There is still some shuffling to be done, but the eight teams that will do battle in the Eastern Conference Playoffs this season are just about set. Teams like Miami, Chicago and Boston are clearly head and shoulders above the rest, but more than a few squads are primed to make noise once the postseason gets underway on April 28.
With less than two weeks to go in the regular season, we already have a pretty good idea of what we're going to see come playoff time. Of course, Derrick Rose's health could change the balance of power in the East -- as the news about Dwight Howard's back already has. With those variables in mind, let's make some early predictions as to how the Eastern Conference Playoffs are going to shake out.
The Philadelphia 76ers' calling card is their defense. Statistically, their 2011-12 campaign is one for the record books. In terms of wins and losses however, Philadelphia has only slightly improved upon their .500 record last season.
There are plenty of problems in Philly—for instance, they may or may not have tuned out their head coach—but perhaps their biggest issue is the lack of a go-to crunch time scorer. The lack of a No. 1 option is the main reason why the team is 3-18 in games decided by seven points or less this season.
No primary scorer plus a bad first-round matchup equals a short playoff stint for the 76ers for the second straight year.
Prediction: First-round playoff loss to the Chicago Bulls.
It's clear that the Knicks are a different team with Mike Woodson at the helm. The team is 15-5 since Woodson took over for former head coach Mike D'Antoni in mid-March and everyone—even Carmelo Anthony!—has stepped up the intensity on defense. The team should be even better once Amare Stoudemire has fully recovered from a bulging disc in his lower back.
However, one of New York's strengths—Anthony's exceptional offensive skill set— is also one of its weaknesses. Far too often, the Knicks' offense consists of four players standing around watching Anthony pound the ball for 14 seconds as he tries to break his man down off of the dribble.
Few players are more clutch than Anthony is at the end of games, but for the other 47 minutes of play, there is very little ball movement in the frontcourt for New York. And while the Knicks' forward is transcendent enough to win a game or two single-handedly (and has been the best player in the NBA over the past month or so), he won't be able to lead them to a series victory this season.
Prediction: First-round playoff loss to the Miami Heat.
With a healthy Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic would be a prime candidate to pull off a first round upset. Now that's he's out, it's only a matter of time before Orlando is unceremoniously bounced from the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
The Magic has been anemic on both ends of the floor in recent days. Strangely enough, it was only three weeks ago that the team was the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Instead, they're now slated to face the third-seeded Indiana Pacers in the first round. Stan Van Gundy should start getting his resume ready now.
Prediction: First-round playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers.
Josh Smith may have been cheated out of an All-Star nod back in February, but he's quietly put up a stellar season down in the ATL. His PER is among the top 30 in the league, and he's held the team down in the absence of injured center Al Horford.
If the seeds hold up, Atlanta would catch a break by meeting the Boston Celtics in the first round since neither team rebounds the ball all that well. But Boston is one of the hottest teams in the NBA since the All-Star break and will be a tough out for anyone, especially the Hawks. Expect their first-round series to go at least six games, but the Celtics should be victorious.
Prediction: First-round playoff loss to the Boston Celtics.
In case you weren't paying attention, Rajon Rondo is playing out of his mind, Kevin Garnett is making a case for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Boston Celtics have more wins after the All-Star break—22—than any other team in the NBA.
Even more impressive is that most of their success has occurred without a healthy Ray Allen. Allen should be 100 percent by the time the playoffs roll around, and if Boston keeps up this level of play, it isn't entirely inconceivable that they could make one last run at a championship.
Their deficiency on the boards is alarming—the Celtics rank in the bottom third in the league in rebounds—and will ultimately doom them at some point. That point this year seems to be in the second round when a probable date with the Chicago Bulls awaits.
Prediction: Second-round playoff loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Think of the Indiana Pacers as a more improved version of the Philadelphia 76ers: a well-balanced offensive team (seven players who average at least 9 PPG) that is solid on the defensive end as well.
To their credit, Indiana actually has a go-to option in Danny Granger, who has rebounded nicely in the second half of the season. But Granger's sub-par shooting is indicative of his team's struggles from the floor—Indiana is one of the worst shooting teams in the entire NBA.
Fortunately for them, they'll likely face an Orlando team in the first round that has virtually packed it in for the rest of the season. However, an Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup against Miami will be too much for an upstart Pacers team that is still a few pieces away from contention.
Prediction: Second-round playoff loss to the Miami Heat.
There isn't much to dislike about the Chicago Bulls. They have a Coach of the Year candidate (Tom Thibodeau), one of the best point guards in the game (Derrick Rose), and they've proven that they can win without their star point guard in the lineup.
Their major issue is a pedestrian offense that will be their downfall at some point this postseason. Teams such as Golden State and Minnesota average more points per shot than Chicago, and when Rose isn't playing at an elite level, the Bulls offense isn't exactly the prettiest thing you'll ever see.
The Bulls' recent victory over the Heat—despite being one of Rose's worst performances as a professional—should give Chicago a healthy dose of confidence if these teams meet come playoff time. And as we all witnessed last year, when LeBron James takes it upon himself to personally check Rose, the Chicago Bulls will have their work cut out for them on the offensive end.
Prediction: Loss in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Miami Heat.
For a team that was designed to steamroll through the NBA, the Miami Heat has looked very erratic at times. Still, it's hard to see anyone knocking off James, Wade and company four times in a seven-game series.
When it comes to one of the fundamentals of the game—shooting the basketball—no team in the Eastern Conference comes close to the Miami Heat in terms of efficiency. When Miami's offense is clicking, they're borderline unstoppable. When it isn't, there's a noticeable lack of focus, and they are more than capable of catching a loss on a bad night.
Yes, Miami still lacks an above-average point guard, and they don't rebound nearly as well as most contenders. But their "Big 3" are the great equalizers, and it's difficult to bet against them rolling through the Eastern Conference again this season.
Prediction: Eastern Conference Champions.