This is not the Eastern Conference you're used to seeing. I wrote last week that the quality of the playoff pack in the Western Conference had slipped, and the flip side of that is most of those wins have leaked Eastward. While the bottom of the conference remains as brutal as ever -- Cleveland is 17-30 and still outranks five other teams -- the East has five of the top eight teams in the standings and seven of the top 10 in my Power Rankings.
Included in that, obviously, are Chicago and Miami, who have been first and second in the Power Rankings in some order nearly the entire season. But let's not fast-forward to that Bulls-Heat conference finals just yet. For one thing, those two teams aren't exactly cementing their dominance right now -- Chicago is wringing its hands over Derrick Rose's groin injury and was just pounded at home by Denver, while the Heat have been in an offensive funk of late.
More importantly, as I mentioned yesterday in discussing AccuScore's playoff projections, it appears a Thunder-Spurs conference finals in the West is more likely than a Bulls-Heat showdown in the East, because Chicago and Miami are likely to have a much tougher road to get there.
Each of the other six likely playoff teams (sorry, Milwaukee) presents a threat to our conference finals showdown, and it's time to look at them in a bit more detail and examine why they might upset the playoff apple cart and what might stop them from doing so.
1. Orlando Magic (32-18, 9th in Power Rankings)
Why they might shock Miami or Chicago: Orlando is the one team most likely to break up a Heat-Bulls conference finals. With its heavy reliance on the 3-point shot, Orlando is the classic boom-bust offense, giving the Magic a puncher's chance in a short series. We've tended to focus on the bust part: Orlando has been held under 70 four times, including two games in the 50s, but it's also topped 110 four times -- which isn't easy when you play at the league's second-slowest pace. That pace has another positive effect too, however: It shortens the game, which usually favors the underdog.
Additionally, there's the Dwight Howard factor. Every team that has beaten Howard in the playoffs had a big, burly center who could push him off his spots and make him work for his points without requiring a double-team. That's what the Lakers did in 2009, and the Celtics in 2010, and the Hawks last season, and it may be that Orlando draws Atlanta in the first round again and exits quickly.
But you'll also note that Miami and Chicago don't have big centers who can handle Howard by themselves; Miami, which has split the season series with the Magic 2-2, appears extremely vulnerable on this count, and the Heat are Orlando's most likely second-round opponent.
On the other hand ... The Magic don't play the stifling defense they used to, ranking only 11th in defensive efficiency. In part that's because Howard has appeared less engaged on that end than in past seasons, and in part because their perimeter players are sieves.
Additionally, their guards can barely get the ball over the time line, so any team that can pressure the backcourt has a great chance of breaking their offense. And finally, their bench should be known as "seriously?" As in "seriously, Chris Duhon is the only other point guard?" Or, "seriously, Glen Davis is the first big off the bench?" Or "seriously, Quentin Richardson? In a game?"
J.J. Redick is the only productive sub; otherwise, any random injuries or foul trouble to Howard, Jameer Nelson or Ryan Anderson will leave the Magic hurting.
2. Philadelphia 76ers (28-22, 4th in Power Rankings)
Why they might shock Miami or Chicago: Because they're a much better team than people realize. The Sixers have the league's fourth-best scoring margin at a dominant plus-6.3 per game, a better indicator of future success than their ho-hum win-loss record, and they did this despite playing 29 games without breakout center Spencer Hawes. The Sixers lead the league in defensive efficiency, while their studious avoidance of turnovers seemingly neutralizes the Heat's biggest weapon in any potential matchup with Miami.
The Sixers are a weird team on many levels, with no star and inverted job descriptions. Their best shooters and passers are big men, their best rebounders and finishers are guards, and their best player is seventh on the team in points per minute. They mostly shoot midrange jumpers, play great defense, provide electrifying transition offense, and otherwise bore their opponents into submission.
As it turns out, however, what they're doing is really, really effective. It's easy to turn up your nose at all those blowouts against bad teams and focus on their failings against the elite clubs and in crunch time; of course, that was also Miami's profile a year ago, and they won the East when it counted.
On the other hand ... They stink in crunch time, and the shocking part, as I noted last week, is that their defense suffers even more than their offense. Philly lacks a go-to scorer late in games and has fairly unsuccessfully tried to cram Lou Williams into that role rather than diversifying the attack and relying on their strength in numbers.
There's also the question of how much they can ramp up for the playoffs. Doug Collins' sweat-every-detail approach seems better structured for regular-season overachieving than playoff advancement, especially if opponents can bottle up a fairly structured and predictable offensive attack. Additionally, the regular-season schedule was set up for the Sixers to succeed given their youth, bench and continuity from a year earlier; one can fairly wonder if the playoff format will diminish their advantages.
3. Atlanta Hawks (30-21, 10th in Power Rankings)
Why they might shock Miami or Chicago: The Hawks have gone 22-17 without Al Horford, which makes one wonder what they might accomplish with Al Horford. The All-Star center will mess the rest of the regular season with a torn pectoral muscle but should be back by the second round of the playoffs, which is when Atlanta would likely meet up with Miami or Chicago. (Obviously, the Hawks would need to win an opening-round series first and that won't be cake, but just humor me for a minute.)
The Hawks also hammered the Bulls early in the season when Horford was playing and narrowly lost in Chicago after blowing a big lead. The teams meet again Wednesday, albeit with no Horford and no Rose. Against Miami, the Hawks won in the Heat's building before losing Horford.
They've pulled off their strong play sans Horford because of a vastly improved defense that ranks sixth in the NBA in efficiency. With Jeff Teague replacing Mike Bibby and Kirk Hinrich playing most of his minutes at the 2, the Hawks are vastly better both at the point of attack and on the wings, while a slew of discount veteran bench pick-ups have provided unexpectedly positive returns: Atlanta has six minimum-contract bench players getting minutes, and none has a PER below 11.6.
Finally, the Hawks are something of a matchup chameleon, which makes them an interesting club in a playoff series. Power forward Josh Smith has played extensively at both center and small forward, sometimes in the same game, and with their newfound depth and the position malleability of Smith and Joe Johnson, Larry Drew has a lot of options at his disposal.
On the other hand ... This is something of a poor-man's Philadelphia, a deep, defending team that has no stars and questionable offense; the No. 2 scorer, Smith, has a ghastly 48.6 TS% that diminishes what otherwise is a slew of positives.
More importantly, it's still a bit cavalier to assume that All-Star level Al Horford will be taking the court after not having played for four months; in fact it's a bit cavalier to presume he'll be out there at all, although the Hawks have their fingers crossed for a postseason return.
And without Horford, this is a hard team to get excited about. That the Hawks have won so much in his absence is impressive, but if they don't get their dream matchup with Orlando in the first round it's hard to get excited about their prospects of winning one round, let alone two.
4. Indiana Pacers (29-19, 6th in Power Rankings)
Why they might shock Miami or Chicago: Well, they clearly aren't afraid of them. Indiana took two games off Chicago in a testy first-round series a year ago and have split two meetings with Bulls this season, and their past two meetings against Miami were an overtime loss and a 15-point win.
Indiana also has some weapons that may work particularly well against those opponents. Paul George and George Hill are both accomplished perimeter defenders who can check Miami's Dwyane Wade or Chicago's Rose; Roy Hibbert's low-post threat doesn't have an obvious counter on the Miami side, and Indiana's frontcourt depth can help withstand the Bulls' relentless attack on the glass.
On the other hand ... This is their ceiling, which is why I have a hard time getting too excited here. They've had basically no injuries (only losing Hill for 15 games and Granger for two), and as a younger, deeper team the schedule has worked to their advantage.
Additionally, their offense is still pretty hard on the eyes. Neither Darren Collison nor Hill is an instinctive point guard and nobody else is a particularly good passer either, so there's a lot of standing around and forced jumpers at the end of the clock. That formula doesn't work any better in the playoffs than in the regular season.
5. New York Knicks (25-25, 8th in Power Rankings)
Why they might shock Miami or Chicago: New York is better than its record, outscoring opponents by over two points per game despite sitting at .500, but the real threat is not just New York's numbers to date but how it might perform with its best players on the court.
Landry Fields is the only Knick to play every game this season; Carmelo Anthony has missed 10, Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert seven, Tyson Chandler two, J.R. Smith 31, and Baron Davis 34. And of course, there's the Linsanity factor: Jeremy Lin was backing up replacement level players for 25 games, and pick-and-roll comrade Steve Novak was a DNP for 12 before emerging.
As a result, we've hardly seen the Knicks with their best eight-man rotation, and when we did they were still feeling each other out as the Mike D'Antoni era wound down to its end-game. This unit might not amount to be much more than a .500 team, but it's the unknown that makes the Knicks intriguing. Even on results to date it's a better team than you think, albeit not one likely to put a shiver into Chicago or Miami; but if Stoudemire's back heals and they can put a Lin-Fields-Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler team on the court with Davis, Smith, Shumpert, Novak and Jared Jeffries in reserve, that's a fairly daunting lineup.
On the other hand ... Anthony and Stoudemire would need to play at their historic levels, rather than their 2011-12 levels, for an upset to have a real chance of happening. To date, they've provided no indication that they're about to rediscover the spring each had in his step two years ago, and each has a recent injury that compounds the problem.
New York wins with defense right now, ranking a shocking fifth in the NBA in efficiency (albeit against the league's easiest schedule), but when the go-to scorer has a true shooting percentage under 50 and his sidekick isn't much better, it's hard to beat good teams consistently.
6. Boston Celtics (27-22, 19th in Power Rankings)
Why they might shock Miami or Chicago: Well, we've seen this movie before -- Boston staggers through the regular season, gets its starters healthy for the playoffs and then gears up for a run. Amidst all the team's troubles, the Celtics' defense hasn't wavered (third in defensive efficiency), and their biggest weakness, the bench, will be much less of a factor when the starters play 40 minutes a night in the playoffs.
On the other hand ... They're just not that good. Boston is only 19th in the Power Rankings and has barely outscored its opponents while playing the league's third-easiest schedule thus far.
Also, the Celtics are out of bigs. With Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O'Neal done for the season, the Celtics' frontcourt "depth" consists of limited shot-blocker Greg Stiemsma and underachieving hothead Ryan Hollins.