There are only about 11 games remaining in the 2010-11 NBA regular season and thus far it has been an eventful one for the top three teams in the East.
The Miami Heat received the most hype prior to the season, with some Vegas oddsmakers predicting the union of LeBron James and Chris Bosh with All-Star Dwyane Wade would result in a ready-made title favorite. So far, it has been an uneven season for Miami despite its respectable 49-22 record.
The Chicago Bulls are having a great season and could find themselves as the top seed in the East by season's end, and maybe the only 60-win team in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls have bought into rookie coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive system and have played solid team ball all season despite injuries to two of their starters (Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer). They have been led by the quietly effective Derrick Rose, who is having an MVP-type season.
The Boston Celtics led the Eastern Conference standings for most of the year as they committed themselves to not having to face a Game 7 in the NBA Finals on the road. However, with the team's recent struggles with incorporating new players Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic into the starting lineup, the team has faded as of late and may have to win a title on the road after all—if they return to the Finals this year.
No knock on the Magic, Hawks, Pacers or Knicks, but these are the teams most likely to represent the East in the Finals this year. But what are the strengths and weaknesses of these three strong teams? Here is my objective assessment.
The Bulls were the afterthought coming into the regular season as the focus of the NBA world was on the goings on in South Beach. There is no doubt that they are playing the best basketball in the league right now (with the Lakers in a close second), and there's also no doubt that Derrick Rose has led this team admirably in this his third season.
1. Among the Bulls pros are their intense, stifling defense, which currently ranks second in points allowed, first in opponents' field-goal percentage and they lead the league in point differential. The Bulls are second in rebounding also, which serves them well in a potential playoff matchup against the Celtics, who are a notoriously poor rebounding team.
2. Derrick Rose, who is the hands-down favorite to win his first MVP award this season, is having a great season. He averages 24.9 PPG, 7.8 APG and 4.2 RPG. He has also displayed an incredible knack for taking over games in the fourth quarter, as he did in an early-season home win against the Houston Rockets and a recent loss to the Pacers.
3. Right now the Bulls are in the driver's seat for the top seed in the East, which, considering their East-leading 31-4 home record, places them in a favorable position to advance to the NBA Finals if they are able to protect the home court and steal some games on the road.
4. With Omer Asik, Kurt Thomas, Kyle Korver and Taj Gibson, the Bulls boast arguably the best collection of reserves of the big three teams in the East. They have versatility, size and solid defenders to counter the top-heavy squads in the East.
Nevertheless, the Bulls do have their weaknesses, like...
When LeBron James was speaking at a press conference to announce why he chose to join the Miami Heat in the offseason, one thing he mentioned was Game 7 of the NBA Finals when Kobe went 6-of-24 and yet the Lakers still pulled out the win.
The same was true back in 1993 when Michael Jordan, facing the prospect of a 0-3 deficit against the New York Knicks in the conference finals, had one of his worst shooting performances (3-of-18), yet the Bulls, led by Scottie Pippen's 29, still won the game going away.
The "6-of-24 rule," which I have personally coined and defined, essentially states that championship-contending teams can overcome a subpar game from their best player and still win a critical Game 7, because they have at least one other superstar-caliber talent to provide a dominant performance—like Kobe had in Gasol or Jordan had in Pippen.
The question is: If it's Game 7 and Derrick Rose goes 6-of-24, what are the chances that Carlos Boozer or Luol Deng can dominate a game to get the win? If I was a betting man, I would say very slim, and that is the problem.
This is not to say that Boozer and Deng are not good players. But Game 7s are usually won by superstars and the Bulls have only one.
The Bulls can't afford a bad game or series from Derrick Rose because, without him putting up big numbers in every single postseason contest against the elites, the Bulls would not have the offensive firepower to beat the Celtics or the Heat.
It is problematic when a team's success is that dependent on the play of a single player—one that everyone knows will be the primary focus of the opposing team's defensive strategy.
For true NBA historians, the prospect of the Bulls advancing to the NBA Finals offers a chance to see them throw history to the wind and overcome incredible odds against teams built in similar fashion. Although one could argue that the Bulls are a different team and that they will not be subject to the pitfalls that befell their predecessors. But that is overlooking the significance of history.
1. The last rookie coach that led his team to the Finals was Mike Dunleavy in 1991, although Larry Bird came close in 1998 when his Pacers pushed the Bulls to Game 7 of the conference finals. It is very rare that a coach wins the conference in his first season. Sure, Thibodeau could be different since he has a lot of experience and has a defensive scheme that has proven to work in the postseason. But coaches usually need a few years to implement their systems before they can win the conference playoffs.
2. The last team to advance to the Finals with a point guard as its primary scoring option was the 1990 Detroit Pistons. Isiah Thomas averaged 18.4 PPG, which was slightly more than Joe Dumars' 17.8 PPG.
3. Twenty-two-year-old players leading teams to the Finals are rare. The playoffs generally tend to favor older, more experienced teams that have played in several playoff series and know what to expect, what adjustments to make and how to handle the pressure attached.
4. The Bulls are led by a player with very little experience in the postseason. As mature and tough-minded as Rose is, there really is no substitute for playoff experience. You generally have to crawl before you can walk.
It has been discussed again and again, so I will not delve too deeply into this. It is the one position that even Bulls fans must concede that their team is vastly inferior to the Heat (Hall of Fame-caliber shooting guard) and Celtics (Hall of Fame-caliber shooting guard).
But I was curious to see when was the last time a team won the conference with a shooting guard averaging fewer than five points per game. The answer? Well, your guess is as good as mine.
After looking through every NBA conference champion over the last 40 years, I could not find a single starting shooting guard averaging as little as Keith Bogans. I simply could not. In fact, a starting shooting guard averaging less than double-figures on a conference champion team is also virtually unheard of.
This is not to say that the Bulls couldn't be the first to accomplish the feat. But for now, NBA history suggests that to win in the postseason, teams need more than 4.2 PPG from the "shooting" guard position.
The Boston Celtics, despite their oft-cited injuries and recent altering of their roster, are still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics are looking to advance to the NBA Finals for the third time in four years, and with their plethora of playoff experience and realization that this is the "last dance" for this squad, one would be foolish to discount them going into the playoffs.
1. Experience. Granted, this advantage is not as strong as it might have been before the Kendrick Perkins trade, since the Celtics are still trying to incorporate new players Jeff Green (with a name like that, he had to be a Celtic) and Nenad Krstic into the lineup. However, guys like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen have been through the playoff wars together and know each other inside and out. While the Heat are still unsure what they will get from their stars playing together in their first postseason, and the Bulls just looking to get out of the first round, the Celtics have no such questions regarding their Big Three.
2. The Celtics have the knowledge that they can beat the Bulls and the Heat. Boston is a combined 5-1 against the Bulls and Heat in the regular season thus far, and would feel exceedingly confident against either team in the playoffs.
3. Matchups. The Celtics actually match up fairly well against both the Bulls and Heat. Ray Allen is a bothersome player for Dwyane Wade to guard with the need to chase Allen through constant screens. Kevin Garnett has the ability to play lockdown defense on Chris Bosh or Carlos Boozer. Rajon Rondo will put defensive pressure on both Derrick Rose and Mario Chalmers. The Bulls don't have a shooting guard for Ray Allen to have to guard attentively, so he can focus more on his offense.
4. A lot has been made about the Bulls defense, but the Celtics defense is also very good. The Celtics are first in fewest points allowed, third in opponents' field goal percentage allowed and fifth in point differential.
5. The Celtics have never lost a playoff series to the Heat or Bulls...4-0 all time.
In terms of team nucleus, the Celtics are the oldest team of the big three challengers in the East. Will the team, which spent the majority of the season playing some of its best basketball in order to secure home-court advantage in the Finals, have enough left in the tank for a lengthy playoff series against two solid opponents?
Last year, the team decided to forgo playing for the top seed in order to be healthy for the playoffs. This year, the team is clearly trying to win the top seed, but it faces the very real possibility that it could enter the playoffs without either the top seed or enough rest. The Celtics must be rested and healthy to get to the Finals.
Back in November when NBA analysts were asked whether the Miami Heat could beat the Boston Celtics, many of them said "no." Their reason? Because the Heat lacked the size up front to compete against the Celtics frontcourt of Shaq, Jermaine O'Neal, Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis. It seemed like a one-sided, but reasonable argument. The Celtics size was thought to be their biggest advantage against the rest of the East.
However, with the trade of their premier interior enforcer in Kendrick Perkins and questions about how healthy either O'Neal will be in the postseason, this vaunted Celtics front line isn't looking so tough of late. Sure, they still have Kevin Garnett to play the power forwards, but one wonders how much of an intimidator that Krstic will be for the Celtics. He will be trusted to check Joakim Noah and cut off the penetration of Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. If he cannot, it will leave a gaping hole in the Celtics defense.
One would assume that even when the O'Neals return, Doc Rivers will greatly limit their minutes to keep them fresh and healthy for the long haul, which places more responsibility on Krstic to effectively man the paint.
If the Bulls and the Celtics square off in the Eastern Conference finals, it will be a battle of the teams that will perhaps know more about each other than few teams in recent memory. This is not just because of the epic seven-game classic between these two teams in 2009, but because the Bulls have a coach that knows the Celtics defensive schemes inside and out.
Tom Thibodeau is the ideal man to have on your side if you want to know how to penetrate the Celtics' dominant defense and expect him to give the Bulls a crash course in the Celtics' favorite plays, player weaknesses and defensive shortcomings prior to the series. It does not serve the Celtics well to have to play a team that knows so much about them.
By most analysts' beliefs, this has been a disappointing season for Miami. Sure the team is 49-22 and only three games in the loss column out of the top spot in the conference, but as the team's roller-coaster season hits its final stages, the general contention around the league is that the Heat can't get to the Finals this year.
I couldn't imagine why a team with two players that could conceivably dominate a playoff series has less of a chance to win than a team with only one player that could conceivably dominate a series; but I will respect the opinions of the Heat's plethora of skeptics.
The Heat's problem all season has been inconsistency. They haven't been superior to the Bulls or the Celtics, who, despite a combined 6-0 record against Miami, failed to convince me that if the Heat strengthened their fourth-quarter execution they would not have lost at least once. But it is what it is, and the Heat will have to solve their fourth-quarter woes to advance past the second round.
Here are a few reasons why they can:
1. They adhere to the "6-of-24 rule," perhaps. The Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics both have multiple players that can dominate a Game 7. The Bulls do not. I know, I know, it's a team game and the best "team" will win.
But in the playoffs, when defenses are focused on taking away a team's strengths (i.e. like the offensive game of the team's primary scorer) a team must have a solid second and third option to command double-teams, create offense and take the pressure off that primary option. Wade can potentially do that ('06 NBA Finals) and LeBron can as well ('07 EC finals). If these two players are both dominating their matchups, it will put tremendous pressure on the defenses of the Celtics or Bulls.
2. There is this false impression that because the Bulls are playing so well right now and the Heat have been inconsistent, the Heat have not demonstrated an ability to win in the postseason. Hmmmm...That's funny. I would think that having the best road record in the Eastern Conference (23-12) does suggest an ability to win. I would think that a team with the second-best point differential, second-best field-goal percentage defense and fourth-best three-point defense would have a "chance" to win. But apparently, others know better.
3. The Heat have the best trio offensively in the league, and before I start hearing that they have "nothing behind them" I want to remind the playoff observers of one thing. In the playoffs, when a lot of a team's depth is left off the playoff roster, the talent at the top becomes all the more important. The Lakers didn't repeat last year because of great play from Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton. They won because Kobe, Gasol and Bynum played extremely well and led them to a title.
Will the real Miami Heat please stand up?
It's easy to understand the lack of belief in the Heat's ability to win in the postseason. The team has been maddeningly inconsistent and if that continues in the playoffs, they could be in trouble.
Will Miami play excellent team ball, stifling defense and close out the game strong as it did in games against the Spurs, Magic, Lakers and Grizzlies? Or will the Heat have strong first halves but lackluster second halves as they are plagued by defensive lapses, too much one-on-one play and an inability to create offense with the game on the line?
Will we see 21-1 or 9-8...0-5 or 5-1?
Part of the answer to the Heat inconsistency is more movement of the ball. The Heat make the defense for the Bulls and the Celtics so much easier when they only have to worry about Wade or LeBron on drives to the basket. But if the team runs more pick-and-rolls, back cuts and movement-oriented offensive sets, it would put more pressure on the defense of their opponent, as we saw in the team's best game of the season against the Spurs (the one where they won by 30; not lost by 30).
The Heat have the athleticism to make the Bulls and Celtics work on defense for 24 seconds every time down and don't always use it properly. There is just no excuse for them to have James, Wade and Bosh on the floor at once, but play in the fourth quarter like they are playing with five Chris Dudleys on the court.
No matter how the season ends for Miami and where it is seeded, all eyes will be on the Heat for the duration of their postseason run. Every missed shot, playoff loss or subpar performance will be analyzed with a comb tooth so fine, it can barely be viewed with the naked eye.
Even though the Heat are playing in just their first season together and still have five more years to prove the union of the Big Three a success, it will be deemed a failure if the team loses before the Eastern Conference finals. There is no way around it.
How the Heat respond to that pressure will go a long way toward determining how far they go this season.
One advantage that the Heat do have is that they will probably not be the top seed in the East and therefore will not be faced with the added pressure of "winning as the top seed"—a situation the Bulls are likely to be faced with in the playoffs.
Since NBA analysts have been notoriously wrong over the past several years in accurately picking NBA Finals participants, I felt the need to preface my prediction with a hearty "I don't know what will happen" admission.
A person could make an equally solid case for any of the top three teams in the East to get to the Finals and could back it up with tangible facts. Additionally, those same fact-based arguments could be doubted with evidence to the contrary or loopholes within the arguments. So I will admit that I am only guessing based on a preponderance of the evidence.
I predict Boston will win the East. I think the Celtics have more motivation knowing that this is their last dance as the "Big Three" and will be be looking to go out with a ring. I think the Bulls' inexperience will catch up with them at some point and they will have a few "oh, so that's how the playoffs are different from the regular season," moments against a veteran team that will doom them eventually.
I also think that the Miami Heat's inconsistency could be tied to their need for a little bit more experience playing together so that roles can be better defined. This season, Boston wins the matchup. Next season, with a full season under its belt, I think Miami comes back stronger.