Heavyweight battles in the East
5-on-5 Roundtable: ESPN doubleheader -- Celtics-Heat and Knicks-Bulls
The Celtics look ready for a deep playoff run, the Knicks are playing their best ball of the season, the Bulls' Derrick Rose is hurting again and Dwyane Wade is returning to the Heat lineup.
These are the top storylines in the East heading into Tuesday night's doubleheader on ESPN.
1. Fact or Fiction: The Celtics are a contender in the East.
Ryan DeGama, Celtics Hub: Fiction. If the playoffs were a single-elimination tournament with a week between games, the Celtics and their league-best defense might actually be the favorites. But the inability of Boston's aging stars to play long and effective minutes in successive games probably dooms them to no more than two rounds before this summer's roster detonation.
Matt McHale, By The Horns: Fiction. The Celtics still have the Big Three and Rajon Rondo. They have championship experience. They've obviously been playing much better basketball since the All-Star break. But they don't have the depth, talent or youth to get past the Bulls and Heat. The best they can hope for is putting up a good fight and going down with dignity.
Robert Silverman, KnickerBlogger: Fiction. Doc Rivers deserves all the credit in the world (and more than a few coach of the year votes) for performing radical reconstructive surgery on his rotation, righting a foundering, aging unit that seemed to be on the verge of missing the playoffs after a spate of crippling injuries and locker room agita-inducing trade rumors. But while the Celtics will prove to be a tough out, they're no more contenders than the Pistons were in 1992.
Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Fact. Paul Pierce and KG are humming, Rajon Rondo continues to do things on the court nobody else even considers, and Ray Allen -- media kerfuffling aside -- has looked competent coming off the bench. Since March 25, their only losses have come to the Bulls and Spurs. It's beginning to look a lot like 2010, isn't it? (And I don't just mean the disappointing jobs report).
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Fact. They've always been a contender. That hasn't changed. The problem with the Celtics is that you can't trust them to be healthy over the course of the regular season. That has a lot to do with an aging roster, but Garnett and Pierce have paced themselves well. And Rondo, who is having arguably the most impressive season of his career, will strike fear in any team Boston faces.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Knicks could beat the Bulls in a playoff series.
DeGama: Fiction. I just don't see how New York could score enough against Chicago's defense, particularly if Mike Woodson gives Tom Thibodeau the gift of isolating Carmelo Anthony in half-court sets game after game. That's the equivalent of cleaning an open wound in shark-infested waters. Providing the sharks also could play suffocating strongside defense.
McHale: Fiction. Take Sunday. Carmelo Anthony was on fire, Derrick Rose was rusty and off his game, the Bulls played bad basketball and the Knicks eked out a one-point overtime win at home. New York is not a better team than Chicago.
Silverman: Fiction. I mean, I guess one could say it's possible, in the same way it's possible that the universe could collapse upon itself in the next few seconds, but without Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire, even if Carmelo can channel Bernard King circa 1984 and average 40-plus ppg, the Knicks don't have the offensive firepower to really challenge Chicago. They may steal a game or two at the most, but the odds are heavily in favor of the Bulls making short shrift of the Bockers.
Sunnergren: Fiction. Sorry, Spike, the Bulls are just a much better basketball team. And while the Bockers have managed to play the likely 1-seed close three times already this season, that 100-99 Easter Sunday overtime thriller was called extraordinary for a reason: It probably won't happen again -- much less three times, much less four.
Wallace: Fact. Yes, the Knicks are capable of beating the Bulls in a playoff series. I just don't see it happening, even as Chicago desperately tries to work Rose into some sort of rhythm. If the Knicks don't have Stoudemire or Lin right and ready for the playoffs, they won't have enough firepower to overcome the Bulls' defense four times in seven games.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Heat need home-court advantage in the East.
DeGama: Fiction. The Heat know they'll be judged solely on their postseason play, which should make us all suspicious of the predictive powers of the regular season. I expect renewed focus from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade come the end of the month. If that happens, Miami will be lethal no matter where they're playing.
McHale: Fiction. A team with James and Wade can win a road game in the playoffs. Period.
Silverman: Fiction. Miami has held it as an article of faith that, like a tank of nitrous oxide concealed in the belly of the engine of a street racer, it possesses a second and even third gear in reserve that renders it unstoppable. It's a level of confidence that borders on hubris at times and has resulted in some flat, unmotivated outings/losses to mere mortals. I honestly don't think the Heat care if they have home-court advantage. Whether their overwhelming belief in their own superiority catches up to them in the end is another matter entirely.
Sunnergren: Fiction. Pick up Miami's 16-12 road record -- roll it around in your fingers, inspect it for a moment, consider its implications -- and put it aside. It doesn't matter. What the Heat need is a maximally healthy Big Three and a confident, focused and loose LeBron James.
Wallace: Fiction. This script has played out before. The Heat entered the playoffs last season as the No. 2 seed in the East and stole Game 2 of the conference finals on the road before dusting off the Bulls in five games. Although they've struggled on the road recently this season, the Heat realize it'll be easier to steal home-court advantage by winning one game on the road than it is to keep chasing the best record in the regular season.
4. Fact or Fiction: Rose's health should be Chicago's main concern.
DeGama: Fact. Chicago has no one besides Rose capable of creating so much out of so little on offense, particularly in late-clock situations. They've hardly fallen apart without him in the regular season, but lingering concerns about finding a consistent second scorer in the playoffs mean little if the first option isn't around to begin with.
McHale: Fiction. The main concern is whether Rip Hamilton will provide the extra offense needed to take pressure off Rose when the going gets tough. There are only a couple of weeks until the playoffs ... and we still have no idea.
Silverman: Fact. A 15-7 record without the reigning MVP is mighty impressive, but they're not taking four out of seven from the right proper South Beachers without Rose. Why Thibodeau played him for 38 minutes in his first game back is beyond me. Any serious relapse/reinjury Rose suffers in the last 10 or so games would wholly torpedo Chicago's title hopes. Is that risk truly worth the reward of securing home-court advantage throughout the playoffs?
Sunnergren: Fact. Hard as it is to resist the siren song of contrarianism, nothing stymies championship aspirations faster than an absent MVP. And as remarkably as the Bulls have played sans Rose, if he continues to miss games (and it looks like he might continue to), they'll suffer for it. It's one thing to beat Toronto twice in a row without Rose; it's something else entirely to take a seven-game series against Miami.
Wallace: Fiction. The Bulls and Rose have admirably taken a methodical and patient approach to his recovery this season. He's sacrificed much of the regular season to be ready for the playoffs. So at this point, his rhythm and chemistry with his teammates are far bigger concerns. Can Rose and his team fast-track this process? Or will it be something that ultimately comes back to haunt them in the postseason?
5. Fact or Fiction: These are the best four teams in the East.
DeGama: Fiction. The first three are spot on, but you can expect some righteous Midwestern fury for bumping the Pacers for the Knicks. Larry Bird's Vogelicious gang is deeper and healthier than New York even if it's still one player from being truly dangerous.
McHale: Fiction. I know the Knicks have been playing better since parting ways with Mike D'Antoni. But I still think the Pacers have been better and more consistent over the course of the season. Maybe if Lin were playing and Stoudemire were healthy. But they're not.
Silverman: Fiction. Indiana's a deep, athletic team; Atlanta has exceeded expectations all season; and though it's in a serious funk, Philly still plays the best defense this side of the Windy City. And should 7-foot Garbo in Orlando decide to make nicey-nicey with Van Gundy the Older, the Magic, too, can bang with the big boys. As was the case in the similarly strike-shortened, tumultuous '99 season, it's going to depend on which team comes together/catches fire when the postseason begins. After all, two to three weeks ago, no one would have included the Knicks in the above quartet.
Sunnergren: Fact. Although a best-season award would go to the Pacers and Magic ahead of the Celtics and Knicks, the Atlantic leaders are, at this moment, greater threats. Boston's cresting, and Mike Woodson has Tyson Chandler & Co. playing great, albeit largely unnoticed, defense.
Wallace: Fiction. Those four are clearly the most reputable. But it would be a slight to overlook the Pacers and Hawks this season. There's a reason the Celtics and Knicks have spent much of the season looking up at those teams in the standings. The true groupings in the East are simple. The Bulls and Heat are on one level, and everyone else is a step or two behind them. But that doesn't mean Chicago and Miami can't be upset in the postseason.