Friday, March 8, 2013
Where will they be at season's end?
|Can Paul Pierce, James Harden and Steph Curry lead their teams to strong finishes down the stretch?|
Our Friday night doubleheader -- Hawks-Celtics (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) and Rockets-Warriors (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET) -- features four teams in the playoff mix. How far will each squad go this season? Who wins tonight's matchups? Let's play 5-on-5:
1. At the end of the regular season, the Celtics will be __________.
Bo Churney, HawksHoop: Pondering. I was in the camp that thought the Rajon Rondo-centric offense was counterproductive at times. You have to wonder how dangerous the Celtics would be if they could incorporate Rondo into the offense they are running now. It will give them a lot to think about over the offseason in terms of roster moves.
Rahat Huq, Red94: Exhausted. The only thing more incredible than the Celtics keeping things together after Rondo's injury is the fact that KG and Paul Pierce are still going strong at their age. It has been an inspiring run, but without Rondo, the Celtics won't stand much of a chance in the postseason.
Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: A tough out in the East. Boston will continue to silence the doubters over the final weeks of the regular season thanks to a relatively easy schedule. This ideal setup will allow Doc Rivers to preserve his aging core for the postseason and create a challenging matchup for nearly any team in the East short of Miami.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Relieved. For this veteran bunch, the regular season has become a complete 82-game nuisance. But they always recharge in the playoffs. Rajon Rondo's season-ending injury has removed the usual pressure and expectations, so Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and coach Doc Rivers will be free and loose during possibly their final stand.
Jack Winter, Warriors World: The East's sixth seed. Half of Boston's remaining 22 games come against teams playing below .400 basketball, a luxury the teams perched directly above them -- Chicago, Atlanta and Brooklyn -- aren't afforded. At the very least, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce & Co., who are currently the seventh seed, will move up one spot. And should that aforementioned trio falter, maybe more.
2. At the end of the regular season, the Hawks will be __________.
Churney: Just regular. This was a throwaway year for the Hawks, even though they are likely to finish in the same spot as last season. Management will be happy that it has enough cap space to do whatever it wants, plus a couple of great pieces to build around. They'll take the playoff revenue and prepare for the offseason.
Huq: Glad they traded Joe Johnson. The Hawks sit in fifth, roughly the same air they occupied during the JJ era. They were a franchise mired in mediocrity. Now they're getting the same results, but at a much cheaper price.
Robb: In a familiar spot. Atlanta has been firmly entrenched in the middle seeds of the East for four years and counting now, and there's nothing to indicate that will change this year. With one final disappointing playoff exit inevitably looming for Josh Smith in Atlanta, it may be the end of an era for the Hawks.
Wallace: The usual suspects. Year in and year out, the Hawks prove to be dangerous enough to advance to the second round of the playoffs, but too discombobulated to make it further and maximize their potential. With plenty of cap space and a chance to overhaul the stagnant roster, general manager Danny Ferry looks forward to free agency far more than the playoffs.
Winter: A playoff mystery. These Hawks have confounded all season long and still lack a cemented identity on either end of the floor. That won't change by spring time, so we won't know what to make of them going into the postseason. Atlanta could be swept from the first round, beat the Nets or put more than a scare into the Pacers or Knicks; no outcome would surprise.
3. At the end of the regular season, the Rockets will be __________.
Churney: Ready to fight. Of all the teams looking at the seventh or eighth seed in the West (including the Lakers), I still believe that Houston will have the best opportunity to win in the first round. Their defense may be porous, but they have the capability of catching fire enough to win four games in a seven-game series.
Huq: No. 6 in the West. The Rockets have a stretch coming up where they'll enjoy home cooking in nine out of 10 games. They'll take care of business and validate Hollinger's current 97 percent odds for a postseason berth. With James Harden playing at an All-NBA level, Houston will avoid a collapse like the one they suffered last season.
Robb: Capable of a first-round upset. The Rockets can score with any team in the league on any given night. With James Harden looking to redeem himself after an underwhelming performance in the NBA Finals, Houston will be the team none of the top seeds want to see at the start of the postseason.
Wallace: The No. 7 seed. The final six weeks of the regular season will get much wilder as Golden State, Utah, Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers battle for the final three playoff spots. As it stands now, signs point to a first-round reunion between Houston's James Harden and his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Winter: The team no top seed wants to face. Houston plays like no other team in the NBA, flying up and down the floor with reckless abandon and putting extra emphasis on attacking the rim and bombing away from deep. That style isn't a recipe for playoff success historically, but the Rockets will try to run the opposition into the ground regardless.
4. At the end of the regular season, the Warriors will be __________.
Churney: Ecstatic. Not only are they likely to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007, but they have something that actually resembles a contending future. Even if they don't make it past the first round, the Bay Area finally has a team that it can be proud of.
Huq: No. 7 in the West. Anyone who saw Steph Curry's 54-point performance at The Garden is hoping the Warriors hold on for postseason play. If Andrew Bogut is fully healthy, one can easily see the Warriors giving one of the top seeds a serious scare.
Robb: Defenseless. After a scorching start to the season, especially on the defensive end of the floor, the other shoe has dropped in Oakland. The rest of the NBA has caught up with Mark Jackson's adjusted defensive schemes and are exposing the Warriors' roster of subpar defenders, for which there is no real solution over the rest of the regular season.
Wallace: Worn out. With 13 of their final 20 regular-season games against teams still in the playoff mix, Stephen Curry and the Warriors will get a taste of postseason intensity a bit early. Fortunately for them, all but six of their remaining games are at home. Will they still have enough left to be the dangerous threat they appeared to be earlier this season?
Winter: Ripe first-round prey. The Warriors should be feeling good by April, having enjoyed a final stretch of 14 home games in their last 20. But this once-solid defense is forever broken, and that fact will only be magnified once the playoffs roll around. This season was certainly a step in the right direction for Golden State, just one not quite big enough.
5. At the end of Friday, __________ and __________ will be winners.
Churney: Atlanta and Golden State. Despite what I said about Rondo earlier, he did have triple-doubles in both games in Atlanta; the C's will miss him in this one. I'll give the Warriors the advantage over the Rockets for being slightly better defensively, and for being the home team.
Huq: Boston and Golden State. The Celtics will keep the good times rolling after their gutsy win over Indiana on Wednesday. The Warriors will be out for revenge after dropping the past two to Houston.
Robb: Boston and Houston. The C's are undefeated at home since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL. With nearly every member of the team's rotation playing well right now, they will get by Atlanta. Houston has more scoring weapons producing than the Warriors at this point, helping them earn a tough road win in Oakland.
Wallace: Atlanta and Houston. The Hawks never do what you expect them to do, so that means they'll probably find a way to knock off the relatively resurgent Celtics in Boston. And after that, look for Harden to put up 40-plus to lead the league's highest-scoring offense to a solid road win during a highly entertaining shootout with Curry and the Warriors.
Winter: Boston and Houston. Boston surely hasn't forgotten the devastating double-overtime loss suffered at the hands of Atlanta back in January. The Celtics will be out for blood; they'll get it, too. The Rockets, meanwhile, are a horrible matchup for the Warriors. Their incessant, creative pick-and-roll attack will serve as the perfect foil to Golden State's fledgling defense. The Rockets win a high-scoring affair.