Now that the Miami Heat are atop the Eastern Conference standings, it's time to start looking at possible first-round playoff matchups. Who is Miami's best-case scenario, and who is the worst?
Since losing to the Indiana Pacers last week, the Heat are on a four-game win streak and outscoring opponents by an average of 20.5 points per game during the stretch.
Granted that three of those games came against teams with losing records (two against the last-place Milwaukee Bucks, for God's sake), but winning by that margin without Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Greg Oden (all injured or sick) is still impressive.
According to PlayoffStatus.com, Miami has a 57 percent chance of being the No. 1 seed and has a date with the Pacers on April 11 with a chance to tie the season series.
In a bad Eastern Conference, these are the best of the worst. Depending on how things shake out in the final few games, Miami could play any one of those teams in the opening round.
Best of the Best of the Worst: Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats have a couple of things that could give the Heat some problems.
Mainly, Al Jefferson.
Overshadowed by LeBron James' 61 points the last time these teams played was Jefferson's 38 points and 19 rebounds. He presents a tough matchup with a size advantage over Chris Bosh and a skill advantage over Udonis Haslem.
As far as matching skill sets, Josh McRoberts is one of the better stretch 4s in the NBA. His athleticism allows him to defend Bosh and match the Heat in a small-ball situation the way most teams can't.
Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote that about both of them in a piece about Charlotte's surprising season.
"Jefferson commands a double-team on the block against almost any defender, and that has made life easier for his teammates."
"Josh McRoberts, an NBA vagabond, has found a home in Charlotte as an entry passer, floor-spacer..."
The Bobcats are also hitting three-pointers at a top-10 rate since January. The combination of favorable matchups in the frontcourt and effective three-point shooting could result in a tougher test for Miami in the first round than some anticipate.
Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel says the Knicks would be a worse matchup for the Heat, though:
If the Knicks get No. 8, I think the Heat would prefer Charlotte over the potential headaches of a series against New York. But if the Hawks or the Cavaliers get No. 8 in the East, I think that would be their choice. Of course, it's a moot point. They get who they get, and they don't get upset.
While I can see the Carmelo Anthony thing being a problem, the Knicks have been such a train wreck this season (especially regarding defensive rotations) that I see a better-coached Charlotte team as more of a threat.
Winderman and I agree in principle, though, that both New York and Charlotte make for a tougher opponent than Cleveland or Atlanta.
Worst of the Best of the Worst: Atlanta Hawks
Since losing Al Horford for the season, the Hawks went from battling for the third seed to battling for a playoff spot.
Unlike the Heat, the Hawks are stumbling into the postseason, losing seven of their last eight games.
However, Atlanta does have an All-Star with Paul Millsap, who scored 51 total points in two appearances against Miami, and one of the best three-point shooters in the game with Kyle Korver.
Millsap proved to be a thorn in the side of the Heat, and fill-in center Pero Antic was effective. Overall, though, Atlanta won't be much of a threat in a playoff series.
Since Horford went down, Atlanta is scoring just 101.8 points per 100 possessions, worse than both the Bucks and the Utah Jazz, and the defense is toeing the line of the bottom 10.
This is a playoff team because of what it did before the All-Star break, not after, and isn't playing like one any more.
Miami, Indiana, Brooklyn and Washington win. That would pin the Wizards and Heat against each other and postpone a series against Brooklyn, who would face the Pacers.
The Nets, I believe, could beat the Pacers in this round.
Indiana's struggles to score 80 points recently have been well documented, and the defense went from allowing 94.2 points per 100 possessions to allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions since the beginning of March, according to NBA.com statistics.
Brooklyn is 30-12 in 2014 and is playing its best ball going into the playoffs, while Indiana is struggling.
With that, the Heat and Nets play for a chance to go to the NBA Finals.
I just got done making the case for Brooklyn, and while it is a better matchup for the Heat than the Roy Hibbert-packed Pacers, it would still be a tough series.
I have this image of Paul Pierce circling the dates of when the Nets play the Heat on his calendar before the season begins, jumping rope in his living room while watching ESPN and muttering to himself "I aint done yet" over and over.
This probably didn't happen, but the Nets have beaten Miami all three times they played (the final game of the regular-season series is on April 8).
In a playoff series, the Nets have Pierce and Kevin Garnett with championship experience and plenty of shooters to get the job done.
Since March, both teams are outscoring opponents by exactly six points. In a statistical sense, they are even.
In a seven-game series, however, I wonder if Pierce can get up to defend James every other night rather than four times in six months.
We also don't know how Garnett will look if and when he returns from his back injury. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Nets defense is better than the Pacers' when Garnett was on the court. But that is before his injury, and Garnett was already playing the fewest minutes of his career.
The Nets are playing well, but Miami avoids both the Pacers and the Bulls in this scenario. If you're a Heat fan, you take it.
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