With the All-Star break now over, we can start the countdown to the NBA Playoffs. This has been an odd, abbreviated season and I think we'll see some major injuries in the second half as the grind of so many games in so few days takes control. That said, I like that there is some new blood among the top playoff teams this season. Will the Pacers, 76ers, and Clippers be able to hold onto their upper crust status? Will the Celtics, Spurs, and Lakers (who are just plain crusty) use their veteran tricks to move up the standings? Only time will tell. If the playoffs started today, here is how they would look.
1. Miami Heat (27-7) vs. 8. Boston Celtics (15-17)
As a contrarian, I am rooting for the Heat. I never understood why it bothered everyone so much that LeBron left Cleveland. He was a free agent. Which part of "free" isn't understood? In any case, if the Heat are able to remain healthy (a big if with Dwyane Wade), they should be prohibitive favorites in the East. I'd take LeBron first in a Fantasy Postseason draft, Wade in the first round, and Bosh soon after. The Celtics likely won't make a huge charge with 20 of their last 34 games on the road, so they will happy to hold off the Cavaliers.
2. Chicago Bulls (27-8) vs. 7. New York Knicks (17-18)
Looking ahead, I think the Bulls match up pretty well with the Heat. They are a polar opposite of Miami (which makes sense for a Windy City team) in that they are strong in the post and at the point, but may have to rely on Richard Hamilton being healthy to be productive on the wing. Derrick Rose is an amazing individual talent, but I have never been sure whether he makes his teammates better. If the Knicks can find enough shots for Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Jeremy Lin, they could be interesting. Of course, that is a lot of shots.
3. Indiana Pacers (21-12) vs. 6. Atlanta Hawks (20-14)
Even in this abbreviated season, the Pacers may near their recent win totals. Over the past five years, Indiana has not won more than 37 games and they already have 21 wins this season. Danny Granger has not been scoring as much as in his past four seasons, but he is still providing 18.0 points for a winning team. Keep an eye on the progression of Paul George, who is averaging 12.1 points. The Hawks have been playing well without Al Horford, who may be able to come back for the playoffs. Josh Smith is averaging 16.1 points and a career-high 9.5 rebounds.
4. Philadelphia 76ers (20-14) vs. 5. Orlando Magic (22-13)
This would be the most interesting of the first round match ups in the East. It would the giant (Dwight Howard) against the gnats (the pesky 76ers). Two of Philadelphia's leading scorers (Lou Williams at 15.7 points and Thaddeus Young at 12.6 points) come off of the bench. Depth generally isn't the best attribute in the playoffs, but the 76ers will at least make things interesting. Where will Orlando get help for Howard? Ryan Anderson is having a breakout season and Hedo Turkoglu has playoff experience, but the team may need to get some help for their big man.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (27-7) vs. 8. Portland Trailblazers (18-16)
It looks as if the Thunder may be able to make the leap into the skies. They are tied with the Heat with the best record and are a fantasy player's dream team. Obviously, they have the incredible duo of Kevin Durant (should be taken second after LeBron) and Russell Westbrook, but James Harden and Serge Ibaka are coming into their own as fantasy presences. It helps that they are young in this rushed season, but will their relative inexperience hurt them in the playoffs? The Trailblazers will be in a dogfight for the last playoff spot with Denver, Minnesota and perhaps Utah.
2. San Antonio Spurs (24-10) vs. 7. Memphis Grizzlies (19-15)
The Spurs aren't dead yet. Tim Duncan and his veteran crew have fashioned the second best record. While Duncan is still the headliner, the truth is that this is really Tony Parker's team. The French point guard is averaging 19.4 points and 8.1 assists. If Manu Ginobili can return from his oblique injury to an impact role, the Spurs could be dangerous in the playoffs. They may also get some measure of revenge against the Grizzlies who knocked them out last year. Memphis is waiting for the return of Zach Randolph, who is expected back in March. The trio of Rudy Gay (who missed last year's playoffs), Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley has been solid for Memphis.
3. Los Angeles Clippers (20-11) vs. 6. Houston Rockets (20-14)
The Rockets can only look at the Clippers and wonder what would have been if their proposed Chris Paul deal would have gone through. They almost had their hands on Pau Gasol, but it would have cost them Luis Scola and Kevin Martin. Coach Kevin McHale has done a nice job with his team as it stands and Kyle Lowry (15.6 points, 7.6 assists) has become a star. Lowry would be an intriguing first round match up for Paul and his new comrades. The Clippers had little problem dispatching the Rockets on Jan. 4 as Paul went for 20 points and ten assists. Blake Griffin's numbers are down slightly in his second year as his minutes have take a necessary slight dip. His problems at the free throw line could be an issue in the playoffs.
4. Dallas Mavericks (21-13) vs. 5. Los Angeles Lakers (20-14)
Another rematch from a year ago in which the Mavericks swept the Lakers in the second round of last year's playoffs. One can only imagine what thoughts go through Kobe Bryant's head when he thinks about the loss. Both of these teams are veteran squads who will have to try to stay healthy in the second half. The key figure will be Andrew Bynum who has never played more than 65 games in his seven-year career. If the 24-year-old can somehow manage to stay healthy, the Lakers will be a tough out. Dallas opened the season with three straight losses, but has managed to right the ship behind Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas is by far the oldest team in the league, so they will need some magic beans to stay upright.