @BOS, @ORL, TOR, @TOR, DET, BOS, NYK, LAC, DAL
Outlook/Prognosis: After losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals each of the past three seasons, Atlanta is looking to take that “next step” this year. If they are able to shock some folks and make it East Finals, it will likely be due to star forward Josh Smith, who is currently playing the best basketball of his career. In the 21 contests the Hawks have played since the All-Star break, Smith is averaging 23.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.3 blocks, and 1.3 steals. Incredible numbers; and Atlanta will need an incredible effort to topple the favored Bulls or HEAT in the second round of the playoffs.
#6. Orlando Magic (32-23)
Remaining Schedule (4 Home, 7 Away): @PHI, DET, @WAS, ATL, @CLE, PHI, @BOS, @UTA, @DEN, CHA, @MEM
Outlook/Prognosis: After the insanity of Thursday’s shootaround shenanigans, in which Coach Stan Van Gundy informed the media he knew that Dwight Howard had asked for his coach to be fired, followed by another blowout loss to the Knicks (Orlando’s fifth straight defeat), the Magic are obviously in a complete free fall right now. Will they be able to right the ship and get everyone on the same page before the completion of the regular season? Will Stan Van Gundy remain the head coach? Can Van Gundy and Howard smooth out their differences in time to help this team fulfill its substantial potential? Far more questions than answers in Orlando right now…
#7. Philadelphia 76ers (29-25)
Remaining Schedule (3 Home, 9 Away): ORL, @BOS, @NJN, @TOR, NJN, @ORL, IND, @CLE, @IND, @NJN, @MIL, @DET
Outlook/Prognosis: What in the world is going on in Philadelphia? Just a couple of weeks ago the Sixers had a strangle hold on first place in the Atlantic Division. Now, they are simply fighting to secure a spot in the postseason tournament. Philly hasn’t won back-to-back games in nearly a month and they now have a just slim 1.5 game lead over the 8th place Knicks, with the Bucks are charging as well. Making matters worse for Philadelphia, they spend most of the month of April on the road – nine of the Sixers final 11 contests are away from home. The 76ers are just 10-14 on the road this season. The Sixers do have decent depth, so they should be able to physically withstand the grind; but will they be able to reverse course and build some momentum?
#8. New York Knicks (28-27)
Remaining Schedule (5 Home, 6 Away): CHI, @CHI, @MIL, WAS, MIA, BOS, @NJN, @CLE, @ATL, LAC, @CHA
Outlook/Prognosis: This has truly been an epically entertaining and dramatic roller coaster ride of a season for the Knickerbockers. With 11 games left in the final 18 day, it is difficult to predict whether the final chapter of the Knicks 2010-2011 season will end with a happy ending or on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. At this point, the rule in New York is to expect the unexpected. After taking advantage of a wayward Magic squad on Thursday night, the Knicks pulled a full game in front of the Bucks. However, the Knicks begin a brutal stretch this weekend, when they take on all three division leaders in their conference (the Bulls [twice], the Celtics, and the HEAT) within an eight-day span, with a crucial showdown with the Bucks during the middle of the stretch. The good news is that four of their final five games of the season are at home, and three of those five are against the three teams in last place in each East division (Nets, Cavs, and Bobcats).
#9. Milwaukee Bucks (26-28)
Remaining Schedule (8 Home, 4 Away): CHA, POR, OKC, NYK, @DET,IND, @WAS, @IND, NJN, TOR, PHI, @BOS
Outlook/Prognosis: Although the postseason technically begins on April 28th, many will consider the Bucks vs. Knicks matchup next Wednesday to first playoff game of 2012. The implications for this contest are enormous. The Bucks currently lead the season series between these two teams 2-1. So, if Milwaukee wins on Wednesday, they clinch the tie-breaker, which would force New York to finish AHEAD of Milwaukee to sneak in ahead of the Bucks. If New York wins on Wednesday, a potential tie would be broken by division winning percentage, or, if need be, conference win percentage. (The complete list of tie-breaker scenarios are listed below.)
(-) Tie breaker not needed (better overall winning percentage)
(1) Division leader wins tie from team not leading a division
(2) Head-to-head won-lost percentage
(3) Division won-lost percentage
(4) Conference won-lost percentage
(5) W-L Percentage vs. Playoff teams, own conference
(6) W-L Percentage vs. Playoff teams, other conference
(7) Net Points, all games