I’m beginning to wonder: Will the Eastern Conference Finals be the real NBA finals this year? Feels that way some days.
1. Heat (21-7, last week ranked 1) The Magic and Knicks combined to shoot 85 threes against the Heat in two nights. The Heat’s defensive energy does that to teams, makes them settle (although those two squads don’t need much encouragement to launch bombs all night). Miami gets Milwaukee again this week, they are 0-2 against them this season.
2. Bulls (23-7, LW 2). They looked good on a nine-game road trip, except for Derrick Rose’s back. Tom Thibodeau has an old-school “if you’re well enough to play you can play a lot” mentality that does not mesh well with a condensed schedule and a deep playoff run.
3. Clippers (17-8, LW 3). Quality wins at Orlando and Philly last week as they are 4-1 on the Grammy road trip (with at Dallas Monday being the final game of it), but this team’s defense without Chauncey Billups will be their Achilese heel.
4. Thunder (21-6, LW 4). They won some thrilling games on the road this week — at Golden State and Portland — but the more I see their end of game execution, the more I wonder if they can do better in the playoffs.
5. Spurs (19-9, LW 7). Winners of seven in a row (including in Philly) and they get Manu Ginobili back on their rodeo road trip. They are looking like a team that can make a run in the playoffs, but they looked like that last year so we’re hesitant.
6. 76ers (19-9, LW 5). Beat the Lakers thanks to Lou Williams (who can be their late game go-to guy), but fell to the Clippers and Spurs — in a stretch against seven quality teams over two weeks they go 4-3. They are legit, but a notch below elite.
7. Mavericks (17-11, LW 14). They have been playing well of late (three wins in a row) but let’s see how they do against this week’s gauntlet of Clippers, Nuggets, Sixers and Knicks.
8. Pacers (17-10, LW 6). They have lost four of five as the completion has gotten tougher. This week it’s a back-to-back-to-back that starts with the Heat but has winnable games against the Cavs and Nets to follow.
9. Hawks (18-10, LW 9). They are 5-9 against teams over .500. 13-1 against the teams under .500. This is why nobody buys into the Hawks as serious contenders in the East. That said, Josh Smith has All-Star numbers.
10. Nuggets (16-12, LW 8). They have struggled in recent weeks, losing seven of nine, but did get a nice win against the Pacers over the weekend. They miss Danilo Gallinari.
11. Magic (17-11, LW 10). Nice win against the Miami Heat as the three ball fell, but nobody thinks that is a viable long-term strategy come the playoffs. All-Star Weekend in Orlando is going to be interesting, Dwight Howard better prepare a whole new line of answers for dodging trade questions.
12. Lakers (16-12, LW 11). The Lakers go 3-3 on their Grammy road trip, but the unimpressive losses in New York and Philadelphia (and having to get Kobe Bryant heroics in Toronto to pull out a win) leaves a lot of questions. The main one: How can a veteran, championship team look so disorganized at the ends of games? The answer to that question is not Gilbert Arenas, however.
13. Rockets (16-12, LW 17). Kevin Martin is tearing it up and they get quality wins last week against Denver and Portland. The question is this: How do the Rockets get from being a good team without a star to an elite contender? No easy answer there.
14. Celtics (15-12, LW 12). Tough loss to the Lakers highlights the weakness of this team against real size inside (insert Kendrick Perkins lament here). Their wins behind great play from Rajon Rondo show what they can be.
15. Knicks (13-15, LW 21). Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Baron Davis who? Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Oh, and they get Carmelo Anthomy and Amare Stoudemire back this week. Jeremy Lin.
16. Blazers (15-13, LW 13). Two losses at home last week, they had had just one all season before that. They keep losing a lot of close games, and you expect that scale to balance out at some point.
17. Jazz (14-12, LW 15). Al Jefferson had a great game against the Grizzlies on Sunday night (21 points, 15 rebounds), he may be slightly undersized at the five but his ability to get his shot off against a bigger defender is impressive.
18. Timberwolves (13-15, LW 16). The Kevin Love suspension really hurt this team, their offense drops off the map when he is out. That said, they are just 2 games out of the eighth playoff spot in the West. Ricky Rubio did a good job on Jeremy Lin this week, he is a clever defender as well.
19. Grizzlies (14-14, LW 18). For the love of all things holy, don’t ever wear those Tams uniforms again. Please. My retinas are begging you.
20. Suns (12-15, LW 22). They went 3-1 last week because Steve Nash is carrying them on his 38-year-old shoulders.
21. Bucks (12-15, LW 19). I got a couple tweets asking me what is up with Stephen Jackson. That would take a lot more than 140 characters, suffice to say he’s not playing well and the Bucks are a bad fit. It’s a mess. This week the Bucks get the Heat who may be looking for revenge.
22. Cavaliers (10-16, LW 20). The Anderson Varejao injury is a blow, because I don’t think Antawn Jamison can keep playing this well over a long stretch.
23. Kings (10-17, LW 24). They have won four of their last six, including a victory over the Thunder, but now they head out for an East Coast road swing. Kings fans deserve a team and a stadium that suits them.
24. Warriors (9-14, LW 23). They are outscoring teams — their defense is still terrible but they have won five of their last eight because Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are playing together better than they ever have.
25. Pistons (8-21, LW 27). They are actually winning games against other bad teams. That doesn’t make them a good team. And no, sorry Detroit, but Hibbert deserved the All-Star nod over Greg Monroe (who has been good, I’ll grant you that).
26. Raptors (9-20 LW 25). The biggest question over the next few months — can the strike a deal to trade Jose Calderon? You think it’s simple, until you realize he makes $10.5 million next year.
27. Nets (8-21, LW 26). Worst. Defense. Ever. (Not really kidding.)
28. Wizards (6-22, LW 28). There was a stretch on Sunday, for about 12 minutes over two quarters in the second half, where you saw what Wall could be (and with him the Wizards). It’s a flash, but it’s one of the few this year. So, there’s your positive note.
29. Hornets (4-23, LW 29). They have lost 23 of 25 and blew an 18 point lead to the Kings this week. And until they find an owner, that’s not even their biggest problem.
30. Bobcats (3-24, LW 30). The losing streak is up to 14 and if we could move them lower we would. Maybe below Kentucky and Syracuse.