As the regular season winds down, much of the talk around the league has focused on the logjam in the West behind the Lakers. However there have also been interesting developments in the East affecting potential playoff matchups. Unfortunate season-ending injuries to big men Chris Bosh and Andrew Bogut will impact the playoff prospects of both the Raptors and Bucks respectively.
Following yesterday’s victory over the Raptors in a head-to-head matchup, the Bulls are now in the driver’s seat for the final playoff spot, though Toronto continues to hold the tiebreaker. We all saw last year what Derrick Rose is capable of in the playoffs, but clearly the loss of Ben Gordon and John Salmons will make it tougher for Chicago this year. Atlanta and Boston also continue to battle it out for the #3 seed, while the Bucks and Heat are neck-and-neck for the #5 seed.
The Heat are indeed hot right now, having won 10 of their last 11 games. Coach Erik Spoelstra has got his team peaking at the right time with an emphasis on high energy, tough defense and the usual spectacular play of Dwyane Wade. The Heat have overcome early injury and chemistry problems to become a team potentially capable of a first round upset. Michael Beasley appears to have finally found a consistent niche in the offense, and the 3-point shooters surrounding Wade are playing confidently. One of the few teams in the league with a winning road record, the Heat are among the league’s best defensive teams statistically and have a superstar capable of dominating offensively and defensively late in games. If the role players do their jobs, it could be a winning formula against the conference giants.
Playoff-bound teams are not only concerned about getting past the first round, but also whom they’ll face in the second round should they succeed. The Heat-Bucks race for the #5 seed (Milwaukee has the tiebreaker) is meaningful for both the Hawks and Celtics. For the Hawks, the magic number 1 (combined Hawks wins or Celtics losses) will clinch the #3 seed, which would allow them to avoid a potential second-round matchup with the league-leading Cavs.
Should Milwaukee clinch the #5 seed, however, the Hawks would be in the unenviable position of having to play the streaking Heat in the first round while Boston would draw the injury-depleted Bucks. If Boston were to advance to the second round, they would most likely draw the Cavs which conventional wisdom suggests is a drawback. While the Cavs would certainly be the favorite to win such a matchup, Boston may feel as confident against the Cavs as they would against the #2 seed Magic – who eliminated Boston from the playoffs last year and have played them well again this year. A Cavs-Boston matchup would be enhanced by the recent war-of-words between the teams, and as we know, emotions can play a large role in determining playoff results despite what the standings say.