Eastern Conference Playoffs Rounding Into Shape

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The NBA season might not have as many games as Major League Baseball, but it can still feel like a merciless trek at times as it spans from training camps that open in late September until the second week in April. For the 16 teams fortunate enough to qualify for the playoffs, there is even a chance that their season won’t end until they have less than two weeks to fully prepare for the NBA’s late-June draft.

With the ‘dog days’ of January and February behind us, it has been nice to see the playoff races in both conferences take form, especially when you consider just how much concern there was for the Eastern Conference in particular throughout much of the first half of the season. To be honest, an overwhelming majority of the conference was atrocious around the start of the year. While it may still be a surprise to see teams like the Cavaliers, Pistons and even the surging Knicks struggle as they have, it has also been a welcomed development to enjoy watching the Raptors come from nowhere, the Bulls overcome injuries (yet again) and a trade, and the Nets conquer adversity after a terrible start to the year.

Even though it would be difficult to imagine the shorthanded Bulls, young Wizards or surprising Raptors actually knocking off the Pacers and HEAT, the playoffs should at least provide for some interesting pairings. More often than not, the postseason comes down to matchups and execution. Which team can exploit their advantages the most or generate and master the best schemes to significantly limit or hinder what the opponent does best?

For instance, even though the HEAT swept the Bobcats (4-0) this season, their current two-versus-seven matchup would still be intriguing as Miami would have to devise a plan to contend with one of the league’s better (unheralded) big men in Al Jefferson. Jefferson won’t likely receive much recognition during MVP discussions given his team’s low win total, but that hasn’t stopped him from being nothing short of a phenomenal offseason addition for the Bobcats. Miami may be one of the better defensive teams in the league when able to apply pressure to your guards, but they have been susceptible to strong performances to opposing big men that get into an early rhythm and crash the boards against them.

What if a semi-hot Knicks team were to somehow sneak into the eighth seed and square off with the Pacers in the first round? As abysmal as things have been in New York at times throughout the year, imagine how raucous that MSG crowd could be in the third and fourth games for that young Pacers squad still trying wrangle the Eastern Conference crown from Miami.

From Indiana’s perspective, it could actually be the kind of test they could utilize to their advantage in kick-starting what they hope to be a Finals run. Admittedly ultra talented, the main concerns with Indiana’s title hopes were of whether they now possessed the necessary experience generally required to dethrone a champion. They won Wednesday’s battle against Miami, but maturity and poise under pressure were once again a necessary topic of discussion. While a team like Miami could probably benefit from a relatively smooth path to the Conference Finals (whether they have one or not), the Pacers still appear to be a team that needs to be battle-tested along the way, if only to maintain focus and prevent them from overlooking a worthy opponent.

It will also be fun to see guys like DeMar DeRozan and John Wall see their first postseason action, as the Raptors and Wizards are slated to face one another in the three-versus-six matchup. Kyle Lowry vs. Wall would be worth the price of admission in itself, so there are some of us that are really hoping each team holds its current position. Wall has been a part of our season-long MVP discussion at times this year, and Lowry is in the midst of a career campaign.

Chicago and Brooklyn could ultimately be the East’s best hopes at spoiler teams, and we might be privy to seeing them battle it out against one another yet again in the first round. The Bulls’ approach is about as straightforward and direct as imaginable in that they simply come out and hit you with a barrage of body blows, toughness and grit. Although eternally undermanned with Derrick Rose’s prolonged absence and Luol Deng’s exit to Cleveland, you’ll never see them use their adversity as any type of excuse or crutch. They truly are an admirable group to watch from afar, and a great deal of credit is due to the team and head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Brooklyn has endured its own significant loss in the form of starting center Brook Lopez, but somewhat coincidentally were able turn the corner and overcome much of their early-season turmoil just after he went down. With the summer they had in 2013, it was painstakingly obvious the Nets were embracing a “win-now” mindset, and this is precisely the time of year they constructed this roster for. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have each seen much better days, but this is particularly the time when head coach Jason Kidd will need them to bring it. They are no longer expected to deliver a vintage performance over the course of an entire series, but if they can come up with timely plays in crucial situations in support of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Andray Blatche this could be one of the tougher teams to knock out in a series.

We still have to wait a couple weeks until any of these matchups are set in stone, but at least we have plenty of positive developments and several intriguing matchups we can anticipate and look forward to down the stretch. If the postseason delivers its usual amount of thrillers, game-winners and signature moments, then most of the negative thoughts connected to what has been a down year for the Eastern Conference will be relegated to distant memories.