Since bolting Cleveland and settling in Miami’s land of opportunity, LeBron James has owned the Eastern Conference. He hasn’t quite owned it like Michael Jordan owned it in the '90s, but he is the most impenetrable force in The League and any other Eastern Conference team outside of the Indiana Pacers is an afterthought.
Even if the consensus prediction is that a Pacers-Miami matchup is inevitable, other East squads have been balling out too, and they shouldn’t be ignored because of our soothsaying abilities.
The Bulls proved last season that they are a playoff draw you want to avoid. With Derrick Rose’s knee soap opera well into season two - and having traded their second best player Loul Deng - most people assumed the Bulls would fall out of playoff contention.
However, there’s still something to be said for coaching skills in the NBA. Tom Thibodeau’s all-around ability has the Bulls nicely positioned as a fourth-seed in the East, and it’s looking like they will draw a very winnable first-round fate.
Chicago was 12-18 and spiraling at the start of the New Year. The Bulls started 8-2 in January and never looked back, going 21-9 since. They’ve positioned themselves comfortably in that next open slot near the bottom of a mountain that Indiana sits on top of by a whopping 13 games.
Chicago hasn’t just been feasting on low-rung East squads either. It's taken down four teams from the West — the Lakers, Nuggets, Warriors and Mavs. Despite ranking last in the league in scoring, Chicago beat these teams at their own game, scoring 92, 117, 103 and 100 points.
The biggest reason for Chicago’s resurgence has been center Jakim Noah, who’s played himself into MVP consideration. Of course he doesn’t have the staggering offensive numbers of a KD or LeBron, but Noah’s defense is major; he is one of the game’s greatest antagonists, he rebounds, hustles hard, and his passing acumen is butter. He isn’t totally impotent from the outside anymore either. Every now and then Noah will flick a wet jumper and blow on his holsters like a sharp-shooter.
Like Carmelo in NY, Chicago’s offense runs through Noah, but in a very different way in that there aren’t many plays called for him, but he ends up involved in all of the action. Noah also sets the mental tone for the Bulls and his swag is always confident and nasty when need be.
He lets the opposition know that the lost thuggery of 90s NBA ball is alive and well when you play Chicago, so guard ya grill and knuckle up.
As usual, Thibs isn’t getting the credit he deserves as a bench technician , but the rise of Dwane Casey and his Atlantic Division–leading Toronto Raptors has much to do with that. Casey is up for some NBA Coach of the Year hardware for the way he has turned a lukewarm Toronto team into legit rim-wreckers.
With the Celtics in straight rebuilding mode and the Knicks sinking to unforeseen depths after winning 54 games last season and the Nets just now picking up steam after a slow start to The Jason Kidd Era, the Raptors have established themselves as a beast of the east.
Casey was 57-91 in two seasons since joining the team in 2011, and after trading leading scorer Rudy Gay and finding a cohesive balance and winning chemistry amongst his players, the Raptors are a three-seed in the conference with a 33-26 record. A playoff berth is all but solidified and their immediate concentration is holding off a Nets team that is nipping at their heels just 3.5 games out.
Don’t get it twisted. Sure, this can be considered a down year for the Eastern Conference, but Toronto has ballers.
Just check their 104-98 victory over Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors on Sunday. DeMar DeRozan scored a team-high 32 points on 10-for-16 shooting from the field. DeRozan has scored more than 30 points in a career-high three straight games (Feb. 25 - Mar. 2). The last Raptor to accomplish this feat was Mike James who scored 30-plus points in four straight games in ‘06. The Raptors have not dropped back-to-back home games since losing three straight at Air Canada Centre from Nov. 27-Dec. 1. In fact, they are Raptors are 12-4 (.750) at home since January 1, which is the eighth-best record in the NBA.
Rozen has blossomed into an all-star (22.9 ppg), starting point guard Kyle Lowery survived trade rumors and has established himself as a bonafide floor general - good for 17 and 8 every night. Add emerging swing-man Terrance Ross to the mix and Toronto has a killer nucleus for future success. Those young legs can give veteran teams fits in the playoffs.
The Gay trade changed the entire dynamics of the team and gave the perimeter-heavy Raptors some needed balance. Second-year center Jonas Valanciunas and power forward Amir Johnson have blossomed since the trade and pesky point guard Greivis Vasquez, stretch-four Patrick Patterson and veteran swingman John Salmons — all acquired from Sacramento—have improved the Raptors’ depth.
Another squad that’s worth mentioning is the Washington Wizards. When they made John Wall their No, 1 pick in 2010 it was written that the franchise would begin to take off when his multi-talented game did. It took Wall a minute to catch up to the speed of the NBA and grasp the dedication and commitment it took to excel at this level.
He showed some flashes as a rookie, but then the strike-shortened 2011-12 season and injuries during last season hindered his progress. Wall finally made his first NBA All-Star appearance this season and the Wizards team has followed his personal growth up the standings, as they are a fifth-seed with a 31-29 record, and in sole possession of second-place behind Miami in the Southeast Division.
While the Western Conference is loaded with burgeoning talent, emerging power squads and legitimate intrigue as to who the conference rep will be, most Eastern Conference playoff viewers will be half watching and half waiting for the rematch between Miami and Indiana -which is sure to be epic.
With his recent 61 point outburst the entire NBA planet became further hypnotized by LeBron’s dominance and at this point he and his Miami teammates are competing against history. They cast a shadow as long and wide as the Panama Canal over their competition. The anti-Miami contingent is equal in size to the legion of bandwagon Miami fans that have surfaced over the past three years. These cats are riding the Pacers train heavy and even if they don’t truly believe it, are praying for an Indiana uprising this postseason.
Only a betting man with lots of gwop to lose would pick any team other than the Pacers or Heat to rep the East in the Finals, but this is the NBA and KD told you a long time ago that “anything’s possible".
Teams like Chicago, Toronto and Washington believe that they are more than mere footnotes to a pre-determined NBA basketball saga. They are out to guillotine those very teams that might take them lightly.
Let’s never forget the image of Dikembe Mutumbo in the first-round of the 1994 playoffs, cradling the basketball with infantile emotion as the Denver Nuggets defeated a 63-win Seattle Supersonics squad after dropping the first two games of the five-game series.
The Nuggets became the first 8th seeded team to defeat a No. 1 seed in NBA playoff history. With all due respect to The Big Three and The Pacers perfectly-balanced machine, don’t sleep on the East. NBA playoff games are not about gift giving. They’re a grueling trial of sucker punches, low blows and jaw drops and anybody can get caught out there.