NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference
The Eastern Conference playoff teams are set. The 8th seed Bucks, at 37-39, clinched a playoff spot Saturday night. The top of the division is strong and have separated themselves from the pack. In most people's eyes, the Heat are a foregone conclusion to win the East handily, but as we've seen in the playoffs before, anything can and will happen. Here's a complete analysis of all of the Eastern Conference playoff teams and what they bring to the table.
1. Miami Heat
The first team to reach 60 wins in the NBA, the Heat have been a force all season. The closest team in the East is the Knicks and they're a staggering 10.5 games back. The talent they have is unquestionable, rostering future Hall of Famers in Lebron, Wade, Bosh, and Allen. Their 27 game winning streak was one of the most impressive things the NBA has seen in years. The Heat have a great mix of defensive specialists, shooters, and veteran leaders. It would be shocking to see Miami fall within the first two rounds, so I would consider them a lock to at least reach the conference finals. Injuries can happen and Miami has been resting their top players lately anticipating a grueling playoffs. Miami is the best team in the East by far, but when opponents are giving them their best shot every night, it'll be interesting to see if Miami can live up to the hype.
2. New York Knicks
The Knicks are officially on fire. With their 11 game winning streak, they've pushed comfortably ahead of Indiana. The Knicks biggest question is what they'll get from their role players come playoff time. They know what Carmelo Anthony is gonna do, but the inconsistency of J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton could lead to an early exit. They'll matchup against the Celtics in the first round, a historically difficult team for the Knicks to take down. Anthony has never been to the second round of the playoffs, though his last few chances were with Denver. With home-court until the conference finals, I'd expect the Knicks to at least get past that first round.
3. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have been consistent all year, and a bit underrated. Their defensive numbers are among the NBA's best They've been playing most of the season without Danny Granger, and he'll miss the playoffs this year. Paul George has emerged a legitimate top 15 player in the NBA, leading to much of the success of the Pacers. With a frontcourt of Roy Hibbert and David West, they pose difficulties for most Eastern Conference squads. If Hibbert can step up and play physical basketball, the Pacers could defeat anybody in the East including Miami.
4. Brooklyn Nets
Moving to New York gave the Nets some hope and they've finally lived up to their potential. Brook Lopez has been the Nets' best player all year, leading all centers in scoring. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson have proven to be a backcourt that works. Rebounder Reggie Evans has been a spark for Brooklyn, but he's a serious offensive liability. I just don't think the Nets have scored consistently enough this year to make a championship run. Their talent can match New York and Indiana, but I'd say the Nets will need another full year under coach P.J. Carlesimo before they can beat these teams in the playoffs.
5. Chicago Bulls
Bulls fans need to be realistic. Derrick Rose is not returning this year and I don't blame him. Returning just in time for the playoffs wouldn't do him or the team any good. Team chemistry would suffer if Rose came back. He likely wouldn't return to form that quickly and would be on a minutes limit. Chicago needs to stick with what they do best to have playoff success. They are a gritty team and used that style of play to take down the Heat's streak. Jimmy Butler could be an x-factor for Chicago. He's an above average defender who has the ability to guard anybody from Lebron to Melo. Chicago is scheduled to play Brooklyn in the first round and I can see them pulling off the early upset.
6. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are a prime example of a team that is playing to play rather than to win. They consistently make the playoffs, but will never win a championship with the roster they have. Josh Smith struggles mightily from the line, which is a major problem because he gets there so often. PG Jeff Teague is on the rise but is probably a few years away from fully showcasing his talent. If Kyle Korver can get hot from the 3 point line, I wouldn't be surprised if he carried the Hawks through the first round. Besides that, Atlanta doesn't matchup well with Indiana and should exit the playoffs immediately this year.
7. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are another team playing without a key star. Rajon Rondo tore his ACL earlier this year and left a major void in Boston. There is no single player that could replace Rondo. The Celtics played well after initially after Rondo's injury, but have struggled lately. Kevin Garnett has been out for the past two weeks, but should return soon. Jeff Green has emerged as a star in Boston and has earned a starting spot. The Celtics need Garnett, Pierce, and Green to be on top of their game to have any chance against New York.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
As mentioned above, the Hawks have a losing record. This won't be there year but they have a bright future. PG Brandon Jennings is turning into a lethal player, but needs support to take his team to the next level. Monta Ellis has not been the player that the Bucks thought they were getting when he was traded for last season. Big man Larry Sanders is a blocks machine but he's still finding his offensive game. I like the J.J. Reddick addition, adding a talented scorer to a team that needed an upgrade at the wing. Look out for the Bucks to be even better next year.
The Playoffs are sure to be exciting in the East. Miami is by far the best team this year, but I can't yet pencil them into my championship. Who do you think will make it out of the East? Comment below and make a case for your favorite team!