I’ve already given my picks for who will make the playoffs in the West, but now let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. The East is a little bit easier as far as picking which eight teams will make the cut (only the Milwaukee Bucks are even remotely close to the Knicks for the eighth spot), but things get a little bit trickier in deciding who will end up where. Here’s where I think the eight Eastern contenders will end up when all is said and done:
1) Chicago Bulls – If the Bulls can win without their reigning MVP point guard, nobody is catching Chicago at this point. The Bulls currently have a 3 and a half game lead over the Miami Heat for the top spot, which is particularly impressive considering Derrick Rose has been sidelined for their last eight games. I still think this team won’t go very far in the postseason without D-Rose, but Chicago’s incredible team play almost made me reconsider it. CJ Watson has been perfect for running the offense as a true point guard while Luol Deng has stepped up as Chicago’s alpha dog. Nobody’s running with the Bulls for the top spot this season.
2) Miami Heat – The Heat are currently 3 and a half games behind the Bulls for the first spot in the East, and although I’m picking them to go to the NBA Finals over Chicago, I don’t think they’ll rack up as many wins as they’d need to take that one seed. When the Heat lose games, they have a tendency to go on losing streaks, even if they’re only small slumps. The Bulls, on the other hand, have yet to lose back-to-back games this season. Miami will grab the two spot, but that really doesn’t matter much for this heavy postseason favorite.
3) Indiana Pacers – This is by far the boldest pick I’m going to make, but I think the Pacers can edge the Magic for the third seed in the East. If not for the rule that the winner of a division must get at least a four seed, the Pacers would already have that position locked down, only trailing the Magic by one game. Instead, because of that rule, either Boston or Philly has to get the four seed. That fact, along with the misfortune of having the league-leading Bulls in the same division, means Indiana will have to battle to get the quality seed they deserve. However, the Pacers’ remaining schedule is definitely in their favor as the really only play San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Philly twice and Chicago (last game of the season). The rest are very winnable games, so if Indiana keeps their focus they could quickly turn into the squad I projected as my sleeper team at the beginning of the season.
4) Philadelphia 76ers – Philly dropped all the way to the seventh spot in the East last night after an awful loss to the Washington Wizards in which they could only tally 76 points. While other contending teams in the East seem to be peaking at the right time, the Sixers are fading fast (like I predicted they would). However, this is still a good defensive team, and that will usually keep you in games. Despite the fact that I think the Sixers will make a quick first-round exit no matter what seed they get, I think Philly will win the division and grab the fourth spot, if only because of Boston’s formidable remaining schedule.
5) Orlando Magic – The Magic currently have a one-game lead over the Pacers for the three seed, but Orlando is not playing good basketball right now. Their last two games were a blowout loss in New York and a disappointing loss at home against Dallas in which the Magic led for the majority of the game. Orlando also has a much more challenging road to the end of the season than the Pacers, and while their phenomenal 22-3 record against teams below .500 should almost guarantee a few wins, their unimpressive 10-17 record against teams above .500 won’t help them when nine of their last 14 games are against opponents in that category.
6) Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks are a paltry 9-17 against teams above .500, and 7 of their last 13 games come against teams who fit that qualification. Even though Atlanta has a pretty favorable remaining schedule, I don’t see the Hawks outwinning the Pacers or the Magic and will likely be pushed back to the sixth seed. Their inconsistent play against teams that matter has always kept this team from reaching the upper echelon of the NBA they easily qualify for. I expect it to hold them back a little bit here as well, even if Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are both playing great ball right now.
7) Boston Celtics – If the remaining schedules were different, I would favor Boston over Philly in a heartbeat. Philly’s defense is good but I can’t buy in to their ability to score when their leading scorer comes off the bench. However, the Celtics have the misfortune of perhaps the ugliest remaining schedule in the NBA: Miami three times, Chicago, Indiana, San Antonio, Philly, Atlanta twice, Orlando and New York. As much as the Celts have proved me wrong this season by battling through trade rumors and an aging Big 3, and as much as Rajon Rondo has played like a superstar after being snubbed for the All-Star game (he ended up going anyone in Joe Johnson’s place, but he was upset about not getting voted in), I just don’t see Boston winning enough of these games to oust Philly from atop the Atlantic division (remember, the winner of this division will get the four seed).
8) New York Knicks – Injuries are starting to take their toll, and despite the fact that New York somehow has still been able to win (that Orlando blowout was particularly impressive), eventually the Knicks will miss Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. Carmelo Anthony can only continue his elevated play for so long, especially with some particularly nasty matchups coming up soon when Amare (and possibly Lin) will still be sidelined: Indiana, Orlando and a back-to-back with Chicago. Although they are currently only one and a half games ahead, the Knicks should be fine in keeping their distance from the Bucks for the last playoff spot, but I don’t expect them to climb any higher than the eight seed.
Didn’t make the cut: Milwaukee Bucks
9) Milwaukee Bucks – Milwaukee is only one and a half games back right now, but the Bucks will have problems with their remaining schedule (OKC, New York, Indiana twice, Philly and Boston). I’m excited to see Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis continue to develop together with surprise sensation Ersan Ilyasova, but I don’t think it will result in a playoff appearance this year. New York just has too much talent to allow the Bucks back in the playoff race.
So there you have it, my predictions for the Eastern Conference standings for the playoffs. Where do you have everyone in the East finishing?