We’re at about the quarter-pole in the long haul that is the NBA regular season, which paves the way for what can seem like an even longer playoff run. All of which is to say we can’t get too excited about an early results, but the first returns do suggest the NBA Eastern Conference is headed for a historically bad season.
The East has two greats teams, with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat off to a 16-6 start, and the prime challenger, the Indiana Pacers out at 19-3, including a head-to-head win last night over the Heat in the first meeting of the season. Problem is, the Heat and Pacers are the only two teams in the East with a winning record.
Atlanta is at .500 and holding the 3-spot. The Charlotte Bobcats are 10-12, with the Washington Wizards at 9-11. Everyone else is at least four games under the break-even point.
At the start of the season, the question about the Boston Celtics was whether they would tank and go in the lottery. They still might–heck, at 10-14, maybe they’re even trying to, but right now that’s good enough to be leading the Atlantic Division. The final two spots in the Eastern Conference’s top eight are held down by the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.
The Eastern Conference has been well behind the West for several years now, but this is really out of hand and threatens to jeopardize the credibility of the postseason. We’re going to have teams that miss the playoffs by four rungs in the West able to make reasonable arguments that they’re the #3 team in the East, and perhaps–in spite of an unbalanced schedule–even have a better record.
If the playoff bracket lacks credibility, that ultimately casts aspersions on any championship won out of the East. While the top contenders in the West have to slug it out right from the opening round–after a longer, more grueling regular season–the Pacers and Heat can relax and coast into a conference finals battle with each other.
That’s the current status of the East. Here’s hoping the conference teams, especially disappointments like the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, who have the talent to be much better, can turn it around and start winning some games.
The biggest surprise at last week’s NBA trade deadline was that Atlanta Hawks power forward Josh Smith stayed put. Smith is in the final year of a contract worth $13.2 million and he’s looking for a max deal for next season. Either Atlanta thinks they can re-sign him or the team thinks it can make an extended playoff run and is shoving its chips on the table for this year. It’s the latter question that will be the focus of our NBA commentary today—can these Atlanta Hawks make a good showing in the postseason?
Let’s begin by defining what a good showing would be. No reasonable observer thinks anyone other than the Miami Heat are coming out of the Eastern Conference and placing that as the standard on the Hawks wouldn’t be fair. But on the flip side anything short of the conference finals would just be par for the course.
The city of Atlanta could be forgiven for questioning the existence of the Eastern Conference Finals—after all, they’d have to take it on faith, not as something they’ve actually seen. It’s one thing for the apostle Thomas—“doubting Thomas”– to overcome his doubts and believe in the risen Christ—asking the city of Atlanta to believe in life after the NBA playoffs’ second round might be a bridge too far.
Atlanta’s playoff frustrations are littered with first and second-round exits. That includes epic battles, such as Game 7 in the Boston Garden back in 1988 when Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird staged an epic battle that the Celtics ultimately won. It includes 1994 when Atlanta was the #1 seed in the East, but fell to Indiana and Reggie Miller in the second round. It includes expected losses to Jordan’s Bulls, Shaq’s Orlando Magic and LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers. What it all boils down to is that simply getting into the playoffs and winning a series does not justify keeping Smith—again, with the disclaimer that perhaps the Hawks are going to be able to re-sign him.
Smith is the kind of player who can carry a team in the playoffs. He averages 17 points and 8 rebounds per game. While he’s currently only shooting 34 percent from three-point range, he has, at different points in his career, shown the ability hit the trey with consistency. He pairs up down low with Al Horford, an elite post player himself, averaging a 17/10 per night. Horford was injured for most of last year’s first-round series with Boston, a series where Atlanta lost a close Game 6 on the road. Had Horford been healthy, Atlanta likely wins that round and would have been a solid favorite against Philadelphia to get that elusive conference finals berth.
The Hawks get their three-point shooting from the small-forward position, where Kyle Korver and DeShawn Stevenson each hit better than 40 percent from behind the arc. Neither are great scorers in terms of raw volume, but their ability to open up defenses gives Horford and Smith a place to go with the ball if defenses double-down too quickly.
It’s the backcourt that’s going to be the real challenge to overcome. Atlanta suffered a bad injury loss in January when Lou Williams was lost for the season. He was a double-digit scorer and another perimeter-shooting threat. Atlanta gets pretty good point guard play from Jeff Teague, but Devin Harris just does not cut it in the main role he now has to assume in the wake of Williams’ injury.
But every team in the East is flawed—frankly, that includes Miami, who lacks a good interior game, although the presence of LeBron James forgives more sins than the average priest in the confessional (I guess that second theological reference makes this article my Catholic Parlay of the Month—what can I say, it’s Lent). So even allowing for Atlanta’s flaws, can Smith and Horford push Atlanta through two playoff series and into the Eastern Finals?
The final 27 games of the regular season are going to decide. Right now, Atlanta is #5 in the East. Even without homecourt advantage I think they can beat Brooklyn, but there is no way they’re knocking off Miami in the second round. The Hawks have to get off the 4-5 grid and into the bottom half of the bracket. I suppose a cynic could say they could tank some games and “catch” Chicago for the 6-spot. The Hawks are only a game up on the Bulls as it is.
But why take the negative route, when the positive is there for the taking? Atlanta is only two games back of New York, who’s currently in third, but not playing well. What if the Hawks finish reasonably strong, grab the 3-seed, defend their home floor in the first round and then set up for a second-round showdown, presumably with Indiana. Win that, and keeping Smith was worth the price.
I don’t see any reason to think Atlanta can’t do it. Smith is only 26 years old and has gotten the necessary battle scars that it takes to advance in the NBA playoffs. I’m not saying they’d be the favorite to reach the conference finals, or even that I’d pick them. But they would have a legitimate shot and is the NBA culture of Atlanta any chance at the conference finals can’t be lightly passed over.
We’re down to a month left in the NBA regular season, with the race for the Atlantic Division staying red-hot and the jousting for the final spots in the Western Conference still heated. TheSportsNotebook takes an overall look at the standings with an eye to the weekend ahead…
Philadelphia and Boston are now in a dead heat for the Atlantic Division and likely #4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Each team is at 28-22, and both are in action Friday night. The Sixers play the Washington Wizards team that former Maryland coach Gary Williams says could lose to Kentucky if the Wizards were playing their third game in three nights and the game was at Rupp. I love Gary, but the man’s lost it on this topic. Sure, Kentucky has four solid NBA prospects. Prospects like John Wall, who happens to be the point guard for the Wizards. And overall, Washington’s got a roster of pro prospects. But I’m getting off the topic. They’re still no match for Philadelphia. The Celtics head north to face Minnesota in what’s going to be a battle. Even without Ricky Rubio, and even with their playoff hopes dim, the Timberwolves have shown fighting spirit, and Kevin Love is averaging 27 points/14 rebounds a game. With Ray Allen nursing a sore ankle, this will be a tough road win for the C’s to pick up.
The Philly/Boston runner-up is currently slotted for 7th in the Eastern bracket, meaning a date with Miami or Chicago (likely Miami), but both teams are creeping up on Atlanta for the coveted 6-spot and a playoff date with Orlando. The Hawks have to play a New York team that’s getting it done for Mike Woodson, and then Atlanta-Philly go head-to-head on Saturday. As for the Knicks, they’ll play tonight’s game, and tomorrow’s NBA-TV telecast at home against Cleveland (7:30 PM ET) without Jeremy Lin, in addition to being sans Amare Stoudamire for at least a couple weeks and possibly the rest of the regular season schedule. The injury bug may prevent New York from pulling away from Milwaukee for the last playoff berth. The Knicks are presently 2 ½ games up, and Milwaukee makes a road trip to Cleveland tonight and then plays a talented Memphis team back at home tomorrow. A healthy Knick team would be ripe to add at least one, and possibly two games to their lead. A wounded squad probably closes the weekend as they started—still in control, but a race far from over.
One race that’s a long way from being over is the bottom of the Western Conference. The top six, including teams like Memphis, Dallas and the LA Clippers have opened up a little bit of breathing room on the peasants, but are still only 2-3 games ahead in the race just to qualify. Utah, Denver and Houston all lost key games this week, creating the space to breathe. All three teams are 27-24 and two of them can make the playoffs. Utah visits the Clippers on Saturday, and then on Sunday, Denver goes to Orlando and Houston hosts Indiana. The odds say that the three teams remain packed, but the top six get a lot more comfortable.
Chicago and Oklahoma City continue to lead their conference races for the #1 seed, and the Bulls-Thunder go head-to-head in Oklahoma City on Sunday afternoon (1 PM ET, ABC). Chicago continues to amaze, getting it done without Derrick Rose and building a formidable case for Tom Thibodeau as Coach of the Year. Kevin Durant is the NBA’s second-leading scorer behind only Kobe Bryant, and looking to stake his claim to MVP. The award almost surely comes down to Durant-LeBron, with Kevin Love being the third-party candidate that will deserve more attention than he gets. A big day for Durant against a tough defense on national television could push him over the top. Oklahoma City remains three games up on red-hot San Antonio, two up on Miami in the event it’s a Heat-Thunder Finals, and 1.5 back of Chicago for the best record overall.