NBA Eastern Conference Notes
JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK
CATCHING UP IN THE NBA: EASTERN CONFERENCE
Back as promised with a look at the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. Let's see how everyone's playing LATELY, which will have a lot more to do with who wins and loses in the postseason than full season records.
You'll probably be watching Boston visit Chicago tonight on TNT in one of the biggest regular season games left on the schedule. This is the perfect way to get you ready for a matchup of potential Eastern Conference champions.
Here's a brief team-by-team look at the teams you'll be handicapping in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Bulls certainly play a championship caliber of defense. Defense and rebounding wins championships, so we're talking them very seriously. That being said...you usually have to go deep and lose at least once in the playoffs before you can go deep and win. Postseason experience is HUGE in this sport. Chicago is lacking that across the roster. Most importantly, their head coach is a rookie in terms of running the whole show. And, point guard Derrick Rose may be too undersized to carry the team on his shoulders through a series of wars vs. very physical inside teams. Having home court advantage throughout the Eastern brackets will help, as will drawing a virtual bye with Indiana in the first round. We're still more optimistic about this team for NEXT year rather than this year because of the lack of playoff experience. We'll be happy to let them change our minds though. We love how this team plays.
Miami shows championship form much of the time. They didn't turn out to win 65 or 70 games like many pundits expected (they won't even make it to 60). But, you have to admit that few if any teams are better than Miami at its best. Our concern is with their poor showing in"challenge" games vs. other top contenders. The Heat have underachieved expectations consistently when playing great defense or dangerous opposition. They must still figure out how to win that type of game if they're going to advance past Boston or Chicago to reach the Finals. Given our preference for playoff experience, we'd probably think of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as the true top seeds in the East. It's far from a slam dunk though.
Have the Celtics gotten too old? They've played that way down the stretch. And, their hoped for solutions on the bench aren't panning out. The big win at San Antonio last week did impress us, as did a blowout win Tuesday Night over Philadelphia. It's worth noting that Rajon Rondo played great in both of those games. He was a force in last year's playoffs for awhile. He wore down late though, which was arguably the most important reason the Celtics couldn't go the distance. Last year's Boston team would have struggled with this year's Chicago or Miami teams in those games where Rondo wasn't flying all over the court. We think of the Celtics as a solid #3 seed...but they're a notch below Miami and Chicago in terms of championship potential in our view.
This group just doesn't strike us as a serious threat. They've been inconsistent lately. The coach and star think they're being victimized by referees and the commissioner. Sometimes an"us against the world" mentality creates great things. Sometimes, it beats a team down until they give up. Orlando has the talent to scare everyone above them on this list, but the body language of a team that figures they won't get the calls when it matters, so why even bother.
The Hawks have mostly been HORRIBLE vs. good teams for several weeks now. It's very hard to take them seriously as a threat in the playoffs. Maybe they can outplay Orlando if the Magic stay down in the dumps emotionally. Can they score enough on Chicago to win four games in seven? Maybe one or two. It's a testament to how weak the East is this year that a team as uncompetitive in big games as Atlanta has been is still in the fifth spot on the totem pole.
Doug Collins has brought this team a long way. But, that's just from being a disappointment back to being a nice team. They're nowhere near the class of the conference. A blowout loss to Boston Tuesday cast doubt on their ability to match up with the Celtics in a first round 3-6 matchup if that's how the brackets end up. Credit Collins and Company for what they've accomplished. In the West, would these guys even make the playoffs?
Ah, the enigma that is the New York Knicks. They have a championship level offense in a sport where defense wins championships and offense gets you TV commercials and SNL appearances. The Knicks at their best can put up a good seven-game fight against any of the top three seeds. They HAVE had moments of hustling defense this year. They CAN outscore anyone when the treys are falling even if the defense is weak. On the other hand, you still have guys trying to get the hang of playing together in a field of quality defenses. History just hasn't smiled on this style outside of the Steve Nash years in Phoenix. And, Nash never made the finals anyway.
The Pacers had a few moments of glory right when Frank Vogel took over as the new head coach. They couldn't maintain that frenzied pace though. And, opponents made some adjustments that counteracted what the Pacers had been doing. Lately, they've been pretty awful in terms of playoff standards. The eighth seed in the East usually isn't a playoff caliber team to begin with. No change this year in that regard. You'll get to see Tyler Hansborough hustle for 4-5 games. Enjoy it while it lasts.
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Here's how we'd rank the East in terms of our Power Ratings and true playoff potential.
1...Miami (barely the nod over Chicago because of experience)
2...Chicago (barely the nod over Boston because of health)
3...Boston (capable of surprising, no doubt)
4...Orlando (big drop off between 1-3 and the field though)
5...New York (close to Orlando, but not big three)
6-7...Atlanta /Philadelphia (hard to take seriously)
8...Indiana (way behind the field, let alone the big three)
Here are big Eastern Conference games on the upcoming schedule.
Boston at Chicago
Atlanta at Indiana (good playoff tuneup)
Chicago at Orlando (a chance for Orlando to gain confidence)
Boston at Miami (might get physical, WILL get physical!)
New York at Indiana
(Note that the first two games will be ABC's doubleheader, and NY/Indiana will be televised by the NBA Network).
Orlando at Philadelphia
Miami at Atlanta
Chicago at New York
New York at Boston
Indiana at Orlando
There are definitely some games to get excited about on that schedule. We should know a lot more about how Chicago, Miami, and Boston shape up against each other a week from now. We'll also have a better sense of how Orlando, New York, and Atlanta may play given the challenge games on their schedules. This is a VERY important week of homework for handicappers! Be sure you focus on the task at hand so you can have a very successful postseason.
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EARLY THURSDAY MLB STARTS
Houston at Cincinnati
Colorado at Pittsburgh
Atlanta at Milwaukee
NY Mets at Philadelphia
Boston at Cleveland
Oakland at Toronto
Minnesota at NY Yankees
Tampa Bay at Chicago
Build your bankrolls with some afternoon delights before hitting Boston-Chicago hard in the NBA.
Back Friday to crunch the numbers from those afternoon baseball games. The big schedule gives us the perfect chance to catch up with many Major League teams in one big report. Saturday we'll go in depth with the Yankees and Red Sox since they're on FOX and ESPN over the weekend. Sunday, we plan to take a closer look at the Miami Heat as they prepare for what they hope is a championship run with that big home game against Boston.
Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!
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