The NBA regular season is nearing a conclusion after a 66-game strike shortened campaign. This season has been all about three teams in the NBA: Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. The rest of the NBA playoff picture has been pretty gridlocked for the entire season. Very little movement has occurred between the “second tier” of teams, but the three dominant are certainly surpassing everyone’s expectations. Right now, if the season ended today, this is how the 2012 NBA Playoffs would breakdown…
1. Chicago Bulls (42-13) The best team in the NBA this season has been without the reigning MVP for nearly half the season and is still on top. If that doesn’t tell you something, their stifling defense definitely will. Tom Thibedeau has exhibited his elite coaching ability in this, his second season at the helm. When Derrick Rose returns, it will be a battle down to the wire with the Miami Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy.
2. Miami Heat (39-14) Miami’s problems stem from getting too hot, too early in the season. At one point, Miami had won 11-straight games and was looking invincible. They still look incredibly tough currently, but nobody besides LeBron is doing anything as of late. If they are a one man show come late May, it could be another long off-season for James and company.
3. Indiana Pacers (33-21) If you would of told me the Pacers would be a top three team in the east this season, I wouldn’t have been shocked. Last season, I witnessed a different team that played the Chicago Bulls in the 1st round of the NBA Playoffs, then the team I ignored during last years regular season. The Pacers are young, talented and most importantly hungry. Look out for these guys.
4. Boston Celtics (30-23) The Celtics haven’t been the same this season, but are starting to come together after a tumultuous trade deadline averted fiasco. The Celtics have had one of the best records in the league in the second half. Rondo is still in Boston and they’re still a team that not many want to see come playoff time. They are old, but they are standing on one leg still.
5. Orlando Magic (32-23) The Magic have been like a roller coaster. They are difficult to evaluate, but I do know this; no team with this much turbulence succeeds in the playoffs. They don’t have enough willing talent around Dwight Howard and Van Gundy is out after this season most likely, as our very own Rant Sports NBA columnist Eric Haftel broke down Thursday. This is a not a time to be jumping on the Orlando bandwagon.
6. Atlanta Hawks (32-23) The Hawks have been similar to the Magic, but their problems are due to injuries, not letdowns. Al Horford and Joe Johnson have been banged up, alongside a few other nagging injuries to valuable players. However, Josh Smith has been the lone bright spot, emerging into one of the NBA elites. They will be a tough out in the playoffs, but could make some noise if healthy.
7. Philadelphia 76ers (29-25) If you thought the 76ers were a fluke, you thought wrong. This young unit has once again overachieved with Doug Collins calling the shots. This is a team that nobody wants to draw in the 1st round of the playoffs. They will be a very difficult out and could be a repeat of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011.
8. New York Knicks (28-27) All everyone wants to know is, when will Jeremy Lin return? That is the question that will determine the New York Knicks 2012 season. If he returns in time for the playoffs, the Knicks could beat anyone. However, the question remains, can they beat a team four times in seven games with their inconsistent defense? That is a question that only the NBA playoffs can answer.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-14) The most impressive team in the NBA this season has been the OKC Thunder. Kevin Durant has come into his own. Russell Westbrook has remained an elite guard and is scoring at a career-rate for Scott Brooks. The rest of the team has gelled and grown together. Core guys like Serge Ibaka and James Harden have excelled. This team will cruise through the Western Conference and into the NBA Finals.
2. San Antonio Spurs (38-14) The Spurs are nearing the end of their open window for winning a title. They are old, they are often injured and they have the Thunder’s youth working against them. If the Spurs want to win one more ring, they need Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan to come alive and signal their former selves. If they can do that, the Spurs always have a chance.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (35-20) The Lakers have not been the same team without Lamar Odom, but that hasn’t stopped Kobe Bryant from having another spectacular season. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are playing at their highest levels, so if the Lakers are planning on winning another title, they better be running on all cylinders.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (32-22) Who would ever imagine the day when the Clippers and Lakers would be next to one another in the standings for the playoffs? Apparently the Clippers thought so when they drafted Blake Griffin and traded for Chris Paul. This is a team that could play with anyone, but their defense is spotty at times. When they come to play, they are as tough as any team in the NBA, including the elite.
5. Memphis Grizzlies (30-23) What a match-up between the Clippers and last years Cinderella Grizz’ in the 1st round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Not only would this series have star power, but it would consist of two west teams that play defense…something we may have not said since the early 90′s. Either way, it would be a showdown of epic proportions with the Clippers edging out Memphis in the end with the home court advantage.
6. Dallas Mavericks (31-24) It doesn’t matter where the reigning NBA Champions are seeded the year following a title. The team is distracted by new things and people, etc. I don’t expect them to be as great going through their first season as the hunted, instead of the hunters. The Mavs are still unbelievable and ready to defend and score with the best of them. Shawn Marion has filled the void that was Tyson Chandler, and the rest will be history. They will not go down without a massive fight.
7. Houston Rockets (29-25) Goran Dragic is the best point guard in Houston, especially when Kyle Lowry returns to action. Dragic has been unconscious since taking over the starting point guard spot for the injured Lowry. Alongside Luis Scola, the Rockets are a young and talented group that can score with the best of them. Chase Budinger and Chandler Parsons are lethal weapons when healthy.
8. Denver Nuggets (29-25) I can’t imagine the Nuggets defeating the Thunder in the 1st round of the NBA playoffs, but I can see them upsetting the Spurs if they move up in the standings. Right now, the Thunder would strike them down, but this group is awfully athletic and much more unselfish minus Carmelo. This is a team that could skyrocket up the seedings in the next few weeks.
Follow Tony Piraro on Twitter @TonyPiraro