As we arrive at the All-Star Break of the 2012-13 NBA season, the Miami Heat have stormed into the break with seven straight wins, on the strength of LeBron James’ otherworldly play. As has documented throughout the NBA blogosphere and over the many ESPN outlets, LeBron has been crushing opponents at an unprecedented level over the last seven games. If my calculations are correct, he has averaged 63 points per game, 29 rebounds per game and 24 assists per game over that stretch. He has also had a massive impact on public policy, single-handedly raising the federal minimum wage, putting together a cap-and-trade program which would limit our carbon emissions and saved the nation’s public schools by increasing teacher salaries, lowering class sizes, and guaranteeing two fully functioning computer labs in every public high school in the country. It’s safe to say LeBron has been getting things done. It’s also safe to say ESPN wants LeBron to make the Finals again more than it wants to tell the truth about each team’s chances. ESPN makes money when it’s highest-profile athletes (remember “The Decision?”) do well. If a Rondo-less Celtics team were to emerge from the pack in the Eastern Conference, the NBA Finals would get a whole lot uglier. Imagine more 71-68 grind-it-out games. A Celtics-Bulls playoff series would be hard for most hardcore NBA fans to watch, never-mind the casual playoff-only crowd.
While Miami is the clear favorite to get back to the NBA’s big June dance, there are a few other teams that stand in the way of the flaming inferno that is the Heat.
Here’s a breakdown of each of those teams, with mostly arbitrary percentages next to them:
Indiana Pacers, 18%
Indiana’s defensive dominance makes them an ideal playoff team. The two questions this Pacers team must answer: Can Paul George keep LeBron from lifting the Heat to an untouchable level of confidence; Can Paul George’s belief in his own shot sustain itself on the road, and in crunch time?
The Pacers held a 2-1 series lead against Miami last year (pre-Bosh-return), and match-up nicely with the Heat. Indiana patrols the 3-point line better than anyone in the NBA (32.5%), better than Chicago and Boston (both near 34%). Without the benefit of the Ray Allen/Shane Battier/Mario Chalmers open corner-3, the Heat are beatable. Against the best rebounding teams (Indiana is tied for first in rebounding rate), the Heat struggle. On the other side of the ball, the Pacers need the versatile Paul George to stabilize their offense. George’s shooting has been erratic this year (45% in Pacer wins, 37.5% in losses). George’s 3-point stroke has been sweet at home (46.5%) and abysmal on the road (29.5%). On the road, from distance, two of their guards have been equally odor-producing: D.J. Augustin (37% home, 29% road) and second-year wing Lance Stephenson (41% at home, 28% on road). For Indiana to survive in April and May, they will need consistent 3-point shooting when they leave the comfy confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Boston Celtics, 16%
I am the first to admit that it’s next to impossible to know what this edition of the Boston Celtics will do over any given stretch of games. The most optimistic fans will point to their record post-Rondo (8-1) and say this team can make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals. The most pessimistic fans are ready for Ainge to trade KG or Pierce and attempt to formally begin the rebuilding process. The realistic fans aren’t sure what to expect, but they have to be pleasantly surprised with the way the whole team has responded to Rondo’s absence. From Pierce’s triple-doubles and crafty facilitation, to Jeff Green’s increased minutes and scoring (22 ppg on 52%), which Jackie MacMullan articulates here, to Jason Terry’s shooting from distance (43% in his last 7), and the manic defensive-mindset of backcourt duo Bradley and Lee, these Celtics seem to have re-invented themselves over the course of three weeks. Jeff Green’s ability to guard LeBron James, Paul George, and Luol Deng may determine the Celtics fate this spring. If the Celtics avoid a playoff match-up with Indiana or a Rose-led Bulls team, they have a solid shot at advancing.
Looking forward, the ten games following the break may give us (and Danny Ainge) a better idea of what to expect in April. The February 21st trading deadline might bring a back-up big or a journeyman point guard, but unlikely anything significant. The Celtics are too old and injured to trade their best young players and too young and hopeful to trade away Garnett or Pierce. The five game road trip that starts the stretch run includes two weaker opponents (Portland, Phoenix) and two difficult match-ups (Denver and Utah). The Lakers game on Wednesday will likely bring out the best in Kobe, if not the rest of the weary Lakers. After the trip, the Celtics face Golden State at home, and then are back on the road at Philadelphia and Indiana. The 10-game sequence ends with a home contest against Atlanta and a Sunday afternoon road match-up with Oklahoma City. If the Celtics manage to win 6 of these 10, I’ll be convinced this new edition can compete in the playoffs against anyone. If they win 4 or 5, I’ll be satisfied they can survive the Knicks or Hawks. If they win 3 or less, I may not be able to write about them for the rest of the season, due to my severely discouraged state of mind. I’d guess they’ll go 5-5.
Chicago Bulls, 13%
Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls are as gutsy as ever. Without Rose, they continue to compete because of their defensive effort and strategy. Noah and Deng understand how to stifle opponents to an extent that the Bulls have beaten up on weaker competition (17-5 against opponents who are .500 or below). As viewers of last Wednesday’s match-up with the defensive-heavy Celtics, a 71-67 grotesque two hours and thirty minutes of basketball, can attest, these Bulls win ugly and lose ugly. With a healthy Rose, this team can beat anyone in the East. The obvious problem is Rose isn’t healthy. He’s recovering, and his time table for returning keeps changing. If Rose can give them 80% of what he used to, Belinelli can keep hitting those clutch 3′s, and the tireless Jimmy Butler can keep grabbing those traffic rebounds, this team will give Miami, New York, Indiana and Boston seven exhausting games, if they don’t advance themselves. More likely, though, Rose gives it a shot, but either a) doesn’t stay healthy through all 7 games or b) throws the offense out of sync because they’ve been playing without him for so long.
New York Knicks, 11% (no Celtics fan bias here)
This season, the Knicks jumped out to a terrific start. Despite their ancient roster, they played a rejuvenated and inspired form of share-the-ball, hot-potato, three-point shooting basketball. Carmelo Anthony was scoring efficiently and playing actual defense. New York Knicks record without Amare Stoudemire: 21-9. Despite the New York’s start, the three-point shooting was unsustainable, as documented here. In Amare’s return, Carmelo scored 45 and they lost at home to Portland. It was as if Carmelo was trying to ward off the ghost of Amare. The Knicks record with Amare: 11-9. Of those 9 losses with Amare, four came against potential playoff opponents (Boston, Indiana, Chicago, and Brooklyn). The best Knicks stopper in recent years has not been on the other team: it has been Amare himself.
On the other hand, the Knicks were forced to play without Raymond Felton, their one penetrating option other than Carmelo, which put extensive pressure on the aging Jason Kidd and the volatile J.R. Smith. Felton’s presence balances the offense. The Knicks need more Felton and less Amare in order to survive in April. Those early November three-pointers that Kidd and Rasheed Wallace (likely out for his career with unending foot woes) rained down were nice, but it’s a long season, and Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” came out in 1992. Half of this Knicks roster was either dominating college basketball or entering the NBA that year. Back to the 2012 Knicks, Shumpert’s defense is helpful, but his offensive game needs to come with it for him to find extended minutes. Without either Camby or Wallace, the Knicks are forced to play Kurt Thomas against the bigger teams. Kurt Thomas and Boston’s Jason Collins have the two ugliest games in the NBA. Thomas’ locker-room nickname (no joke) is “Mid-life” (as in crisis).
Brooklyn Nets, 6%
The Nets have managed to beat some solid teams since Brook Lopez’ return and Avery Johnson’s departure. A productive January gave them wins over OKC, Indiana and New York. February has included victories over Chicago, Indiana again, and Denver. Before you get carried away with Brooklyn, you have to consider how poorly they played without Lopez. Gerald Wallace’s intensity and Brook Lopez’ stability are necessary complements to the centerpiece of the team: Deron Williams. The latest wins have come with Deron on the bench, resting his inflamed ankles. With Williams’ nagging ankles, and shooting a career-low 41% from the field, I don’t see the Nets getting past the first round, regardless of their opponent.
Milwaukee Bucks, 1%
That one percent chance is made up of 99% Larry Sanders! and 1% Luc Richard Mbah a Moute! Yes, I typed that without looking the Cameroonian Minister of Perimeter Defense’s name up. He’s almost as dominant as Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, a fellow Cameroonian Minister of Defense was. It will be fun to watch Larry Sanders get to showcase himself in the playoffs, if those pesky Sixers don’t make a run at the 8th seed.
Jonah Hall blogs at The Darko Index. He has been making basketball and baseball predictions since his older brother, Ben, showed him The Boston Globe Sports section and its “Standings” page, back in 1985. If you thoroughly enjoyed this article, feel free to donate $1 to the Paypal link below. If you feel like $1 just isn’t enough, then donate $2. If you enjoyed this article more than you’ve ever enjoyed any other internet article, then donate up to $5. If you feel compelled to donate more than $5, please email me directly, and we can discuss your elite membership in The Darko Index Fan Club.
Hooray for Hoops!