HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Brooklyn Nets host the Chicago Bulls on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, TNT), a game that will help sort out the 4-8 seeds in the Eastern Conference.
The 4 seed, of course, comes with home-court advantage in the first round. And the 5 seed comes with an easier opponent than the 6, 7 or 8 seeds come with. But with the way the East has shaped up this season, it would be better to finish sixth or seventh than fourth or fifth.
The Miami Heat are head and shoulders above the rest of the Eastern Conference. The Indiana Pacers (2-1 against the Heat) and New York Knicks (3-1) have some confidence in their ability to give the Heat a tough series. But they also have the knowledge, as the 2 and 3 seeds (in an order still to be determined), that they won’t be seeing Miami until the conference finals.
The Nets, Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics should prefer the same path. Both the Bulls and Celtics have played Miami tough this season, but both obviously have a greater chance of making the conference finals from the other side of the bracket.
Some of these teams – namely the veteran groups in New York and Boston – are talking championship, but making the conference finals would be a good run for any East team outside of Miami…
- New York (48-26) has won just a single playoff game (Game 4 against the Heat last year) since 2001 and hasn’t won a series since 2000. They’re the No. 2 seed, but they also have a lot of questions (especially defensively) to answer in regard to their ability to win in the postseason.
- Indiana (48-27) is missing Danny Granger, but a trip to the conference finals would be a step forward from last year’s loss to the Heat in the conference semis. They still have a relatively young core, led by 22 year old Paul George, that will benefit from five or six weeks of playoff action.
- Brooklyn (43-31) is making its first trip to the playoffs in six years. Its core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez is also under contract for three more seasons, so they’re not going anywhere. Like the Knicks, they haven’t played the defense you need to play to make The Finals.
- Atlanta (42-34) is in a season of transition. Johnson is gone and Lou Williams is done for the season. Cap space is coming, and very little is expected of the Hawks in the meantime.
- Even if Derrick Rose does somehow suit up some time this month, this has been a lost season for Chicago (40-33), which allowed several key components of the league’s best bench to walk away last summer. And even though Joakim Noah has been more than banged up, Tom Thibodeau‘s bunch has shown a ton of resilience (not that we expected anything less) this season.
- Like Chicago, Boston (39-36) has shown a remarkable ability to success without All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. But the Celtics still have a bottom-10 offense and are still a pretty bad road team. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (if healthy) will never go down easy, but the bottom line is that this is the seventh-best team in the conference.
- Milwaukee (36-38) … nevermind.
So yeah, while there’s only one champion, a trip to the conference finals would be a pretty successful run for any of these teams. And here’s the thing: Every one of these teams (except the Bucks) has a legitimate chance to get to the conference finals … as long as they’re on the 2-3-6-7 side of the bracket.
New York, with the 16th best defense in the league, is beatable. In fact, the Bulls have beat the Knicks three times in three tries this season.
Indiana, with the 18th best offense in the league, is beatable. Both Boston and Brooklyn are 2-0 against the Pacers thus far.
East teams 2-8, head-to-head
|vs. ATL||vs. BOS||vs. BKN||vs. CHI||vs. IND||vs. MIL||vs. NYK||TOTAL|
You can go through all the matchups in the table above and see who has done what against who. Or you can just focus on the final columns and realize that none of the above teams has done all that great against the rest of the group. Chicago has the best record, but they’re obviously vulnerable with an ailing Noah and a below-average offense.
That’s the thing. The Knicks are the only team of the group that has been above average on both ends of the floor. And they’re the thinnest of hairs (103.08 points allowed per 100 possessions vs. 103.11) better than the league average defensively.
East teams 2-8, efficiency
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
So, while Indiana and New York have both played well of late and have clearly established themselves as the best of the second tier of Eastern Conference playoff teams, it wouldn’t exactly be shocking if either failed to make it out of the first round. The wrong matchup just might do the trick.
Brooklyn, meanwhile, has the inside track on the No. 4 seed, with a three-game lead in the loss column over the Hawks and a three-game lead in the win column over the Bulls, who will be shorthanded for tonight’s meeting. The Nets play five of their final eight games at home and five against Lottery teams. They’ve never shown much consistency this season, but they have beat both the Pacers and Knicks at home and on the road.
But the Nets basically got pasted three times by the Heat and wouldn’t stand much of a chance in the conference semifinals if they were to get through the first round. While they would have a decent shot at the conference finals should they finish sixth or seventh in the conference, they’ve probably played too well for their own good.