Identifying NBA Teams Best Fit to Challenge Heat and Pacers for Eastern Crown

Andrew WatkinsCorrespondent IJanuary 23, 2014

Joakim Noah always ups his level of play when it comes to the Heat
Joakim Noah always ups his level of play when it comes to the HeatNathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Virtually from the start of the 2013-14 NBA season it seemed we were destined for a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. In that series, the defensive-inclined Indiana Pacers lost a tough seven-game series with the remarkably talented Miami Heat.

Some other teams looked poised to challenge those two squads entering the year. Namely, the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. However, with the losses of Derrick Rose and Brook Lopez and the Knicks’ defensive ineptitude, the East has seemingly boiled down to a two-horse race.

In the words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast.”

Now riding an 8-1 stretch in 2014, it appears some were too quick to throw in the towel on the Nets. As it pertains to their in-state rivals, well, there’s always next season.

As for the Bulls, many presumed them left for dead after jettisoning Luol Deng. Nonetheless, Chicago’s managed to overcome losing their two leading scorers and move past the .500 mark for the first time in two months.

Yes, the Heat and Pacers are overwhelming favorites to reach the NBA Finals. But six other teams from the East will earn the right to play postseason basketball. So, who is best fit to play David to these Goliaths?

Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have plenty of big-game experience
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have plenty of big-game experienceAl Bello/Getty Images


Brooklyn Nets

Heading into the year with five former All-Stars in the starting lineup, many anticipated big things from the Brooklyn Nets. But with many of those stars hampered by injury, the Nets underwhelmed right out of the gate.

From Brook Lopez’s season-ending injury to Kevin Garnett’s steady decline, Brooklyn just couldn’t seem to catch a break in 2013. All that has only served to make their remarkable turnaround in ’14 more surprising.

In January, the Nets have rattled off eight wins and entered themselves into playoff discussion. They’ve notched impressive victories over the Thunder, Warriors and Heat. But, perhaps more importantly, they’re winning the ones they should. Earning double-digit wins over the Hawks, Knicks and Magic in their last three.

So, what’s changed? Well, a multitude of things.

For one, Garnett’s been playing magnificently. The Big Ticket’s knocked down 23-of-32 in his last five games. And of course, the ice in Joe Johnson’s veins doesn’t hurt matters any.

The Nets don’t boast the defensive prowess of the Pacers (but then, who does?), but they’ve proven capable of running with the NBA’s best. The strongest evidence of that are their two victories over the Heat in as many tries.


Chicago Bulls

I don’t know why we’re still surprised by it. Over the past two seasons, no team’s proven more adept at playing without a star than the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls lost Derrick Rose for the year in just the season’s eleventh game and opted to part ways with Luol Deng little more than a month later. And yet, here they are, right in the thick of things.

Like the Nets, the Bulls have been fantastic in January, posting a mark of 9-2 so far this month.

How do the Bulls stay afloat in the face of all this adversity? That’s simple, by limiting scoring and rebounding. Chicago ranks in the top seven of both categories.

With the tenacious frontcourt trio of Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, the Bulls surely won’t be intimidated by anyone.

Much of the onus has fallen on Noah’s shoulders and he’s responded with aplomb. The Florida product is averaging over five assists, 15 boards and nearly as many points (14.4) in the month of January.

It’s no secret the disdain the Bulls, and Noah in particular, have for the Heat. And they’re not exactly best pals with the division rival Pacers either. Should Chicago be matched with either in the postseason they’d have ample motivation to pull off the upset.