Playoff spots are far from sealed in the Western Conference, but on the other side of the country the remainder of the NBA season is practically down to formalities.
With most teams having less than 25 games left on their schedule, the eight teams that will likely see postseason play in the East has been all but decided. The eighth seeded Milwaukee Bucks currently hold a seven game lead over the ninth placed Philadelphia 76ers who recently found out that Andrew Bynum will not actually suit up for the franchise that traded away its best player to acquire him last year.
Mathematically it’s not impossible for Philadelphia to claw their way back to that eight seed, but given the play of Milwaukee since acquiring JJ Redick, it seems unlikely that the Bucks will drop enough games to open the door for Milwaukee to make such a comeback.
So given what we see taking shape, let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference matchups of the first round if the season ends with all things intact as they are. It may only be March, but it’s never too early to start dreaming of the playoffs and all the magic they entail.
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#1 MIAMI vs #8 MILWAUKEE
The Bucks may be playing well, but if they make the postseason things will be short lived as they are no match for the Miami Heat. The best case scenario for them is to do everything in their power to surpass Boston in the standings before the season ends, because if it comes down to a matchup with the defending champions, the Bucks will do well just to win a game.
In their two meetings this season, each side has come up victorious at home, but with the Heat playing the best basketball in the league right now, we’ll likely get a more realistic preview of what that playoff series would look like in their next two meetings on Mar. 15 and Apr. 9.
Prediction: The Heat matchup well with Milwaukee who are significantly outgunned and don’t have a strong enough front court to overpower the Heat. Though Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and the league’s leading shot blocker Larry Sanders will put up respectable battles night in and night out, it would probably only take Miami five games to ease into the Eastern Conference semifinals.
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#2 INDIANA vs #7 BOSTON
The Celtics lack firepower without Rajon Rondo, but they did attempt to add to their arsenal by bringing in Jordan Crawford at the trade deadline. Whether or not that move would be enough to help them steer past the second best defensive team in the league in Indiana is questionable though.
The Pacers have plenty of offensive weapons with Paul George, David West and the successful return of Danny Granger, but ultimately this series would come down to defense. While Doc Rivers would like to believe that his Celtics can play as good of defense as anyone in the league, Indiana is on another level at present.
Prediction: While Boston’s experience and desire to make waves before breaking up their current squad is enough to make this series worth watching, Indiana’s muscle protecting the rim (first in points allowed in the paint and second in total rebounds) will ultimately prove the difference. Celtic pride and Paul Pierce is enough to stretch this one to six games, but that’s about the extent of it.
#3 NEW YORK vs #6 ATLANTA
Assuming the Knicks can hang onto the three seed they will have a difficult matchup in the Atlanta Hawks, a team clinging to the hope they have one last run in them with Josh Smith in the lineup. In the only meeting of these two teams this season, New York came out victorious 106-104 as the two evenly matched sides battled out a thriller in Madison Square Garden.
We’ll see more of this potential matchup before the season ends, on Apr. 3 and the final day of the season Apr. 17. Those games may indicate who actually is the favorite between these two, but based on what you see on paper you have to give the edge to the Knicks. Mike Woodson has a lot of work to do to get his team playing like they did at the beginning of the season, but with Amar’e Stoudemire beginning to fire on all cylinders and a fully healthy lineup come playoff time the Knicks are clearly the favorite.
Prediction: With Al Horford on a tear of late and Josh Smith trying to show off that he is worth max contract value, the Hawks are a dangerous team to face heading into the playoffs. That said, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, New York’s stellar point guard play and the depth of their bench gives them the edge. It will take at least six, but I’ll go ahead and say all seven games for the Knicks to clinch their berth in the next round. But in the end they will win their first playoff series in over a decade and send Atlanta home early once again.
#4 CHICAGO vs #5 BROOKLYN
While the previous matchup is between somewhat evenly matched teams, this one is between teams that are almost identical. Beyond their 34-26 records, these two sides have a good deal in common that makes the Nets and Bulls the most interesting matchup in the Eastern Conference.
In their three meetings this year, each side has won its home games with Chicago holding a 2-1 advantage heading into the final face off of the season at the Barclay’s Center on Apr. 4. Both teams are struggling to live up to expectations this season, with Chicago trying to replicate the success of recent years without Derrick Rose and the Nets attempting to live up to the type of success that normally comes with the kind of investment Mikhail Prokhorov has made in the franchise.
Prediction: With guys attempting to justify their contracts and reputations, you can expect this one to be hotly contested. Rose may yet return for Chicago and could play a small role in how the series pans out, but ultimately it comes down to what their current lineup can do. Both teams have centers that aren’t particularly graceful as well as top 10 defenses and while the Nets have a few more offensive weapons in their back court, Chicago’s defensive identity and significantly better home record makes them equally as dangerous. In the end, the regular season could make all the difference. Whichever one of these two teams emerges with the better record and home court advantage will take the series in seven games, but together they will give the Eastern Conference the best show of the first round.