NBA's Eastern Conference Morphs from Laughingstock to Battle Zone

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NBA's Eastern Conference Morphs from Laughingstock to Battle Zone
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In the NBA calendar, March is often the time league elites begin to break away from the pack, when contenders and pretenders part ways and conference standings crystallize.

“Often” being the operative word.

When it comes to this year’s Eastern Conference—a hemisphere of teams many argue might be the worst in league history—the supposed science of spring has given way to growing chaos.

Yes, the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat maintain their vise-grip lock atop the standings, with the latter a full 8.5 games ahead of the No. 3 seed Toronto Raptors. Yes, they remain the prohibitive favorites to repeat last spring’s epic seven-game conference finals battle.

No, neither are in a good way.

The Pacers, who fell to the New York Knicks 92-86 Wednesday night, haven’t beaten a playoff-bound team since Feb. 18. And that’s being kind to the current No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Meanwhile, Miami has dropped six of its last nine after falling in head-scratching fashion to the Boston Celtics 101-96, albeit without LeBron James.

On the other side of the Mendoza Line you have the Knicks: winners of seven straight, sniffing last-second redemption and imbued with the culture-changing confidence that only a Zen Master with more rings than fingers can inspire.

Phil Jackson was in attendance for Wednesday’s win, of course, just one day after turning his inaugural press conference into his own personal seance—or exorcism, depending on your thoughts on James Dolan.

And thus, for the first time in what’s felt like eons, Madison Square Garden’s grid is juiced anew:

Unfortunately, the Hawks, winners of five straight, haven’t seemed interested in letting go of their hold on their conference caste’s bottom rung.

It’s the first time this season the Hawks have compiled that kind of streak, further solidifying the franchise’s intention of not bowing out for draft-day bullion.

The Charlotte Bobcats seemed to be rowing much the same boat, rattling off four straight wins, including an impressive dispatching of the Pacers, en route to capturing the conference’s No. 7 seed. At 33-36, the Bobcats have already surpassed their win total for the two previous years combined (28).

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

But after two straight losses, it looks like Charlotte could end up being the riper pick for the suddenly surging Knicks.

Just above the Cats, the Washington Wizards hold steady as perhaps the conference’s most pleasant surprise, despite a slight swoon (they’ve dropped three of their last five) following a six-game winning streak to close out February.

The Raptors, another youth-laden upstart, proved that losing a pair of supposed cornerstones in Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay did not set them back. 

Think Cinderella stands a chance at a first-round upset? ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh (subscription required) begs to differ:

Second, it's hard to sneak up on anybody when there's 82 games worth of data at our disposal. From a minutes perspective, a 34-game college basketball season with shorter games is the equivalent to the NBA season wrapping up after 28 games, or a little more than a fourth of an NBA season. And some of those 34 college games can come against far lesser competition, which waters down what we "know" about a team.

That brings us to our final pair of East hopefuls: the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets, currently slotted at the No. 4 and 5 spots, respectively.

You might remember them from such shows as “Last Year’s First Round,” in which the Bulls, sans Derrick Rose and no holy business beating Brooklyn at all, upended the Nets in a seven-game slugfest.

Count us among those demanding a sequel.

And therein lies the rub: For as bad as the East has been top to bottom, its playoff positioning could prove just as compelling—just as big a bracket-busting battlefield—as what the West portends.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Not surprisingly, Miami and Indiana stand to play an outsized role in how the whole thing shakes out.

At three games out and already erring on the side of rest, Miami might well opt to rest its core and hope Indiana’s increasingly exposed woes and weaknesses mitigate whatever home-court advantage the Pacers enjoy on paper.

That could influence how the rest of the standings shake out, with seven of Miami’s remaining 16 games coming against teams currently in the playoff picture, including a date with the Knicks.

One month ago, such histrionics—from this conference, with so many wholly middling teams—would’ve seemed far-fetched.

And maybe that’s what makes the NBA so much gosh-darn fun: For as much as stats and math suggest a science, it's in the chaos that fandom finds its voice.

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