Playoffs aren’t too far, about a month away. There are seven teams with a shot at winning the title this season, and we being with four Eastern sides, each with their weaknesses – Cleveland and Orlando who are favored to meet again in the Eastern Finals, Boston who seems too old and slow to mount a serious challenge and Atlanta who aren’t old and aren’t slow but have other problems that might keep them out of the NBA finals and probably the conference finals as well.
First of all, the Cavs are my favorites to go all the way. They were my favorites last year as well, and that didn’t turn out so well but still, they have the best record in the league and the best player. So what is their weak spot? Probably free throw shooting – the Cavs are 29th in the league in free throw shooting (72.2%), while being ranked 8th in free throw attempts per game (26.4). What does this mean? They’re missing out on a lot of points, which become crucial in crunch time. By the way, Denver lead the league in Free throw attempts per game (31.1) and are 10th in free throw percentage (77.4%). The Cavs had a tough loss to the Nuggets (118-116 in overtime) with free throws being a big factor in that loss. LeBron is shooting reasonably well, 77%, getting to the lines about 10 times a game. Antawn Jamison for example, presumably the no.2-3 scorer on the team, is shooting under 50% from the line.
What else beside free throw shooting? Anthony Parker is their weakest starter – The 34 year old shooting guard is scoring 7.1 points in 28 minutes a night. Yes, he’s lethal from the outside (42% for the season) but has plenty of bad days – went 1-6 and 1-5 in two of the last three games and just seems a bit below the level of intensity needed for the big games. Delonte West is an option off the bench but he isn’t exactly the most consistent delivery man.
Question – Are the Orlando Magic better than they were last year? Phil Jackson said – Yes, I think they’re a little better. Howard’s offensive numbers are slightly down, Rashard Lewis isn’t exactly playing like a 100 million dollars kinda guy and Vince Carter… well… you get the point. Still, the Magic are a very good defensive team and when things do go well for them, meaning Jameer Nelson is running the offense correctly, meaning push the ball inside to Howard, meaning Vince Carter doesn’t settle for jump shots but takes it to the rim, meaning things open up for Reddick and Lewis and Barnes and the rest. On days like these, the Magic could be the best in the league. But seriously, Orlando’s fortunes lay with two players and their ability to give 150% these playoffs – Jameer Nelson, who needs to give more than 12.2 points and 5.4 assists. They need the 2009 Nelson, who went to the all-star, who controlled games on his good days. Second player – Vince Carter, someone who could go to the hall of fame if he finally puts together an impressive run deep into the playoffs. Like we said – Orlando have enough shooters. Carter needs to take the ball inside. He can do plenty of damage and free up excellent three point shooters if he keeps it up.
After Cleveland and the Magic who are the favorites to make it back for a rematch of their 2009 Eastern Conference Finals this year, we move on to the Atlanta Hawks, who are enjoying their best season in over a decade. They have as usual tons of athleticism but with more experience after two consecutive playoffs, an unknown habit during most of the ’00’s. They got players who can score, rebound, shoot, come off the bench, pretty solid on D, except for one player. Mike Bibby. Bibby seems to be the guy who turned it all around after arriving in 2008, getting the team into the post season for the first time since 1999. He did it again last year and despite his declining numbers (9 points, 4 assists per game, lowest of his career), the Hawks are a much better offensive team when he’s on the court due to his play-making skills and the decisions he takes. But – he’s a horrible defender, getting slower and slower by the minute. Mo Williams loves playing against him. Rondo won’t complain when facing Bibby. The Hawks do have Crawford to step in, but he isn’t exactly an all-NBA defender. Far from it. He can score points quickly, but he isn’t exactly a pure point guard type of player. When Bibby becomes a liability on D, that’s when things are going to get problematic for the Hawks. Even more problematic than when they decide on just jump shooting for long periods of time.
Yes, some people still believe the Celtics have it in them for a final push towards their 18th NBA trophy. It’s a long-shot, but there’s a chance. Problem is? Rondo is the only player from their “big four” who’s better than he was in the 2008 title winning year. Garnett looks like he won’t be productive for a very long time, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are doing a bit better but clearly not in the prime of their careers. As old teams tend to be, the Celtics aren’t the fastest team in the league, and running against them will probably take a toll out of the veterans. Another big problem for the Celtics, which is surprising for such a good defensive team, is their rebounding. Boston is 29th in the league with 38.8. Opponents average 39.8. Rebounds become even more critical in the playoffs. Hard road ahead of them.