The Celtics begin play post-All Star break with a 41-14 record (.741), percentage points ahead of the “boys from South Beach,” who are 41-15 (.732). The 38-16 Bulls (.704) are two games back, after entering the All Star break with a winning percentage over .700 for just the fifth time in franchise history. The 36-21 Magic currently hold the No. 4 position, one game ahead of the 34-21 Hawks. The final three playoff spots in the East are currently held by the 28-26 Knicks plus two sub-.500 clubs, the 27-29 76ers and the 24-30 Pacers. The 24-32 Bobcats are one game out of the East’s final playoff spot, the Bucks 3 1/2 games back and the Pistons 4 1/2 out. Unlike the West, where if the playoffs were to begin today, just one postseason team from last year would miss this season (the Suns being replaced by the Hornets), the East would currently feature three new postseason entries in 2011.
Which teams made last year’s postseason in the East and are in danger of missing this year’s ‘party?’ Let’s start with the Cavs. After playing in the NBA Finals in 2007, the Cavs fell to just 45 wins the next year while losing in the second round (in seven games) to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. However, Cleveland won 66 games in 2008-09 and 61 in 2009-10, each year representing the most of any team. However, you may have heard, the Cavs had a significant ‘defection’ prior to the opening of this season and come out of the All Star break with an NBA-worst 10-46 record. The Bucks went 46-36 last year (earning the No. 6 seed) but at 21-34, come out of the All Star break 3 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot with the Bobcats 2 1/2 games in front of them. There’s little to indicate that the Bucks are about to make a ‘playoff push’ post-All Star break. As for the Bobcats, they posted the franchise’s first-ever winning season last year (44-38), as well as making its first-ever playoff appearance. The team dumped Larry Brown after a 9-19 start this year and replaced him with Paul Silas. Charlotte is 15-13 since and has a solid shot at making it two straight playoff appearances this year. If the Bobcats don’t make a late-season push, the East could have three new playoff entrants this season, although none of them will be serious contenders.
The Knicks are on the verge of ending a six-year playoff drought, which matches that of the T-wolves for the longest active of any NBA team (note: the Knicks haven’t posted a winning season since 2000-01). Carmelo virtually guarantees 20 to 25 points per night and is the ultimate blessing for Amare Stoudemire. Some say that the Knicks traded away too much but Billups is surely an upgrade at point guard, especially come playoff time. By the way, if Chandler, Felton, Gallinari and Mozgov were really that good, wouldn’t the Knicks be better than 28-26 at the break? ‘Melo and Billups have 28 games to “get accustomed.” The 76ers missed the postseason last year (27-55) but had been postseason participators the previous two seasons. Doug Collins has done an excellent job in Philadelphia, after a poor start. His Philly team opened the year 3-13 but has gone 24-16 over its last 40 games. The Pacers, like the Bobcats, have benefited by a coaching change this season. Team president Larry Bird was unhappy with Jim O’Brien’s handling of Indiana’s young players and fired O’Brien in late January after a 17-27 start. Assistant Frank Vogel was promoted and the Pacers won seven of his first eight games, before losing the final two before the break. The Pacers have missed the playoffs the last four years, after making 16 postseason appearances the previous 17 years.
I mentioned John Hollinger’s (ESPN’s NBA guru) rankings in part 1 of this article and will note here that he has the 27-29 76ers ranked eighth (among all 30 teams), despite them owning just the league’s 17th-best record. He also ranks the 34-21 Hawks (owners of the East’s fifth-best record) just 18th overall. I’m not arguing with Atlanta’s low ranking, as the Hawks have been eliminated in each of the last two postseasons by second-round sweeps. The Cavs did the honors in 2009, outscoring the Hawks on average 96.3-to-78.3 PPG, while the Magic disposed of the Hawks last year by an average margin of 107.3-to-82.0 PPG. That brings us to the East’s current top-four.
The Magic represented the East in the NBA Finals in 2009 and seemed to be heading back for another shot at the Lakers in 2010, by opening the postseason with four-game sweeps of the Bobcats and Hawks, outscoring them 101.0-to-83.8 PPG in the two series. However, the Magic promptly lost Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals at home to the Celtics, eventually losing that series in six games. The Magic made two major trades this past December, in hopes of keeping up with the Celtics and Heat. They acquired Gilbert Arenas (he looks washed up) from the Washington Wizards plus Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson from the Phoenix Suns, who have both fit in nicely. Orlando sent forward Rashard Lewis to Washington plus Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat to Phoenix in a separate trade. The Magic also gave Phoenix their 2011 first-round draft pick and cash plus received Suns forward Earl Clark. Dwight Howard is still the team’s centerpiece but the jury is still out on this team. The Magic went on a 1-8 slide just before and after the big trade, then won nine straight from Dec 23 through Jan 8, but in the 20 games since that winning streak ended, the Magic are 11-9. You tell me if this team is a contender or an also-ran.
Just how good are the Bulls? More than a few people will argue that Derrick Rose (24.9-4.4-8.2) is this year’s MVP, as the Bulls opened the season with Boozer (17.4-10.1 in his career) missing the team’s first 15 games and then shortly after he got back on the court, Noah (14.0-11.7 TY) was sidelined with that thumb injury. Boozer’s missed 18 games in all this year with the Bulls going a respectable 11-7 while they’ve gone 22-8 in Noah's absence. The good news is, that the Bulls say Noah’s ready to return on Wednesday. For the Bulls to be a serious playoff contender, they’ll have to start proving they can win on the road. Chicago is 25-4 at home through the All Star break but just 13-12 on the road. Let me point out that Chicago is one of five NBA teams to come out of the break with a record of better than .700 but it’s very significant that those other four teams, the Spurs, Celtics, Heat and Mavs are a combined 76-35 away from home, a winning percentage of .685 (compared to Chicago’s .520). That won’t cut it!
That leaves us with the Celtics and Heat. The Celtics barely edged out the Heat for the East’s top record at the break but have beaten Miami in all three meetings this year, which would give them the tie-breaker if these teams wound up with similar regular season records (not so far-fetched). If one believes that defense wins championships, then you’ll like both of these teams. Boston is allowing the fewest points at the break of any team (91.1 PPG) while holding opponents to 43.6 percent of their FGs, ranking third. Miami is allowing a few more points than Boston at 94.1 per game (6th-best) but leads in defensive FG percentage (42.6), as well as in opponents’ three-point percentage (33.0). While we all focus on LeBron (26.1-7.4-7.3), Wade (25.4-6.9-4.3) and Bosh (18.5-8.1), three players can’t guard five, so someone (other than the Big 3) is doing something right down in Miami on the defensive end of the court.
The reason I favor Boston over Miami the rest of the way (although let me note that the Heat do own the easier schedule), is on the offensive side of the game. Boston is shooting an NBA-best 49.3 percent as a team. LeBron shoots 48.5 with Wade and Bosh both shooting 49.7 percent with those three ‘carrying’ the team to an overall 47.4 percent mark which ranks second. Let me go back to when these teams last met on Feb 13. Despite Boston’s leading scorer (Pierce at 18.8 PPG) playing 40 minutes and scoring just one point (he was 0-of-10 from the floor, including 0-of-5 on threes), the Celtics won, 85-82. Six other Celtics scored in double figures that game, something Miami does not have the capability of doing. Miami’s Big 3 combined for 62 of the team's 82 points (76 percent) in that contest and in the end, I see that being Miami’s downfall. However, we have almost 30 games to go and I reserve the right to change my mind.
I’ll be back with my latest CBB Notes on Friday.