One look at the Celtics' shot at surviving the Eastern Conference playoffs and making the 2013 NBA Finals.
As we arrive at the All-Star Break of the 2012-13 NBA season, the Miami Heat have stormed into the break with seven straight wins, on the strength of LeBron James’ otherworldly play. As has documented throughout the NBA blogosphere and over the many ESPN outlets, LeBron has been crushing opponents at an unprecedented level over the last seven games. If my calculations are correct, he has averaged 63 points per game, 29 rebounds per game and 24 assists per game over that stretch. He has also had a massive impact on public policy, single-handedly raising the federal minimum wage, putting together a cap-and-trade program which would limit our carbon emissions and saved the nation’s public schools by increasing teacher salaries, lowering class sizes, and guaranteeing two fully functioning computer labs in every public high school in the country. It’s safe to say LeBron has been getting things done. It’s also safe to say ESPN wants LeBron to make the Finals again more than it wants to tell the truth about each team’s chances. ESPN makes money when it’s highest-profile athletes (remember “The Decision?”) do well. If a Rondo-less Celtics team were to emerge from the pack in the Eastern Conference, the NBA Finals would get a whole lot uglier. Imagine more 71-68 grind-it-out games. A Celtics-Bulls playoff series would be hard for most hardcore NBA fans to watch, never-mind the casual playoff-only crowd.
While Miami is the clear favorite to get back to the NBA’s big June dance, there are a few other teams that stand in the way of the flaming inferno that is the Heat.
Here’s a breakdown of each of those teams, with mostly arbitrary percentages next to them:
Boston Celtics, 16%
I am the first to admit that it’s next to impossible to know what this edition of the Boston Celtics will do over any given stretch of games. The most optimistic fans will point to their record post-Rondo (8-1) and say this team can make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals. The most pessimistic fans are ready for Ainge to trade KG or Pierce and attempt to formally begin the rebuilding process. The realistic fans aren’t sure what to expect, but they have to be pleasantly surprised with the way the whole team has responded to Rondo’s absence. From Pierce’s triple-doubles and crafty facilitation, to Jeff Green’s increased minutes and scoring (22 ppg on 52%), which Jackie MacMullan articulates here, to Jason Terry’s shooting from distance (43% in his last 7), and the manic defensive-mindset of backcourt duo Bradley and Lee, these Celtics seem to have re-invented themselves over the course of three weeks. Jeff Green’s ability to guard LeBron James, Paul George, and Luol Deng may determine the Celtics fate this spring. If the Celtics avoid a playoff match-up with Indiana or a Rose-led Bulls team, they have a solid shot at advancing.
Chicago Bulls, 13%
Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls are as gutsy as ever. Without Rose, they continue to compete because of their defensive effort and strategy. Noah and Deng understand how to stifle opponents to an extent that the Bulls have beaten up on weaker competition (17-5 against opponents who are .500 or below). As viewers of last Wednesday’s match-up with the defensive-heavy Celtics, a 71-67 grotesque two hours and thirty minutes of basketball, can attest, these Bulls win ugly and lose ugly. With a healthy Rose, this team can beat anyone in the East. The obvious problem is Rose isn’t healthy. He’s recovering, and his time table for returning keeps changing. If Rose can give them 80% of what he used to, Belinelli can keep hitting those clutch 3′s, and the tireless Jimmy Butler can keep grabbing those traffic rebounds, this team will give Miami, New York, Indiana and Boston seven exhausting games, if they don’t advance themselves. More likely, though, Rose gives it a shot, but either a) doesn’t stay healthy through all 7 games or b) throws the offense out of sync because they’ve been playing without him for so long.
New York Knicks, 11% (no Celtics fan bias here)
In November, Jason Kidd’s age showed. Though his 3′s were still dropping, he began wearing his headband all crooked. This season, the Knicks jumped out to a terrific start. Despite their ancient roster, they played a rejuvenated and inspired form of share-the-ball, hot-potato, three-point shooting basketball. Carmelo Anthony was scoring efficiently and playing actual defense. New York Knicks record without Amare Stoudemire: 21-9. Despite the New York’s start, the three-point shooting was unsustainable, as documented here. In Amare’s return, Carmelo scored 45 and they lost at home to Portland. It was as if Carmelo was trying to ward off the ghost of Amare. The Knicks record with Amare: 11-9. Of those 9 losses with Amare, four came against potential playoff opponents (Boston, Indiana, Chicago, and Brooklyn). The best Knicks stopper in recent years has not been on the other team: it has been Amare himself.
On the other hand, the Knicks were forced to play without Raymond Felton, their one penetrating option other than Carmelo, which put extensive pressure on the aging Jason Kidd and the volatile J.R. Smith. Felton’s presence balances the offense. The Knicks need more Felton and less Amare in order to survive in April. Those early November three-pointers that Kidd and Rasheed Wallace (likely out for his career with unending foot woes) rained down were nice, but it’s a long season, and Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” came out in 1992. Half of this Knicks roster was either dominating college basketball or entering the NBA that year. Back to the 2012 Knicks, Shumpert’s defense is helpful, but his offensive game needs to come with it for him to find extended minutes. Without either Camby or Wallace, the Knicks are forced to play Kurt Thomas against the bigger teams. Kurt Thomas and Boston’s Jason Collins have the two ugliest games in the NBA. Thomas’ locker-room nickname (no joke) is “Mid-life” (as in crisis).
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Thanks for reading and go Celtics!