Head-to-Head: Knocking off the Pacers/Heat

Basketball Insiders’ Joel Brigham, Bill Ingram and Moke Hamilton debate over who is most equipped to knockoff the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers.

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The Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT have been at the top of the Eastern Conference all season long. Even with some struggles as of late, they’re still going to be the heavy favorites as we enter the postseason. So, we asked Bill Ingram, Joel Brigham and Moke Hamilton to give us their opinion on who can knock out the conference’s top two teams.

Toronto Raptors

Not so long ago, the plan for the Toronto Raptors was to trade Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and join the ranks of the Eastern Conference tankers  headed for the draft lottery. Of course, they only got one trade into that  master plan, and after Gay was suited up for the Sacramento Kings something unexpected started happening in Toronto:

The Raptors started playing the best basketball they have played in years.

The closer we get to the playoffs, the better the Raptors look, not only holding  their own with the top teams from the Western Conference but also looking like a  team that could make some noise in the East. Since the start of March, Toronto  has beaten Houston, Golden State and Memphis, all likely Western Conference  playoff teams, while also taking the Oklahoma City Thunder down to the wire in a  one-point loss and handling the downward spiraling Indiana Pacers. The bad news  for Indiana, of course, is that the Raptors could be their second round opponent.

As we start to look forward to the start of postseason play, no team in the  field across both conferences looks more ripe for an upset than the foundering  Pacers. At the same time, no team looks more likely to upset a contender than  the Raptors. If the two meet, things probably won’t go well for the Pacers.

– Bill Ingram

Chicago Bulls

Through the All-Star break it was pretty much set in stone that the Indiana Pacers or Miami HEAT would represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s NBA Finals, and with LeBron James still dominating and Indiana looking as if they were making the next step as a team, it was hard to argue with that assertion.

Now, though, the picture is nowhere near as rosy for either team.  The Pacers have failed to reach 80 points in five of the past eight games and have lost six games in that stretch, while four of Miami’s last five losses have been to lottery teams.  In other words, the two “best” teams in the Eastern Conference are completely and utterly vulnerable, but are there any other teams in the conference that could knock them off in a seven-game playoff series?

Well, there’s at least one: the Chicago Bulls.

While it’s true that they are, on paper, too undermanned to make a serious run to the NBA Finals, the Bulls are too well-coached and motivated to make things easy on any playoff opponent they may face.  Despite losing Derrick Rose for the year and trading Luol Deng halfway through the season in a cost-cutting move, the Bulls are still tied for third-place in the conference and are playing as well as anyone in the East right now.

They were supposed to be a lottery team after the Deng trade.  Instead, they flourished, and now they’re looking at homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

There are a lot of reasons this happened, but it starts on the defensive end of the floor, where they’re among the best in the league.  Since the playoffs ramp up that defensive intensity by about double what we see in the regular season, that’s an area where Chicago really should flourish.  No matter the opponent, they will give teams headaches.

Anchored by Joakim Noah, they’re going to make it incredibly hard for teams to score, and since the Pacers already are struggling to do that, a series with Chicago would be incredibly long and challenging to get through in one piece.

The team has struggled offensively all year long, but they have beat a lot of really good teams this year (including the Miami HEAT, twice) and certainly have it in them to score points, especially against the league’s best teams.  They’ll need to get hot offensively, but they can certainly give both Miami and Indiana headaches in a potential playoff matchup.  Indiana looks especially open to an upset, but if either team is going to lose in a seven-game series, Chicago seems like the most likely team to do it.

– Joel Brigham

Brooklyn Nets

2014 Jason Kidd may not be 1995 Rudy Tomjanovich, but that does not mean that the 2014 Brooklyn Nets cannot be the 1995 Houston Rockets.

Way back in 1995, way back when Michael Jordan traded in his basketball shorts for a pair of baseball cleats, Hakeem Olajuwon and his Houston Rockets put together one of the most improbable championship runs that the league has ever seen.

After following their 58-24 1994 championship campaign with a 47-win 1994-95 season, the Rockets limped into the Western Conference playoffs as the sixth seed in the conference and quickly fell behind the 60-22 Utah Jazz, 2-0. The Rockets pulled off a stunning upset by recovering and winning the final three games of the series and sending Karl Malone and John Stockton home early.

That was the year Utah’s tandem was supposed to become NBA champions, but it did not happen.

The same can be said of Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns. The 59-23 Suns, in their second round series against the Rockets, opened up a 3-1 series lead before the Mario Elie, Chucky Brown and Sam Cassell came alive in Games 5, 6 and 7 to help the Rockets end Barkley and Kevin Johnson’s playoff run.

In the conference finals, the Rockets took all of six games to knock off the 62-20 San Antonio Spurs—the league’s top team. In the 1995 NBA Finals, Olajuwon humbled Shaquille O’Neal and his Orlando Magic, dominating him in a way that the league had not seen, even in O’Neal’s professional infancy.

Over the course of their run to the NBA Championship in 1995, the Rockets knocked off the number one seed in each conference, as well as the second and third seeds in the Western Conference. That season, the Jazz, Suns, Spurs and Magic collectively won 72.5 percent of their games, having compiled a combined record of 238-90, and they were all done in by the 47-35 sixth seed who had been there, done that and dug deep once the playoffs began.

When it was all said and done, with the world watching and a second consecutive championship sealed and delivered, Tomjanovich muttered famous words.

Never underestimate the heart of a champion.

And although the Nets, as a team, are not champions, Kidd, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are.

As it stands, there are very real concerns with the Nets aging core. Andrei Kirilenko and Kevin Garnett have both missed significant time this season with various injuries, and both are needed for the Nets to enjoy a long playoff run. However, behind the clutch shooting of Joe Johnson, the rejuvenated play of Deron Williams, the impressive play of rookie Mason Plumlee and the inspiring play of Shaun Livingston, the Nets have very quietly become the Eastern Conference’s top team since January 1.

That’s right, the 31-13 Nets have a better record since January 1 than the Chicago Bulls (32-14), Toronto Raptors (30-17) Miami HEAT (28-16) and Indiana Pacers (28-19).

Since it was announced that Brook Lopez would miss the remainder of the season back in December, the Nets have banded together, forged a new identify built around small ball, inserted a dynamic rookie into their rotation and pulled off a trade for a bench scorer in Marcus Thornton who may pay dividends in the postseason.

As the discussion of contenders persists, the Nets are far too often dismissed as a team that has the chance of accomplishing something great this season. More attention is being paid to the fact that the Nets have 34 losses than the fact that 21 of those losses came before January 1.

When Garnett met with the New York media for the first time prior to the season, he explicitly said that the only reason that he and Pierce were in Brooklyn was to win a championship.

Translation: We want another crack at LeBron James.

If the current seeds hold, unlike the 1995 Rockets, the Nets would enter the postseason as the fifth seed and would battle the Bulls in the first round. If they managed to score the upset, Garnett would get his shot.

The Nets may not be champions, but they are comprised of a few. If health is on their side and if things break right, they may be the sleeping dragon in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Or, more appropriately, the sleeping lion.

And that lion’s heart? No, you certainly cannot dismiss it or doubt it. Revere it, respect it. Because if there is one thing we have learned from Tomjanovich, Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and that 1995 Rockets team, is that who you are at the end of the season is much more important than who you were at the beginning of it.

As the season ends, the Nets just so happen to be the best team in the NBA’s East.

– Moke Hamilton

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