On Tuesday night, the Chicago Bulls officially took full control of first place in the NBA's Eastern Conference, ahead of both Boston and Miami.
MVP candidate Derrick Rose has the Bulls playing their best basketball in years, and there aren't very many teams right now who can get in Chicago's way. However, when the playoffs come, there's a different mindset around the league.
The veteran Boston Celtics entered the 2010 playoffs as the fourth seed, but blazed through the competition and went to the finals. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen will give the Bulls all they can handle come spring time.
Miami has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and although the Heat have struggled against Chicago, the playoffs present an extra challenge for them this year.
Which Eastern Conference players can capably end Chicago's road to the NBA Finals in 2011? Let's take a look.
Atlanta hasn't played extremely well this season, and was recently thwarted by the Bulls.
However, Joe Johnson was given a max contract by the Hawks this past offseason, and they know he can turn it on at any moment. Johnson's numbers are noticeably lower on offense this season, but he could potentially bring things together in a playoff series.
The key to Johnson's possible success is his matchup against Keith Bogans. Johnson will definitely exploit Bogans' average defensive skills, and take advantage of his below-average speed.
Unfortunately for Chicago, it couldn't manage to bring in a strong shooting guard at the trade deadline; Johnson will surely abuse the situation if it's presented.
Yes, he's the starting shooting guard for these same Bulls, and he can hurt them the most.
Bogans is only scoring at a rate of 3.9 points per game, and has a player efficiency rating of just 7.95. He's also only shooting 39 percent from the floor, which means if Ronnie Brewer is healthy, he'll play more often.
There's far too many great shooting guards in the Eastern Conference for the Bulls to have Bogans on the floor extensively, as he's just not very productive.
Chicago is excellent at every other position on the floor, but watch for the mismatches against Bogans.
Stoudemire is arguably the best scoring power forward in the NBA.
In a potential matchup against an average and undersized defender in Carlos Boozer, Stoudemire will feast. Stoudemire plays a one-on-one and pick-and-pop style to complement his athleticism, and the Bulls will combat his advantage with Taj Gibson.
The Knicks are still figuring things out on both sides of the ball, and Stoudemire takes New York a few steps backward with his poor defense.
If New York can make a late-season surge, Stoudemire could be a potential MVP candidate.
Anthony might be the best scorer in the NBA, simply because he creates in one-on-one situations better than anyone can.
He hasn't quite found his groove in the loaded New York offense, but the Bulls will definitely take his assassin-like offense into account.
Bulls forward Luol Deng will guard Anthony, and while Deng has been fantastic this season, he probably won't be able to shut 'Melo down. The Knicks have plenty of liabilities on defense, but Chicago should always be weary of an offensive explosion from them.
Anthony will lead the attack.
"The Big Ticket" knows his days in the NBA are winding down, and although he's no longer in his prime, his competitive nature is still evident.
Garnett defines toughness in today's NBA, and his will to win propels a veteran Boston squad when the playoffs roll around.
KG still has an unbelievable turnaround jumper, which he'll abuse against Carlos Boozer. He's also still a great rebounder, and will never shy away from a defensive dog fight.
Without Garnett's motivational antics on the court, Boston wouldn't have the playoff identity it does today.
As a lifelong Celtic, you can bet Paul Pierce will leave his last drop of effort on the court in the playoffs.
Boston's core has about two years left until most of them consider retirement. Pierce is another surefire Celtic to make the Hall of Fame, and he'll showcase his clutch nature again this year.
Pierce on the elbow is the worst possible scenario for any defense, because he can break defenders down with his size.
If it means anything about how clutch Pierce really is, he usually takes the last shot for Boston, even with Ray Allen on the floor.
There isn't anybody more likely to drain a clutch three-pointer than Ray Allen.
Allen recently passed legend Reggie Miller for most three-pointers made in NBA history, and in 2010-2011, he's shooting at the best rate of his career.
He's been the most consistent player for Boston this season, and his veteran knowledge on offense is uncanny. Allen comes off of screens better than any guard can, and he'll shred Keith Bogans.
"Ray Ray" will be the most important piece of Boston's offense in a matchup against Chicago.
Wade already won a championship with Miami in 2006, and he's been waiting to lead another great team to the finals.
Miami has finally given Wade the necessary tools to win another title, but he's struggled greatly against the Bulls this season.
Wade's mindset changes in the playoffs, and audiences will see him driving the lane with no regard for his body, using speed to his advantage. He again will get a favorable matchup against Keith Bogans, which will make things much easier for him.
The Heat still have several problems to figure out, but Wade will lead them the best he can.
The presence of two stars on the floor for the Heat will have every opposing team preparing differently.
He's the most skilled player in the current NBA, but not the most clutch.
James' ridiculous combination of size and speed is something nobody has ever seen in this league. His ability to beat defenders to the basket and draw fouls is something that no team has been able to stop.
If Luol Deng can force James to take perimeter jump shots beyond 20 feet, Chicago will prevail.
The worst-case scenario for the Bulls is to have both James and Wade in the groove at the same time, because once Miami's offense gets going, they don't lose. James leads a great defensive group who can't be out-run, too.
There's a ton of pressure on James in his first season since critically leaving Cleveland, but he'll be up to the task come April. With the way Miami's point guard situation is looking, James will probably guard Derrick Rose too.
Howard and Rose will probably have the NBA's Most Valuable Player race go down to the wire.
Howard's progression since last season is remarkable, because accompanying his 22.9 points and 14 rebounds averages is a 25.85 player efficiency rating. That mark is good for second in the NBA behind LeBron James.
This season, "Superman's" field goal percentage is sky high (59.5), and he's recently shot free throws much better, too. Howard is the best defender in the league as well.
He'll be guarded by fellow great defender Joakim Noah, but Howard's build will be too much to handle. If Orlando can get Howard's supporting cast going from beyond the arch, his double-team will hurt Chicago.
Howard's reputation has climbed this season, and he can be considered one of the league's five best players.