Evaluating the East: Bulls, Heat head and shoulders above the rest
As we near the NBA all-star break, the league’s Eastern Conference elite are beginning to separate themselves from the pack. Currently, the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers occupy the top four spots in the Conference. Let’s evaluate each of these teams and their chances of making the NBA Finals come June.
The Bulls have to be the happiest team in the league right now. Reigning MVP Derrick Rose is playing lights-out, having scored 20 or more points in seven of the team’s last nine games. Rose is as dangerous a player as any in the game because of how much control he has of the offense and how often he has the ball in his hands.
Not only is Rose playing well, but forward Luol Deng returned after missing seven games with a wrist injury and hasn’t missed a beat. He has scored 40 combined points in wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and New Jersey Nets, shooting 17-33 in the two games. Deng is an excellent wing scorer and stifling defender and is crucial to the Bulls’s title chances.
The Bulls also play great team defense, ranking third in the league in opponent points per game at 88.4. At 21-6, the team has breezed through the first third of the season, and getting Deng back earlier than expected should keep them rolling right along.
What can be said about the Miami Heat that hasn’t already been said a million times before? It’s all about the Big 3; if LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all playing well at the same time, the Heat will be nearly impossible to stop. James is the front-runner for MVP right now, with a ridiculous slash line of 29.2/8.5/6.8 (points, rebounds and assists per game). He’s attempting fewer three-point shots than ever before but hitting them at a higher percentage.
But none of those numbers matter unless James can start winning playoff games in the fourth quarter. In the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, James disappeared down the stretch and failed to come up with big baskets at crucial times.
The Heat also need Chris Bosh to be consistent from game-to-game. Bosh has hit a rough patch recently, scoring over 13 points just once in the past six games. He is at his best attacking the rim and looking for his offense, but sometimes he gets complacent and settles for jump shots. If and when the assertive and aggressive Bosh returns, the Heat are as good as any team in the league.
In the first round of last year’s playoffs, the 76ers lost to the Heat in five games, but the series was probably the most competitive one Miami had until the NBA Finals. The 76ers have ridden that series into this season and currently stand at 18-7. They are winning without a true star, relying instead on their league-leading defense and excellent team three-point shooting. Six players average in double figures for the 76ers, but none of them average over 15.5 points per game.
It can be very difficult to advance far in the playoffs without a superstar to lean on. The San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks all had truly elite players on their championship squads. I do not see the 76ers as a real threat to the Heat or Bulls but more as a team that could win in the first round and make a semi-final round series very interesting.
Just as the 76ers played well in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Pacers gave the Bulls a run for their money, ultimately losing in five games. The off season acquisition of power forward David West allowed the team to move Tyler Hansbrough to a more fitting bench role and gave the team a proven post scorer. But West hasn’t made a big impact, averaging 11.6 points per game, well below his career average of 16.2. Unless West finds his game from his New Orleans years or forward Danny Granger raises his shooting percentage (an abysmal 37.7 percent), this team may be out in the first round.
Other teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics, could pose a threat come playoff time. But all signs seem to point to a rematch of last year’s Conference Finals between the Bulls and Heat. Let the race for home-court advantage begin.