Contenders or pretenders?
5-on-5 roundtable: What to make of the Celtics, Knicks, Clippers and others
1. Contender or pretender: Boston Celtics (have won 21 of past 29).
Jim Cavan, Knickerblogger: Contender. Many had the aging Celts dead and buried at the All-Star break, but a well-timed run -- buttressed by an increasingly viselike defense, Kevin Garnett's rejuvenation and two beatdowns of the Heat -- makes this incarnation of the Celtics dangerous heading into the postseason. With the added rest the playoffs provide, anything is possible for Doc's squad.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: Contender. Call them old all you want, but Boston gets after it defensively like no other team in the league. With Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo swarming ball handlers and Garnett doing his usual mad man routine, the Celtics can blow up the game plans of even the most potent offenses.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Contender. The Celtics have been far and away the league's top defense since the All-Star break. Although their offense has been decidedly mediocre, it should improve as Ray Allen gets his legs underneath him. If they can maintain their otherworldly defensive attack, the Celtics can reach the Finals by strangulation.
Amin Vafa, Hardwood Paroxysm: Contender. Remember when everyone used to say, "Don't count the Spurs out"? That reputation now belongs to Boston. The Celtics love playing slow, grind-it-out ball. Paul Pierce, Allen and Garnett are getting some pre-playoff rest and Rondo is as destructive a force as ever. Don't count out the Celtics.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Contender. Garnett looks a lot more mobile than he did earlier this season, and the Avery Bradley discovery has done wonders for a team that can now bring the best shooter to ever live off the bench. It's hard to believe the Celtics could beat both Miami and Chicago, but if they don't have to, as one NBA champion said, anything is possssssibbbbllllleeeee.
2. Contender or pretender: New York Knicks (have won 13 of 18).
Cavan: Pretender. We keep waiting for Melo's franchise-burdened shoulders to turn to sawdust, and sooner or later his torrid shooting is bound to fall back to earth. With Amare's return imminent, the Bockers should have some semblance of a secondary scoring threat. But they desperately need Baron Davis, J.R. Smith and the rest to produce consistently if they're going to have even a survival prayer.
Foster: Pretender. Carmelo Anthony has done a fine job putting the Knicks on his back, but the isolation-dependent offense of Mike Woodson might not cut it in the playoffs. Strong defensive teams like the Heat, Bulls and Celtics employ defensive schemes too sophisticated to let one man consistently beat them over a seven-game stretch.
Haberstroh: Pretender. The Knicks are 5-4 in their past nine games with losses to the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Hawks by an average of 9.5 points. I can't take them seriously when Smith and Davis are their No. 2 and No. 3 scoring options. If you think Stoudemire could come to the rescue, let's see whether he can pick up a life preserver off the ground first.
Vafa: Pretender. While the Knicks have been playing well since the team and Mike D'Antoni parted ways, they'll have a tough time getting out of the first round based on matchups alone. Add injuries to Lin and Stoudemire, and a potential knee injury to Tyson Chandler, and it doesn't look to be the Knicks' year even with Melo's resurgence.
Wade: Pretender. The Mike Woodson era has been as impressive a midseason takeover as we have seen in some time, especially when you factor in the health problems New York has suffered. But the team remains too incomplete and Amare's back likely won't be 100 percent until the offseason. Carmelo can't win 12, let alone 16, games with late-game 3-pointers.
3. Contender or pretender: Los Angeles Clippers (have won 12 of 14).
Cavan: Pretender. Coach Vinny Del Negro's white-hot seat has cooled somewhat, but the Clippers' flaws -- inconsistent D, lack of wing punch and, well, coaching -- make them vulnerable to a first-round upset. If the season ended today, they'd be matched against sleeper darling Memphis, which probably won't be thinking too much about its 1-2 regular-season record against the Clips now that the Grizzlies are at full strength.
Foster: Contender. We've seen this story before. A jump-shooting team catches fire in the playoffs as its closer wins a bunch of tight games. I'm not implying the Clippers play anywhere near the level of defense the Dallas Mavericks did last season, but they certainly have been making strides on that end lately. With Chris Paul, anything is possible.
Haberstroh: Contender. For two reasons. Del Negro quietly has this team playing both sides of the floor lately; the Clippers own the NBA's sixth-most-stingiest defense in April. Secondly and more importantly, a guy named Christopher Emmanuel Paul runs the show.
Vafa: Pretender. The Clippers have been impressive this season, particularly in their ability to rid the franchise of years of stigma. But when it comes to title contention, the coaching staff has to be as savvy as the roster is talented and deep. The Clippers clearly have solid talent, but depth and coaching need to be addressed before they can truly contend.
Wade: Pretender. Their defense is a sieve way too often to believe that this team could reach the Finals even in a wide-open Western Conference. Plus, they are the Clippers.
4. Contender or pretender: Indiana Pacers (have won 14 of 18).
Cavan: Pretender. The Pacers have benefited with one of the easier second-half schedules. How far they go may depend entirely on their first-round matchup. Locked as they are into the conference's third seed, the Pacers have to be hoping a Dwight-less and vulnerable Orlando team holds steady at the 6-seed. Assuming a first-round escape, though, they likely would be toast against Miami, against whom the Pacers are 1-3.
Foster: Pretender. I would be on board with the Pacers as a legitimate contender if it weren't for my complete and utter lack of faith in Darren Collison as a point guard and leader. Collison's lack of aggressiveness offensively and inability to stretch the floor leave the Pacers playing 4-on-5 far too often.
Haberstroh: Contender. Don't let their small market and lack of star power deceive you. This team has a better efficiency differential this season than the Lakers and Clippers, but you probably haven't heard a peep about the Pacers compared to those squads in Hollywood. If they manage to draw the Bulls in the semifinals, watch out.
Vafa: Pretender. Although I love the Pacers this season and think they're offensively and defensively gifted, I think their youth and inexperience in the playoffs will be an issue. Still, they definitely would be a tough second-round out. If they keep the team the same next season, they'll be scary to face in the playoffs.
Wade: Contender. The Pacers are a complete team that should be able to grind out a few wins against any other squad in the conference. If the playoffs prove as strange as the regular season has, it wouldn't be a complete shock to see Indiana limp into the Finals if none of the more talented East teams proves to be a giant.
5. Contender or pretender: Memphis Grizzlies (have won 23 of 35).
Cavan: Contender. With a monstrous (and healed) front line, depth, length, a topflight D and last year's playoff run as a well-worn battle scar, this team looks built for a playoff run. Rudy Gay might've replaced a recently returned Zach Randolph as the offensive centerpiece, but the workmanlike approach and havoc-wreaking D haven't changed much. No one wants to see these guys in the first round.
Foster: Pretender. There are just too many question marks here. How healthy is Marc Gasol going to be? Is Randolph anywhere near his level of play from last year's playoffs? Can they overcome their relatively poor perimeter shooting? The Grizzlies play great team defense, but they need all hands on deck to compete for a title.
Haberstroh: Contender. But it all hinges on Randolph's health. If he can get back to where he was in the playoffs last season, this team vaults to serious contender status. But if Marreese Speights is its second big, this team is going nowhere.
Vafa: Contender. This team was a part of one of the best playoff series in years last season, and it's better this season. The Grizzlies seem much more whole with Gay injury-free this season. It's hard to believe a team that was already employing Tony Allen's defense could look scarier, but here we are. Watch out for the Grizzlies.
Wade: Contender. Oklahoma City would be among the youngest teams ever to play in an NBA Finals, while San Antonio's championship core is on its last legs. Memphis matches up well with both and could beat any team in the NBA four out of seven times. Whether it will do so in three straight series remains to be seen, but it certainly can.
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