Everyone’s talking about the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference, but there are three other teams that lurk dangerously behind the beasts of the east. These three teams have young and talented line ups that are as hungry for the title as the top two. As the playoff picture is slowly setting in, let us take a look at the other teams and see if either of them has what it takes to be the Beast of the East:
According to Playoffstatus.com, the following are the percentages of teams’ making it to the Eastern Conference Finals:
Here are the probabilities of Eastern Conference teams winning the Conference Finals:
ESPN Hollinger Basketballreference.com
Let’s check them out one by one:
The Chicago Bulls are playing very inspired basketball despite missing Derrick Rose and trading Luol Deng. Listen closely to this: The Bulls were 6-5 after Rose’s last game, and they are 39-27 without him. The Bulls were 14-18 after Deng’s last game, and they are 35-14 since Deng was traded. How have they won without those two All-Stars?
Carlos Boozer said this to ESPN Chicago last February 27:
“We’re still getting better, we’re learning things about each other. But again, that’s the makeup of our team. We just keep grinding. Whatever’s in front of us, we just take on the challenge.”
The Bulls have found the ways to win this season. Without Rose and Deng, Joakim Noah has stepped up to the plate and emerged as the Bulls leader. Look at how his stats have increased after Rose and Deng each left:
Joakim Noah’s energy has rubbed off to his teammates. DJ Agustin is averaging 14.6 points and 5.0 assists per game as a Bull. He was only averaging 2.1 points and 1.0 assist per game in Toronto earlier this season. Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler all have increased their scoring as well since Rose has been out.
With that being said, the big story has been Noah. One word describes him best: Relentless. Noah said this after the Bulls beat Miami on March 9:
“I want what they have — a championship,” Noah said. “One day, we’re going to have to get through those guys.”
He’s right. If the Bulls retain the 4th seed, they have to beat Brooklyn in the 1st round and go through Miami in the 2nd round to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls are 2-1 this season against the Brooklyn Nets and are 2-2 against the Heat. With their blue collar effort, who knows how far Noah’s energy will take the Bulls this season.
There must be something about GM Masai Ujiri, because when the Raptors traded Rudy Gay, the team was 6-12, and they have been 36-20 since. The last time the Raptors were in the playoffs was in 2008. This season, they are a few games away from winning the Atlantic Division.
When the Raptors gave up on Rudy Gay, they basically handed over the baton to DeMar DeRozan, and the kid has responded very well. He was selected as the 4th All-Star in Raptors history, and has improved his 18.1 points per game average from last season to 22.8 points per games this year.
In exchange for Gay, the Raptors got John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Vasquez and Patterson have been averaging more than nine points per game since the trade, while Salmons and Hayes have been steady veteran contributors. Kyle Lowry has also blossomed into a star by increasing his averages from 11.6 points and 6.4 assists per game last year, to 17.4 points and 7.6 assists per contest this year. Add the improving troika of Amir Johnson, Joan Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, and you’ve got a legitimate young playoff team out there in Canada.
After the Raptors beat the Pacers on April 5 by the score of 102-94, Paul George said:
“This is a playoff team. Down the stretch they just got a lot of bounces that created second shots for them. If you give a playoff team another look or an opportunity they are going to knock you down.”
With a young and loaded line-up like the Raptors have, they certainly have enough firepower to knock out bigger guys like Indiana. If the Raptors remain the 3rd seed, they would most likely face current 6th seed Washington, which they are 3-1 against this season. Then they would likely face 2nd seeded Indiana in the 2nd round. The Raptors would like their chances because they split their season series with the Pacers at two games apiece.
As reported by Joseph White in the Kansas City Star, Wizards coach Randy Wittman said that:
“He feels like he’s been with the team ‘for 20 years’ — even though it’s actually been just five.”
That’s how long the losing has felt like in Washington. The Wizard clinched their first playoff appearance since 2008, and for star guard John Wall, it’s his first postseason appearance after four seasons. Wall is having a banner season, averaging 19.8 points, 8.7 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.
Sophomore Bradley Beal has increased his scoring average by 3.1 points per game over last year, while Trevor Ariza’s 14.6 point scoring average is his best since the 2009-10 NBA season. Marcin Gortat continues to improve with his 13.0 points and 9.4 rebounds per game contribution. Throw in the veteran Al Harrington and the resurrected Drew Gooden and Washington’s been playing like they’ve not missed Nene Hilario very much.
With that being said, while the Wizards seem like a longshot to make it past the first round, the experts have them as the 5th best team to make the Eastern Conference Finals. One good reason is their late season acquisition of Andre Miller. Miller was brought to Washington to mentor John Wall, but there is no denying his playoff experience; Miller is a career 15.5 points per game playoff scorer.
On February 27, the Wizards beat the Raptors 134-129 in 3OT. Marcin Gortat said this about the win:
“The feeling is great. We won the game, we’ve proven that we can beat this team. We really build the chemistry, we really build the team spirit with this win.”
Looking ahead, if the Wizards stay at the 6th seed, and the Raptors finish as the 3rd seed, they will end up playing each other in the initial round. Washington is only 1-3 vs Toronto this season, but Andre Miller wasn’t there yet in the first three games between these two squads. He was the x-factor in that February 27 win. Andre Miller scored 11 points in 14 minutes. This makes it interesting. If the Wizards pull off the upset in that series, they’d meet the Pacers next, whom they are 1-2 against this season. Again, Miller wasn’t in those first two games, but will it be Miller time in Washington? We’ll see.
With the way this season has gone, the 2014 NBA Playoffs and the battle to the Eastern Conference Finals looks to be more exciting than ever.