As we stand right now, the Celtics, Cavs, and Magic are in a close competition for the top three spots. The rest of the conference is up in the air, although Atlanta has almost locked up the fourth spot unless Miami makes a surge.
Let us start with the four through eight spots and breakdown the team’s chances.
As I mentioned before, the Hawks are looking like a lock at the fourth spot. Joe Johnson continues to play quality minutes and score with ease. Mike Bibby's passing ability and mid-range jumper is perfect for this team. He is looking more and more durable, and he has the extensive playoff experience the rest of the team lacks.
Marvin Williams is averaging almost 13 PPG and is pulling down 6.5 RPG at the same time. His athleticism and ability to do the intangibles fits right in with the Atlanta's style of play. Josh Smith and Al Horford hold down the paint offensively and defensively.
When you look at Atlanta’s bench, they have a quality second unit. Pachulia has been playing great ever since he stepped in for an injured Horford. "Flip" Murray and Maurice Evans are also quality second-unit guys who can put the ball in the basket, especially from beyond the arc.
Look for the Hawks to continue their steady pace and secure the fourth spot.
We all know that Shawn Marion just left and Miami brought in Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon to replace him, which is a quality move. Miami was in need of more size, a quality that many Eastern teams lack.
As for Dwayne Wade, there is nothing I can say about him that you do not already know. He is a bonafide scorer and a playmaker with the basketball. Do not look for him to do anything different in the second half, except for trying to compete with Lebron James for the scoring title.
The sleeper for Miami is Daequan Cook, who is coming off a win in the 2009 Three-Point Shootout Championship at the All-Star game. He has been drilling three-pointers all year, averaging 2.3 per game, and has the fourth-best percentage in the league.
If he can make big shots at the end of games and continue to be a consistent three-point threat, he will elevate this team.
Look for Miami to finish fifth in the East just behind Atlanta.
Detroit is on a serious downward spiral and cannot even manage to win a home game where they had been dominant for the past eight years.
The addition of Allen Iverson has turned out to be a questionable short-term move. With Rodney Stuckey left to run the offense, the team has not been clicking like the front office had hoped.
With that said, do not count the boys in blue out so soon. They have a decent bench and a lot of quality experience in the starting lineup. Tayshaun Prince has never not been in the conference finals since coming in the league, and he, Rasheed Wallace, and Richard Hamilton all have championship rings. Allen Iverson has also been to the finals.
However, I can see their lack of composure hurting them during playoff run. This is often a problem for high school basketball and collegiate-level teams; this is usually not a problem for NBA teams. But, in this case, it is huge.
Both Hamilton and Wallace are always a threat to get a technical and each could be suspended a few times late in the season when their technical tallies reach the maximum.
Look for Detroit to finish at the sixth spot under Miami.
The top three teams in the East are a lock with Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando. Depending on the severity of Garnett’s knee injury and the return of Delonte West to the Cavs, look for Cleveland to gain some ground on the Celtics. LeBron cannot be stopped, and he seems to have the hunger to get home court this year, make it to the finals, and avenge his embarrassing loss in the finals.
With the loss of Jameer Nelson, the Magic’s chances of gaining a top spot in the East will have to wait until next season. Although their quality three-point shooting and a top-caliber big man, Dwight Howard, will allow them to hold down the third spot, they may not be a huge threat come playoff time.
The final two spots in the East come down to four teams: Chicago, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. Sorry Buck fans, but without Redd or Bogut, do not look to make a splash in the playoffs, just a splash on your way down to the bottom.
Guard Devin Harris and superstar Vince Carter will push the New Jersey Nets into the playoffs. Each of these players will elevate his game during the stretch run. Look for New Jersey to take the seventh seed.
Philadelphia will hold onto their playoff spot by pure luck; Chicago will be right on their heels the whole way. Andre Miller and Iguodala will have to play extremely well, and they are capable of doing that
No. 1 Cleveland
No. 2 Boston
No. 3 Orlando
No. 4 Atlanta
No. 5 Miami
No. 6 Detroit
No. 7 New Jersey
No. 8 Philadelphia
As we stand right now, it is obvious that the Lakers are going to get home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
With that out of the way, every other spot is up for grabs. Remember, the eighth-seeded Jazz are only five games back from second-seeded Spurs/Nuggets. I think the West will have another epic battle for playoff seeding this year.
San Antonio has a relatively easy schedule ahead. They only have two tough tests left in their schedule: Cleveland on April 5 and the Hornets on March 29.
Denver has an away game against the Jazz, who always plays well at home in early March. Later that month, they have a three-game road trip where they play the Suns, Hornets, and Mavs. They also close the season at L.A. followed by a home game against the Kings (easy) and a road battle against the Blazers, who will also be battling for a good seed.
The difference in schedule strengths leads me to believe that L.A. will hold down the top spot, then the Spurs will take the second seed while Denver finishes third.
The Blazers just got word that their quality swing man Martell Webster will likely miss the rest of the season. He has not played this season. They are in the fourth spot right now, but this will hurt their chances to break into the top three.
Also, Greg Oden needs to be healthy and needs to produce quality numbers with the minutes he is given. With the race so close, Oden has to be more productive.
Aldridge and Roy will continue to produce big numbers, carry this team on their backs into the playoffs, and keep them in the top four come late April.
As of right now, the Boozer-less Jazz are in the eighth spot in the West. With Boozer coming back soon, they will move up the standings.
You may not have noticed, but Okur is playing huge lately and looks as though he will not slow down. Being a Pistons fan, I understand Okur's contributions, which helped the Pistons win the title in 2004. Look for him to help Boozer with his excellent jump shooting, which spaces out the floor.
Williams will continue to improve throughout the season and will put up pre-injury numbers.
Andre Kirilenko, Ronnie Brewer, Paul Millsap, and Matt Harpring make for a seriously deep rotation, a huge key for a team looking to play well down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Look for Utah to be the fifth seed. But, if they can all stay healthy, Utah could easily break the top four due to their stellar home-court play.
Houston, New Orleans, Dallas, and a depleted Phoenix squad round out the contenders for the bottom three spots in the West.
Unless Nash and Shaq can get back to their MVP roots, Jason Richardson goes crazy, and Grant Hill lives up to his potential, do not look for the Suns in the playoffs.
No. 1 LA Lakers
No. 2 San Antonio
No. 3 Denver
No. 4 Portland
No. 5 Utah
No. 6 Dallas
No. 7 New Orleans
No. 8 Houston
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