The Atlantic took a hit during the month of December. Other than the Toronto Raptors -- who have been climbing in the standings -- this division's teams find that their positioning is starting to slip. Avery Johnson is gone, Felton is down with an injury, and the Celtics look like a mess. After a few days into the New Year, here are the current power rankings for the Atlantic Division.
1. New York Knicks: The Knicks hold onto the top spot, despite slowing down as of late. Felton is due to be out of action for a few weeks, but at the same time Amare Stoudemire has made his way back onto the floor. The Knicks’ lineup has shifted and both their offense and defense looks to be a step slow. Mike Woodson was most concerned about the team’s defense after their loss to the Trailblazers earlier this week, but New York reacted like a championship team and tightened their defense superbly the following game.
New York hosted the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night and locked down on defense for the entire 48 minutes. San Antonio scored an average of 20 points the first three quarters before reaching their meager high of 23 points in the fourth. Anthony and Smith led the team offensively, once again, while Pablo Prigioni stepped up by tying a career high nine assists and Steve Novak connected on five threes for 15 points. Throw in Tyson Chandler’s 10 point, 14 rebound performance and the Spurs could not handle the Knicks on this night.
The Knicks will likely see sporadic performances while Felton is sidelined, but as we can see they will still win their share of games. If New York can remain strong until Felton is back, this team will be in a great position to finish the second half of the season.
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2. The Brooklyn Nets: Brooklyn is just hovering above .500 and went through a brutal month of December finishing 5-11. Eastern conference coach of the month for November, Avery Johnson, was fired in December and P.J. Carlesimo has taken over as the interim head coach of the Nets. Brooklyn has won three of their four games under Carlesimo and look to be getting back on track after their win against the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday night.
The Nets had a breakout game against the Thunder and all of the sudden looked like the tough team we saw in November. To begin with, Joe Johnson set a season high with 33 points on only 19 shot attempts and outscored Kevin Durant who finished with 27 after being ejected in the closing minutes of the game. Brook Lopez had 25 points and Deron Williams had 19 points and 13 assists. With games like that from their star players, the Nets are nearly impossible to beat. It also helps that Kris Humphries is back after missing some games and the Nets will look for him to get back to the solid play he provided last season with the team.
The attention is focusing on interim coach Carlesimo as he tries to get this team back into a solid playoff position moving forward. But it will be up to the players to get this team where it needs to be. With all the talent on this roster the Nets should be third in the east instead of seventh. Between now and the all-star break we will get a better idea if this Brooklyn team will look to be contenders or if they will continue just pretending.
3. The Toronto Raptors: Toronto is in last place in the Atlantic division but has played the best basketball most recently. The Raptors have won eight of their last nine games and are coming off of a blowout victory over the Trailblazers. They are only two and a half games behind both Boston and Philadelphia, but with the way they are playing they will pass them in the standings within the month. That is unless those teams begin to play well again themselves.
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Jose Calderon has taken control of this team from the point position and Kyle Lowry is now their sixth-man off the bench, and that alone has paid dividends for this team. All the while, they are on this hot-streak without two of their starters in Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas. Ed Davis and Amir Johnson have stepped up and played remarkable basketball in their absence. Ed Davis has become the starting power forward and it does not appear that he will lose that job any time soon. He is coming off of a 19-point, seven rebound performance on 9-12 shooting from the field.
With rookie Terrence Ross coming into his own and now playing like a legitimate lottery pick alongside Lowry and Amir Johnson off the bench, this Toronto team is now looking deep and energetic. Give some credit to Dwane Casey for how he has turned this team around and keep an eye on them to see if they can make a run at the playoffs.
4. The Philadelphia 76ers: Philadelphia has won only five of their last 17 games and can’t quite put together a string of victories. Earlier this week they beat the Lakers in L.A., but the next game they lost to the mediocre Phoenix Suns. Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner continue to carry this team as they struggle to move forward without Andrew Bynum.
Looking at the standings in the eastern conference, the Sixers are not likely to climb higher than their current position without Andrew Bynum. They have a 15-18 record and are eighth in the conference. The reality is that they will likely miss the playoffs with the Celtics and or the Raptors moving ahead of them in the second half of the season.
Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday continues to play some damn good basketball. He was the key reason for their victory over the Lakers as he recorded 26 points and 10 assists to go along with Evan Turner’s 22 points and 13 rebounds. The following game Jrue recorded his second career triple-double posting 16 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds. Turner finished with only 13 points and two rebounds.
Consistency is the key in the NBA and the Sixers haven’t had a lot of it. Their overall post play is well below average and will hold them back for as long as Bynum is out.
5. The Boston Celtics: Coming into the season the Celtics were supposed to be the second best team in the east. They are currently ninth in the conference and are leaps and bounds from looking to take the Miami Heat to seven games in the eastern conference finals. Boston’s big three are in dire need of some added depth inside to help KG. Pierce and Rondo have been phenomenal at times this year, but unfortunately the rest of the team has not.
Jason Terry and Jeff Green have failed to come up with the strong season that Boston fans were looking to get from them. They can both be added to the list of underperforming Celtics. I also find myself wondering, where is Leandro Barbosa? Courtney Lee has not done much of anything and Barbosa may be a better scorer than Jason Terry, who has apparently started to deteriorate with age. So why has he not found his way into the rotation at all? Perhaps I am asking the wrong question now that Avery Bradley has made his return and Barbosa will likely continue to take a space at the end of the bench.
Now that Chris Wilcox is injured maybe Doc Rivers can recall Fab Melo from the D-league and give this 7-foot rookie some run. It sounds like the big man from Syracuse has been playing well now that he is healthy, so I’m not sure there is much to lose if you are the Celtics.
Boston is coming off a 10-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and are now 14-17, having lost eight of their last 10 games.