The playoff picture in the Eastern Conference is beginning to set in, but with some shuffling of teams still likely to take place. So as the regular season winds down, here are some interesting storylines and potential first-round matchups that are worth exploring.
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks
Last month, Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings boldly stated his preference to face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs:
“The two games that we played Miami so far, we matched up well against them,” Jennings said. “If you ask me, that’s who I would want to play first round, Miami.
“Just the fact over the years, a lot of the games have gone down to the wire with us and Miami. Right now we haven’t really played well against the Knicks. I just feel better if we play Miami first round, just the fact we have good games against them.
“I don’t know if it’s because they’re the champs or what, but we always play harder against Miami.”
-Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks (Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel (JS Online), March 8, 2013)
In three games this season, the Heat are 2-1 against the Bucks–with one more meeting set for Tuesday, April 9, in Milwaukee.
On Nov. 21, the Heat outscored the Bucks in the fourth quarter to force overtime and went on to win 113-106. Then on Dec. 29, this time playing at home, the Bucks blew the game open with a 35-14 fourth quarter and went on to win 104-85. The Heat, leading by 16 points after three quarters, earned a 107-94 victory on March 15 in Miami.
I’m not convinced that those classify as “good games.”
These teams have not met in the playoffs since the Heat assembled the “Big Three,” nor have the Bucks appeared in the postseason at all since 2010.
I highly doubt that the final regular-season matchup will provide any insight into how the opening-round series might unfold as the Heat are unlikely to have a full compliment of players. LeBron James and Ray Allen returned to the lineup to face the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night, however, Dwyane Wade remained on the sidelines and was joined by Chris Bosh. As such, I suspect the Heat will hold players out of games and limit minutes in their remaining six games.
The Heat have already clinched first place in the Eastern Conference (winning 27 games in a row can’t hurt a team’s chances of finishing with the top seed) and the only question will be whether they can hold on and finish with a better record than the San Antonio Spurs to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
I will take a closer look at the Bucks’ chances at success in the playoffs next week, but for now I am comfortable saying that the Heat will prevail in this series.
(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics
Currently on an 11-game winning streak, the New York Knicks are arguably the hottest team heading into the playoffs, lead by the stellar play of Carmelo Anthony.
The Knicks forward is on fire, averaging 43.7 points on 64.2 percent shooting in three games played in April. Anthony dropped 50 on the Heat on April 2, scored 40 against the Atlanta Hawks the following night and on Friday he poured in 40 against the Bucks.
By scoring 40-plus points in three straight games, Anthony became the first Knicks player to accomplish that feat since Bernard King in 1984.
Overall, Anthony is averaging 28.3 points per game this season and is in pursuit of Kevin Durant (28.4) for the NBA scoring title.
Amare Stoudemire has seen limited action for the Knicks this season due to a knee injury, appearing in just 29 games between Jan. 1 and March 7; however, the team has found a balance without him in the lineup.
NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate J.R Smith is averaging 17.8 points per game, the highest among reserves, and Jason Kidd–despite posting numbers well below his career averages in points, assists, rebounds, and minutes played–provides a steady hand at the point guard position
The Knicks’ main area of concern is in the frontcourt, with an array of aging players (Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas, and Kenyon Martin) who struggle to stay healthy.
For me, the Boston Celtics are the surprise team in the Eastern Conference. Despite losing Allen in free agency and Rajon Rondo due to a season-ending injury, the Celtics have kept things together with the veteran leadership of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Furthermore, a great deal of credit goes to coach Doc Rivers for continually getting his teams to buy into a system that demands hard-nosed defense and requires a mature, unselfish approach to scoring.
Pierce and Garnett seemingly refuse to believe that the window has closed for the Celtics and this team will go as far as that determination can carry them–assuming that both return form ankle injuries in time for the start of the playoffs.
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks
This matchup is not set in stone.
The Indiana Pacers have their sights set on the second seed and trail the Knicks by just two games; however, it is unlikely that the Pacers will drop in the standings as they have a 3.5-game lead over the fourth-place Brooklyn Nets.
Similarly, the Hawks could drop down to seventh as they are just two games ahead of the Celtics, but the possibility also exists for the Hawks to move up to fourth and gain home-court advantage.
Despite playing almost the entire season without Danny Granger (he appeared in five games from Feb. 23 to March 3), the Pacers are loaded with talent and are poised to make a run deep into the playoffs.
The Pacers are not exactly an offensive juggernaut, scoring 94.8 points per game for a rank of 22nd. Instead, the specialty for this team is defense as they give up just 90 points per game, trailing only the Memphis Grizzlies (89.8) in that category.
The Pacers are on a roll of late, sporting and 7-3 record in their last 10 games, despite getting thumped 104-85 by the Washington Wizards on Saturday night.
Conversely, the Hawks–just 4-6 in their last 10 and losers of three straight—are not playing their best basketball right now.
But even when the Hawks bring their “A” game, I’m not totally sold on this team’s chances of success in the playoffs.
They are the classic case of a team built for the regular season and would be completely overmatched in a seven-game series against the Pacers.
However, it is possible that I am way off-base in thinking this.
Josh Smith is an extremely dynamic and athletic forward at both ends of the floor for the Hawks and along with center Al Horford, who can be described in the same terms, make the Hawks a tough team to deal with at the 4 and 5 positions.
The Hawks can also put pressure on the defense from the guard and wing positions with Jeff Teague averaging 14.2 points per game (13th overall among point guards) and Kyle Korver providing an accurate touch from 3-point range.
The Hawks score 97.6 points per game, but surrender 97.2, a stat that suggests a free-flowing style of play that doesn’t translate into playoff success.
The Pacers would turn this into a tough and gritty series that may prove frustrating for the Hawks.
(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls
Moving up to the third seed is not likely for either the Nets or the Chicago Bulls, but either team could still slide down to six.
With only 1.5 games separating them, these teams are locked in a battle for home-court advantage. The Bulls prevailed 3-1 in the season series, therefore holding the tiebreaker in the event that they finish with the same record as the Nets.
The four games in 2012-13 between the Nets and Bulls were decided by a total of five points, with the short-handed Bulls earning a 92-90 victory in Brooklyn on April 4.
The Bulls were without Derrick Rose (still recovering from knee surgery), Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton, Taj Gibson, and Marco Belinelli, for that game but somehow found a way to win.
The Bulls are another example of a team that excels by playing in a disciplined system. Lead by defensive-minded coach Tom Thibodeau, the team manages to stay successful while key pieces move in and out of the rotation.
The Nets loaded up on talent prior to their move to Brooklyn, including the re-signing of Deron Williams, the extension given to Brook Lopez and acquisition of Joe Johnson, but may still experience difficulty matching up against the Bulls.
It is also worth mentioning that the Bulls have the distinction of snapping Miami’s 27-game winning streak, back on March 27.
Simply put, the Bulls, who will hope to have a full compliment of healthy players for the first round with the exception of Rose, can win this series because of their defense. Even if Rose declares himself healthy for a playoff run, I think the Bulls could afford to delay his return until the second round.