2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

Free Agency News: 7/3/12 Roundup

As is the case with free agency every year, it’s been a busy week filled with headlines for numerous stars and the smaller pieces that might go unnoticed. Here’s a quick recap of the major deals and rumors that have gone down in the past week.

Hawks Trade Joe Johnson to Brooklyn Nets:

I already covered this one earlier today, but the Hawks sent their All-Star guard and his not-so-All-Star contract to Brooklyn in exchange for the majority of the Nets’ bench and a future first round pick. Atlanta finally accepted Johnson and Josh Smith weren’t working out and the overpaid Johnson left for Brooklyn in exchange for Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, Jordan Williams and DeStawn Stevenson. The Hawks are looking like they’ll struggle during the 2012-13 season, but their next acquisition might help a little bit.

The Nets didn’t get the All-Star they wanted (Dwight Howard), but got Joe Johnson instead. Now they need to hope Deron Wiliams stays on.

Hawks Acquire Devin Harris from Utah Jazz Trade:

Don’t get too excited, Atlanta. You’re still going to be sorry next season, but at least the acquisition of Devin Harris from Utah will ease the incredible burden that’s been placed on Josh Smith’s shoulders. The Hawks sent Marvin Williams to the Jazz in exchange for Utah’s inconsistent point guard as Atlanta’s new GM Danny Ferry has wasted no time making his intentions clear: getting rid of the the organization’s two peskiest (and overpriced) contracts in Johnson and Williams. With so much money being cleared out, the Hawks are clearly trying to make room to make big moves, possibly for Dwight Howard or Chris Paul should he not resign with the Clippers. Whether high-caliber moves such as these happen this offseason or the next remains to be seen, but Ferry has done an excellent job with these two moves to ensure the Hawks see long term growth. Plus, Harris isn’t a shabby point guard and can certainly help a team out with 3-point shooting when his shot is on. His streaky shooting and overall inconsistent play makes him a bit of a gamble from week to week, but the Hawks need a revival and certainly got the upper hand of this trade with Utah. The move is particularly curious for the Jazz, who gain little from shopping their starting point guard for a former number two draft pick who hasn’t ever lived up to expectations.

The Hawks certainly improved by trading Marvin Williams for Utah’s Devin Harris.

Deron Williams Still Undecided:

At first, Brooklyn’s trade with Atlanta for Joe Johnson was contingent upon whether or not Williams resigned with the Nets. However, the deal went through anyway, leaving the Nets in limbo waiting for their All-Star point guard to decide between resigning or heading to his hometown of Dallas to play with Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavericks. Williams is likely to make his decision known within the next one or two days, either liberating Brooklyn from the ever-growing concern they might only be left with Joe Johnson’s ridiculous contract or turning Dallas into a much more dangerous force in the West. We’ve already been over what the Nets would look like in the backcourt with Johnson and D-Will, but if the Mavericks get their hands on Brooklyn’s star point guard, the combination of Williams and Dirk could get interesting.

Will D-Will stay with Joe Johnson in Brooklyn? Or will he join Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas?

Lamar Odom Goes To Clippers:

A few days ago, the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks worked out a deal that sends Lamar Odom back to his former team in exchange for Mo Williams. As part of a four-team trade, Odom will try to restart his career where it began in Los Angeles as Williams moves on to the Utah Jazz. I don’t see the move as a good one for the Clippers for the time being, but if Odom can play more like the Sixth Man of the Year that he once was, it could prove to be beneficial in the long run. The acquisition of Williams for the Jazz meant they had an extra guard, which might help explain why Devin Harris was shopped for Marvin Williams.

Lamar will get to revitalize his career where it all began in Los Angeles.

Bulls Looking for Veteran Guards:

With Derrick Rose likely missing a significant chunk of the next NBA season, it’s no surprise the Bulls are looking for veteran guards who won’t eat up too much money and can step in to take over while their star point guard recuperates. The Bulls have already reached out to Derek Fisher and Brandon Roy and while there are no solid deals to report on yet, keep your eye on this one. Fisher is also being pursued by the Thunder, Heat and Mavericks while Roy is fielding offers from several teams as well.

With Derrick Rose recovering on the sidelines, the Bulls will need to add another point guard.

Celtics Hoping to Resign Allen, Bass, Green:

Despite the popular opinion that Ray Allen will be in a Miami Heat uniform next season, Danny Ainge has said that the Celtics are making resigning Allen a priority, along with Brandon Bass and Jeff Green, who may be able to return to Boston as a free agent. While the possibility of resigning all three of these Boston regulars may be difficult, I wouldn’t doubt that they get their hands on at least two of those three. Allen has been offered deals with Miami and the Memphis Grizzlies, but would make the most money if he stayed in Boston. It will come down to whether or not he believes he can win with Miami and whether or not he’d be willing to take a pay cut to do so, but for the time being, nothing has been decided regarding Allen, Bass or Green yet.

Will Ray Allen choose the Celtics and more money over the lure of a championship in Miami?

Dwight Howard Drama Continues:

Dwight Howard came out and said there’s only one team on his list earlier this week, and although he wouldn’t say outright that it was the Nets, no one else seemed capable of being that team if not Brooklyn. Until yesterday, that is, when the Nets basically took their names out of the Howard sweepstakes with an ill-advised trade for Johnson, who will take up a considerable chunk of cap space. The Mavericks and Hawks are both clearing room for big offseason acquisitions, so Howard might want to think about adding more teams to his stubbornly short list. Howard said if he doesn’t get traded to the one team on his list, he would play the season out and then explore free agency, although the choice is not his to make if the Magic decide to shop him.

Dwight Howard continues to ruin his legacy by running his mouth about his trade demands.

Steve Nash’s Future Still Unclear:

The Toronto Raptors made Nash a 3-year offer, which Phoenix seems unwilling to do at this point. The Suns are leaning toward a 2-year deal if their All-Star point guard stays, but with the drafting of Kendall Marshall, they seem to be preparing for the worst. Nash says he is keeping his options open, which is a smart decision considering his large number of suitors, which includes the Knicks, Mavericks, Raptors and Suns. At this point it seems more and more unlikely Nash will stay in Phoenix, but to leave one non-contender for another doesn’t seem like something an aging veteran in search of his first title would do (ruling out Toronto).

Nash’s future in Phoenix seems unlikely, but no one else has put a great offer on the table yet.

Roy Hibbert Offered Deal by Portland:

The Portland Trail Blazers are looking to strengthen their frontcourt even further after offering All-Star center Roy Hibbert a four-year deal for $58 million. The Blazers went through a major upheaval last season and had a disappointing year but adding Hibbert to LaMarcus Aldridge would form a formidable team in the paint, especially with rookie Meyers Leonard likely coming off the bench. However, if Hibbert is smart (and not motivated primarily by money), he’ll stay in Indiana. After such a disappointing playoff performance with the Pacers, Hibbert definitely has something to prove to his team, a squad that can actually contend in the East if they continue to mature.

Hibbert has unfinished business in Indiana. It’d be a shame for him to leave for the weaker Blazers just for the money.

That’s all for now, but keep checking back for the latest free agency news and analysis.

Joe Johnson Heading To Brooklyn

The Atlanta Hawks and the Nets have agreed in principle to a trade that would send All-Star guard Joe Johnson to Brooklyn. The deal was contingent upon Deron Williams resigning with the Nets at first, but eventually went through anyway, regardless of whether Williams returns or not. Atlanta will clear out a huge amount of cap space with Johnson’s enormous contract out of the way and will receive Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Williams, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson and a 2013 lottery protected first round pick.

In the short term, this seems like a questionable trade for Atlanta, but with the big picture in mind, getting rid of Johnson is the first step in trying to assemble a team that can actually compete for an NBA title in the future. Johnson hasn’t lived up to the giant $119 million contract he signed two years ago with Atlanta and at this point, it seems the Hawks have accepted that they can’t contend for a championship with only Josh Smith and the overpaid Johnson leading the way. Shopping Johnson clears up a large amount of money to put pieces around Josh Smith, and although the likes of Morrow, Farmar and Stevenson does’t give much hope for the 2012-13 season, rest assured the Hawks will put their new draft pick to good use and make some big offseason moves to turn things around.

For Brooklyn, this deal is extremely questionable. Aside from nearly sending away their entire bench, the Nets may have just eliminated themselves from the Dwight Howard sweepstakes for this year. Even worse, they may not end up with anything now that the deal is underway without Deron Williams committing to Brooklyn first. Williams and Joe Johnson pairing up would make a formidable backcourt, but there’s no question the Nets would rather have had Superman and Williams over Johnson and Williams. And at this point, they might not even get Williams, meaning the Nets could lose their All-Star point guard, miss out on Howard, send away almost all of their reserves and end up with only Joe Johnson’s large contract to show for it. The fate of the Nets lies with Williams now, as they wait for him to make his decision between Brooklyn and his hometown Dallas Mavericks. But for the time being, the Nets’ big offseason plans may end with Johnson and fall well short of any dreams fans had of seeing Dwight Howard and Deron Williams on the floor together.

The Nets acquired Joe Johnson from Atlanta but have ruined their Dwight Howard plans. Things could get really ugly if Deron Williams doesn’t resign with Brooklyn.

Boston Finishes Atlanta At Home

The Boston Celtics advanced past the Atlanta Hawks at home after their Game 6 victory at home in front of a rocking TD Garden. Kevin Garnett came up big for the Celts, who squeaked out an 83-80 win and will now face the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round.

The man of the night for Boston in the decisive Game 6 was Kevin Garnett, who led the Celtics with 28 points and 14 rebounds. And despite playing with an MCL sprain, Paul Pierce also gave Boston a lift with 18 points while Rajon Rondo chipped in 14 points and eight assists. Josh Smith led Atlanta with 18 points and nine rebounds and Marvin Williams was also big, hitting four 3-pointers to finish with 16 points. In fact, everyone in the Hawks’ starting rotation did their part except for Jeff Teague, who finished with just five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Although, Horford missing a one of two free throws that would have tied the game with just over two seconds to play was also a big blow that finished off the Hawks. It was the only free throw Atlanta missed all night, but it turned out to be the most vital.

Josh Smith and the Hawks came up short once again in the first round.

The key to the series was the Celtics’ depth and the Hawks inability to get a little bit more out of their two superstars. Boston had the luxury of alternating big nights between their three biggest stars (Rondo, Pierce and Garnett), while Atlanta never quite got enough out of Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. Smith and Johnson were certainly the Hawks’ most consistent players in the series, but they couldn’t sting together any truly great performances on the same night, so no surprise a team with depth and multiple contributors overwhelmed them in the end. Al Horford’s return in this series was definitely an added boost, but the Hawks still don’t have enough depth and production from their starting lineup to push Boston to a Game 7.

So now the Celtics advance to take on the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, who advanced by the virtue of numerous Chicago injuries. This means Boston has a much easier path to the Eastern Conference Finals than they would have if Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah had been able to stay healthy. However, injuries are a part of the game, and they could become a factor in a Sixers playoff series again if Boston’s aging veterans keep getting banged up. Pierce has the MCL sprain, Ray Allen is playing with an ailing ankle and Avery Bradley is still playing with a dislocated shoulder. But as long as the Celtics’ key players are able to stay healthy and give 100 percent, Boston should have no problem closing this series out in five games.

Kevin Garnett led the Celtics to a Game 6 victory and moved Boston into the second round.

Al Horford Leads Hawks Past Celtics At Home

Al Horford and a balanced offensive attack from Atlanta lifted the Hawks to an 87-86 Game 5 victory at home over the Celtics yesterday, forcing a Game 6 to be played in Boston on Thursday night.. The Hawks’ victory put the series at 3-2 and prolonged their playoff life for at least one more game.

After missing almost the entire season with a pectoral injury, Al Horford had a decent outing in his return in Game 4, but Boston blew the game wide open. But last night, on Atlanta’s home floor, Horford’s solid performance on both ends of the court was able to elevate his team to a narrow victory. Horford led the Hawks with 19 points and 11 rebounds, but he also provided the defensive play of the night for Atlanta by guarding Rajon Rondo in the game’s final seconds. Rondo felt Horford’s defensive pressure and lost control of a crossover, which prevented him from getting a shot off. But while Horford led the way, the rest of Atlanta’s starters weren’t far behind. An all-around balanced offensive effort from the Hawks was what made the difference in Game 5: Josh Smith had 13 points and 16 rebounds, Jeff Teague had 16 points, and Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams had 15 points each.

Al Horford healthy and on the court made the difference for the Hawks in Game 5.

For Boston, Paul Pierce fell back into subpar shooting, finishing with 16 points. Kevin Garnett also had 16 and Brandon Bass added 14. Rajon Rondo only had 13 while Avery Bradley, who has been a consistent contributor in the second half of the Celtics’ season, only played 18 minutes through the dislocated shoulder and had just two points. Ray Allen continued to play well despite the ailing ankle and put up 15 points. But in the end, mediocre performances from the majority of Boston’s starters wasn’t enough in Atlanta to wrap the series up and give the Celts some much-needed rest should they advance to the second round.

Atlanta will need to find a way to duplicate this performance for Game 6 on the road. They’ll also be hoping that Paul Pierce doesn’t feed off the home crowd’s energy and go ballistic like he did in the Game 4 rout, because if he does, Atlanta will be going home empty-handed in the first round of the playoffs once again. The Hawks could also do with a little more production out of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith on the offensive end; 87 points might not be enough on the road against a Celtics team that is deadly in the TD Garden. From Boston’s perspective, all they really need to do is respond and take care of business at home with a focused and high-energy effort. If Pierce can have a decent shooting night, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett will do what they do. And if Avery Bradley is healthy, the Celtics will benefit from having him and then Ray Allen coming off the bench, which would more than likely be too much for the Hawks. Even though they would have liked the chance to rest, Boston could afford losing Game 5 on the road. This veteran squad will realize they need to wrap things up at home to avoid a dangerous Game 7 back in Atlanta and should take care of business.

Ray Allen has played well up to this point, but he may need to step up even more if Avery Bradley can’t go.

Paul Pierce And Celtics Rout Hawks

Celtics fans had been waiting for Paul Pierce to have a good shooting night in Boston’s series against the Atlanta Hawks. With his 10-of-13 shooting, 24-point performance, Pierce finally gave the fans what they wanted. Boston extended a 13 point first quarter lead to 23 by halftime and never looked back, grabbing a 3-1 series lead in their 101-79 Game 4 rout to spoil Josh Smith and Al Horford’s return.

I expressed concerns that Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague would only be able to keep up their high level of production without Josh Smith, but it turns out that even with him back on the floor they struggled to produce. Johnson finished with nine and Teague was even worse with just seven. Smith led Atlanta with 15 points and 13 rebounds while Horford had 12 off the bench. But the Hawks starters really didn’t play too much in the second half after Boston extended the lead to as many as 37 in the third quarter. We’ve seen this from the Atlanta Hawks in recent years: a gifted, athletic and talented team amasses a solid record in the regular season but doesn’t turn many heads, then falls flat on its face in the first or second round (usually with a few extremely underwhelming performances), which turns into a recurring cycle when they do the exact same thing the next year and no one is surprised. It’s tougher to criticize a team that played without a former All-Star for the majority of the season, but Atlanta should be competing better than this.

The Atlanta Hawks are once again failing to surprise anyone with an underwhelming playoff performance.

Despite the crowd loving every minute of Paul Pierce’s big first half, everyone in Boston held their breath when he went down with an apparent knee injury in the second quarter. Fortunately, he worked his way to the stationary bike and came back to play for a little while in the third quarter before he and other Celtics battling injuries were able to get some much-needed rest. In fact, no Celtic played more than 30 minutes other than Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass. Because the aging Celtics played so well in the first half, they benefitted from a lot of rest time in a game that was pretty much over by halftime. Avery Bradley, who was playing through a dislocated shoulder, only played 19 minutes before sitting down. Ray Allen, who had 12 points in his second game back after missing almost a month with ankle problems, also played just 19 minutes before sitting down. It didn’t take long for the Hawks to recognize Game 4 was beyond their grasp and they rested their starters, but with Boston’s stars getting so much rest after packing such a wallop that fast, all the momentum heading into Game 5 in Atlanta lies with the Celts.

Boston is a dangerous playoff team despite their aging bodies and a myriad of minor injuries. If they can stay healthy, they should benefit from an easy path to the Eastern Conference finals now that it looks like Philadelphia will move on past the injury-plagued Chicago Bulls. It’s crucial for this team to finish the Hawks in Game 5 on the road and give themselves as much time to rest before the next round as possible. Atlanta needed to elevate their game to have any chance in this series, but with Josh Smith missing a game and tonight’s catastrophe of a game, the Hawks are as good as eliminated at this point. Horford looked decent in his return, but the first game back is always the easiest because adrenaline and excitement to be back on the floor takes over. To win this series, the Hawks would have to win three straight while dealing with the inevitable team chemistry issues that would arise from reinserting a former All-Star into a lineup that has become used to playing without him. With Ray Allen back and Rajon Rondo not giving referees any reason to eject him, the Celtics are an extremely tough playoff team, and that Hawks just don’t have the firepower this year to advance past the first round.

Paul Pierce had TD Garden in a frenzy with his white-hot shooting night.

Celtics Outlast Hawks In Overtime

Joe Johnson and the Hawks hung around for as long as they could and even went on a late run to send the game to overtime without Josh Smith on the floor, but Rajon Rondo and the Celtics pulled out the win to take a 2-1 series lead. Although he didn’t score in the first half, Rondo had a triple double (17 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists) in his first game back after serving a one-game suspension for bumping into referee Marc Davis in Game 1.

Johnson, Jeff Teague and even Tracy McGrady off the bench made up for Josh Smith’s absence with strong offensive performances, scoring 29, 23 and 12 respectively, but even a 15-4 spurt to send the game to overtime wasn’t enough to get a crucial Game 3 victory on the road. Unfortunately for Atlanta, no one else scored more than six and the Hawk’s three other starters (Kirk Hinrich, Marvin Williams and Jason Collins) put up a combined seven. Other than Rondo’s triple double, the Celtics were able to outlast Atlanta thanks to Ray Allen’s 13 points off the bench in his first game in almost a month and Kevin Garnett’s 20-point, 13-rebound night. And despite another up-and-down shooting night from Paul Pierce, he was still able to lead the Celts in scoring with 21.

Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague did everything they could to keep Atlanta in the game, but it wasn’t enough without Josh Smith.

The fact that Atlanta competed in Boston without one of their top scorers and rebounders (not to mention Zaza Pachulia and Al Horford, who’s been out all year) is a good sign for the Hawks, but if Smith isn’t 100 percent for Game 4, there has to be some concern about whether or not Johnson and Teague and can continue to put up offensive performances like that without any reinforcement from their supporting cast. Boston has concerns of their own, but their problems might be more long-term if Smith doesn’t look fully up to speed when he comes back from the knee injury. The first problem is Avery Bradley’s dislocated shoulder. He’s being listed as questionable for Game 4, but because they were unable to pop his shoulder back into place, it could be more serious. Bradley has developed into a quality starter for the Celtics with his lockdown defense and expanding ability to score. Another concern for Boston is Brandon Bass’ mediocre performance thus far. Bass has only put up eight points in all three playoff games, a significant drop in production considering the above-average regular season he’s had this year. If the Celtics advance to the next round, they’ll need Bradley to be healthy and Bass to contribute more to stay competitive.

Josh Smith expects to play in Game 4 for the Hawks, which is a pivotal game for Atlanta to stay alive in the series. They will need Pierce to struggle with his shot again and they have to hope Smith is 100 percent, but Atlanta can win if Johnson and Teague play as well as they have been so far. Boston will be tough to beat at home, especially now they Ray Allen has returned to add more playoff experience and leadership to this veteran team. But if Boston somehow drops Game 4 at home, the Hawks will have life again.

Ray Allen may be even more important now if Bradley misses significant time.

Pierce’s Performance and Another Key Injury

Rajon Rondo was suspended for a game. Ray Allen still wasn’t on the court. The Boston Celtics were looking at a 2-0 hole if they allowed the Atlanta Hawks to snag both home games to start the series. But thanks to an incredible performance from Paul Pierce (and a potentially series-altering knee injury for Josh Smith), Boston rallied from an 11-point deficit to tie the series at 1-1.

Despite being shorthanded, Bradon Bass’ struggles and Michael Pietrus putting up a goose egg as a starter, the Celtics got the much-needed road win to keep themselves in the series. Paul Pierce struggled with his shooting after scoring Boston’s first nine points, but had a dominant performance when his team needed him the most in the fourth quarter, finishing with 36 points, 14 rebounds and four assists to stun an Atlanta side that may be without their best player moving forward. Pierce’s performance was extremely impressive, as he lead his undermanned team to victory in a must-win situation, but without Josh Smith on the court, the Hawks had no chance. Jeff Teague had 18 points and Joe Johnson put up 22 points, but Atlanta’s lack of depth and Smith leaving the court with 4:20 remaining after spraining his left knee helped Paul Pierce’s incredible last quarter finish it off.

Pierce’s inspiring Game 2 performance even included Tebowing.

Pierce’s fourth quarter was extraordinary. Let’s not take anything away from him becoming one of three players in Celtics history to put up numbers like that. But what’s not getting enough play is the potential impact that Josh Smith’s injury might have on this series. He was scheduled for an MRI today and has patellar tendinitis, leaving him doubtful for Friday’s Game 3. But if he’s out for more than one game, the Celtics will waltz into the second round with no real challenge. Atlanta is already missing Zaza Pachulia down low, but when you’re talking about the Hawks’ best scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker, Smith’s injury could have a huge effect on the rest of this series. I already picked Boston to win this series pretty handily, but with Smith out, it will become a cakewalk. J-Smooth has already had a tremendous impact in the first two games of this series. After notching 22 points and 18 rebounds in Game 1, he put up a respectable 16-point, 12-rebound, 5-assist, 2-block performance in Game 2 despite missing the last four minutes. Smith’s presence in the paint has also limited Brandon Bass to just 8 points a game thus far, keeping Boston from overwhelming the Hawks with depth.

If Smith is out for an extended period of time, you can expect Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett to flourish once again, especially now that Rondo will be back for Game 3 to distribute the ball and get his teammates better looks at the basket. Paul Pierce made up for his lackluster Game 1 performance and seems to be back on track When you combine that with Avery Bradley’s consistently improving play and the fact that Rajon Rondo will be coming back with a chip on his shoulder, Atlanta absolutely needs to find a way to win at least on game on the road in the TD Garden without their best player. Jeff Teague will need to continue scoring, Joe Johnson has to find a way to increase his offensive production even more and guys like Kirk Hinrich and Marvin Williams have to knock down their jumpers to keep Games 3 and 4 close. But if Josh Smith misses significant time, Atlanta might not win another game and go home empty-handed for yet another season.

If Josh Smith misses more than one game, this series is most likely over.

Rondo’s Temper

Rajon Rondo’s temper has caused problems for him and the Celtics in the past, but when he lost his composure in Boston’s playoff opener in Atlanta, he destroyed any chance his team had of winning the game and depending on how long he is suspended for, the whole series. With the Celts down by four late in the fourth quarter, Brandon Bass was whistled for a loose ball foul on Josh Smith. Rondo immediately yelled in the official’s face, earning him a technical foul. That was a big enough mistake considering how close the game was with just 41 seconds left. But then he made the situation even worse by continuing to yell at the official and ended up stepping toward him and bumping him in the back with his chest puffed out. At that point the official rightfully ejected him with a second technical.

The Hawks looked like they were going to pull out the Game 1 victory anyway, but Rondo might have just cost his team the series. Although Rondo claimed he didn’t intentionally bump into the ref, it’s pretty clear from the highlight that he lost control in his state of anger. The refs should be completely and absolutely untouchable. It’s understandable when players get upset with each other in a physical game, but when a player makes a move on an official, even if it’s a small bump like this, it opens up a scary realm of possibility for future players who lose control. In the heat of the moment, it’s hard for guys so competitive to calm down and think rationally, and after seeing what Rondo did, it’s hard to say that the idea hasn’t been planted that refs aren’t completely off-limits anymore. That’s not to say players will gun for officials now, but Rondo’s bump was a scary moment because it was an eye-opener as to what could happen if a player loses control and takes his anger out on the official. I think the bump will only earn him a one-game suspension and I think that punishment is adequate. It certainly doesn’t deserve punishment similar to Ron Artest after he brutally elbowed James Harden in the head. But whatever the punishment, Boston has now lost their floor leader and facilitator for a critical Game 2 in Atlanta. The Celtics are capable of winning without Rondo, but after they came out so sluggish yesterday, they could use all the help they can get.

Rajon Rondo made a costly mistake that could cost his team another game and maybe even the series.

It’s unfortunate Rondo can’t control his temper, because he had the best game of anyone on the Celtics, keeping them within striking distance despite a horrendous first half. Rondo finished with 20 points, 11 assists and 4 rebounds before his ejection. Kevin Garnett recovered from a poor first half and ended up with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Paul Pierce had an awful shooting night (5-for-19) and finished with just 12 points, and Brandon Bass wasn’t much better, going 3-for-7 for 8 points. To make matters worse, the Celtics got a total of four points from their bench, Ray Allen sat out and Avery Bradley contributed to Boston’s poor shooting night with a 4-for-12 performance.

And yet the Celtics were still somehow in the game at the end. From the Hawks’ perspective, this has to be somewhat troublesome going forward. Josh Smith played lights out, tacking on 22 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 block. His performance covered for Joe Johnson, who only had 11 points on the night. Fortunately for Atlanta, Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich were able to score semi-effectively, tallying a combined 27 points. But unless that kind of contribution from their role players (and their bench, who outscored Boston’s bench 17-4), the Hawks could be in trouble in Boston when Rondo is back on the court and the shots start falling. Unfortunately for the Celts, the Hawks superior record gives them home-court advantage despite Boston having the higher seed. And now that Rondo will likely serve a one or two game suspension, a critical Game 2 in Atlanta almost becomes a must-win for the Celtics. No one can take anything away from what Rondo and the Celtics have accomplished this season after everyone said they were washed up and that they should trade Rondo. But after a costly blowup like this, fans have got to wonder about how much trust they can place in their gifted point guard when he can’t control his temper long enough to stay on the court.

The Hawks can take advantage of Rondo's absence, but they'll need to consistently help Josh Smith out on offense.

Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions

The 2012 NBA Playoffs kick off tomorrow morning so that means it’s time to break down the first round matchups. I gave my Western Conference playoff predictions earlier today, so now let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. Here are my picks:

#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #8 Philadelphia 76ers – A few weeks ago, the Bulls were the best team in the league (even without Derrick Rose on the court) and looked like favorites to contend for the East. Now I’m not as confident. Because while Chicago has locked up the top spot and faces a paltry Sixers team, chemistry between their starters could be an issue. A myriad of injury problems for Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng has prevented this Bulls team from truly gelling over the course of the season and the last few game not enough time to do so for the postseason. Fortunately, they’re up against Philly in the first round, who can’t score to save their lives. Andre Iguodala was showing signs of life before slipping back into lower numbers, and Lou Williams and Elton Brand are too inconsistent. Then you throw in Evan Turner’s comments about matching up better with the Bulls and you’ve got a motivated Chicago team. The fact is, Philadelphia is not the same team that convincingly beat Chicago back on February 1. The Bulls have beaten the Sixers twice since then and the only thing that will stop them from sweeping this series is the chemistry issue.

Prediction: Chicago in 5 games

Can Derrick Rose stay healthy and get the Bulls to the second round? I say yes.

#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 New York Knicks – Believe it or not, this could shape up to be the best first round playoff series in the NBA this year. The Knicks will probably fall short and they might not even make it a competitive series, but with the way LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have been playing this month, we’re going to be treated to at least one high-octane scoring battle between these two superstars. Without Jeremy Lin back and with Amare Stoudemire still trying to get fully acclimated, the Knicks don’t have a good shot of winning this series. Unless Melo goes absolutely bonkers and drops 45 a game, the talent of Miami’s big three will eventually overpower New York, but not without a scare or two. Madison Square Garden is a tough place to play when the Knicks are good and with Miami in town, you can bet those fans are going to make it as tough on the Heat as possible. The Knicks have a small advantage in their supporting cast (if only because Miami’s is so terrible), meaning that if J.R. Smith and Steve Novak can knock down some threes, this series could stay competitive. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are also dealing with minor injuries, so if those develop into anything serious, this series could get ugly pretty quick for Miami. Fortunately, LeBron James is finally embracing his role as the Heat’s alpha dog, so it’s tough to bet against Miami here.

Prediction: Miami in 6 games

Probably the marquee matchup of the first round: LeBron James vs. Carmelo Anthony.

#3 Indiana Pacers vs. #6 Orlando Magic – When you pair one of the hottest teams in the East up against the easiest first-round opponent in the playoffs, you get a pretty one-sided series. Orlando will really miss Dwight Howard not only in stopping Indiana’s penetration, but also in handling Roy Hibbert. The Pacers have won 12 of their last 15 and while Glen Davis has put up decent numbers as the man in the middle, the defensive impact of losing Howard will prevent them from giving this hot Indiana team any problems. The Magic might win a game at home because of the pride they have in playing together under Stan Van Gundy (especially after all that Howard has put them through this season), but the Pacers could potentially sweep here. Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson really won’t be enough, especially now that Danny Granger is a true leader in Indiana. Then you throw in that Hibbert and David West are playing well, along with Paul George and George Hill stepping up their game. Finally, with Leandro Barbosa coming off the bench, Orlando doesn’t have a great chance of winning more than one game, and the game they do win would be out of pride and as a bi-product of the Pacers’ youth.

Prediction: Indiana in 4 games

Nobody gives Danny Granger and the Pacers love. Is it their time?

#4 Boston Celtics vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks – Every year we see Boston get a little bit older and we see a Hawks team that should be getting better, but really doesn’t improve much. Atlanta has been a force in the East for years now, but just can’t quite get over the hump to contender status. Meanwhile, the Celtics know what it takes to advance in the playoffs and are entering the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the East. They’ve been faced with adversity all year: at the beginning of the season, they were old and washed up; Rajon Rondo was reported as being a cancer in Boston’s locker room; there were talks of trading Rondo and possibly even breaking up the big three. But somehow the Celts defied expectations and rallied to reclaim the Atlantic division title and the four seed that went with it. Their confidence and team unity gives them a big edge over the Hawks, who are entirely dependent on Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. With Al Horford still sidelined, Atlanta will need Jeff Teague, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia and Kirk Hinrich to consistently score. I don’t see that happening, especially considering Boston’s stifling interior defense. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo usually perform well in the playoffs, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will come to play and without home-court advantage, the Hawks don’t have much of a chance.

Prediction: Boston in 6 games

Paul Pierce and Josh Smith will put up big numbers, but the Celtics have a better all-around team along with home-court advantage.