For the entire 2011-12 season, the narrative in the East was the same. No matter what the other 13 teams did, they weren't challenging the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat. The Eastern Conference Finals series might as well have been etched in permanent marker.
Now, the playoffs are here, and a funny thing has happened: both the Heat and Bulls suddenly look vulnerable. There are lots of unique reasons for both teams' late-season struggles, but there's also a common theme involved. Due to rotation instability, both teams enter the playoffs with serious questions about their supporting casts.
For the Bulls, deep as ever, it's all about injuries. Derrick Rose is the obvious concern, and we'll get to him in a moment, but there are also questions with projected starters like Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton. Deng has been playing through torn ligaments in his wrist all year, and it's affected his offense. His true shooting percentage is his lowest since his rookie year, and his usage rate is the lowest of his career. Deng is an iron man and will play through the pain, but he may need more rest than usual. Hamilton, meanwhile, has been out for most of the year and hasn't been too effective when he has played. The Bulls have gotten big seasons out of Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, which raises the question of whether they should de-emphasize Hamilton or trust that his playoff experience will help at this time of year.
Miami's issues, meanwhile, are more about lack of talent. For a while, it looked like the Heat's supporting cast around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was significantly upgraded. Recently, though, the Heat's other guys have really fallen off. Shane Battier was expected to provide defense and perimeter shooting, but he's having the worst shooting year of his career and has lost a step on the other end of the floor. Rookie Norris Cole was great early on, but hit a rookie wall sometime around March and has been awful since. Mike Miller can't stay healthy, and Joel Anthony lost his starting job to Ronny Turiaf at one point. Worse, coach Erik Spoelstra has spent too much time tinkering late in the year instead of settling on eight or nine guys and banishing the rest to the bench.
These are the realities. Do they matter? That's a tough question to answer.
While Miami and Chicago seem vulnerable, the other playoff teams all have their problems, too. The Pacers have surged, but I'm skeptical that their improved offense will hold up against strong defensive teams in a playoff-style game. The Celtics found the fountain of youth, but they still are awful offensively. The Knicks have been great recently, but they have just as much rotation instability with the return of Amar'e Stoudemire from injury. The Hawks may have been a threat if Al Horford came back for the first round, but without him, they'll have a hard time beating the Celtics. As much as I want to make a bold pick against the Heat and Bulls, I can't really see any of these other teams beating them in a seven-game series.
That leaves us with the same Eastern Conference Finals we all expected. The team that will win that series is the one that solves their rotation instability quickest.
FIVE OTHER STORYLINES:
1. How healthy is Derrick Rose?
This is THE big question of the next couple months. Rose has played five games in April after missing large portions of the season with various nagging injuries, and he only shot 32 percent in those five games. At best, Rose's health and rhythm are a bit off. At worst, he resembles Wade in the 2007 Playoffs the year after Miami's title: technically healthy and playing, but a shell of his usual self.
The Bulls probably won't need Rose much to beat the fading 76ers, but they have no chance to advance deep into the playoffs if the reigning MVP is off his game. C.J. Watson, John Lucas III and an incredible commitment to defense and running your offensive sets can compensate for Rose's health in the regular season, especially with the compressed schedule sapping opponents' energy and scouting commitment. It's simply not going to cut it in the playoffs when everyone has days off, and more time can be devoted to dissecting your opponent.
2. How committed will Miami be to running their sets late in games?
The Heat have big enough problems with their rotation, but assuming they get that together, the next step will be solving crunch time. Most of the criticism will focus on the dynamic between James and Wade, but to me, they have a far bigger issue executing their sets.
One of the major reasons why Miami can look awkward in key moments is that they barely do anything on the weakside. Every NBA play, save for the rare set plays out of timeouts and out-of-bounds situations, has multiple options that fold into each other. The teams that execute best are the ones that stay committed to their second options when the first one fails. That's been a common problem for the Heat over the past couple years, and it has hurt them in key moments late in games.
This is a team-wide problem, not just a James/Wade problem. If the Heat can trust their secondary actions offensively, they will be fine. If not, we'll see the same issues from last year's playoffs come up again.
3. Can the Celtics score enough to win tough road games?
The Celtics are a darkhorse contender to win the East, but they have a major problem: they can't score efficiently. While Boston's defense is far and away the best unit in the playoffs, their offense may be the worst. The Celtics are 24th in the league in offensive efficiency, and have only topped 104 points per 100 possessions five times in their last 15 games.
The problems are pretty obvious, but still worth noting. As good as Rajon Rondo is, he's still a bad shooter. Paul Pierce has had a great, great year, but he still needs to be set up more than in years past. Kevin Garnett is simply a jump-shooter at this point in his career, and Ray Allen is playing through a ton of pain. Second-year man Avery Bradley and newcomer Brandon Bass are capable, but only within their niche -- Bradley with spot-up shooting and baseline cutting; Bass with his mid-range jumper.
You cannot count Boston out simply because of their defense and experience, but those structural problems offensively are going to be so hard to overcome. Throw in the lack of home court, and it's hard to see Boston winning three playoff series, two of which will probably be against Chicago and Miami.
4. Why no love for the Knicks?
It's a good question. The Knicks finished 18-6 under Mike Woodson and have one of the best defenses in the playoffs. Also, with Carmelo Anthony starring down the stretch, the Knicks have the isolation scorer you need to thrive in the playoffs, when offensive sets break down more than ever.
A few elements trip people up, though. For one, the Knicks are still trying to work Stoudemire back into the fold, and the on-court chemistry between him and Anthony is awkward at best. For another, the Knicks still have very poor point guard play unless Jeremy Lin returns from injury, and reintegrating Lin into this style will be tricky. It also doesn't help that the Knicks are facing a tough matchup against Miami, one of the few teams that can go small to match the Knicks when they put Anthony at power forward.
Nevertheless, they are playing extremely well and are the best shot at a lower seed winning in the first round. Put it this way: if you had to name eight teams that could win the title, who would you name? Chicago, Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are obvious. The Lakers, Clippers and Grizzlies are the darkhorses. That's seven. Who is the eighth team on that list? Dallas? Indiana? I'd probably put the Knicks there over both of them given how well they have played recently. If only they had an easier first-round matchup.
5. Will Indiana's late-season run carry over to the playoffs?
That last sentence aside, I do think we are sleeping on the Pacers. They're 19-8 over their last 27 games and 12-3 in their last 15. They have always been a very good defensive team, but in that 27-game span, they're averaging 108.4 points per 100 possessions offensively. If they kept up that pace over a full season, they would be just behind the Spurs for the best offense in the league.
Can they keep it up? The good news: their offensive improvement was mostly fueled by their top two scorers finding their games. Early in the season, Danny Granger and David West were having horrendous shooting slumps. Both have rebounded in the second half of the season, especially in April. If I had to choose a more meaningful sample, I'd choose the latter because both were closer to their career norms.
The big question, to me, is whether the Pacers have enough playmakers to succeed against tight defenses. Indiana runs their sets extremely well and always makes sure to keep West and Roy Hibbert involved, but their guard play is a bit suspect. Darren Collison, George Hill and Leandro Barbosa can create shots for themselves, but it usually involves a lot of dribbling. It'd be great if Granger could have easier shots set up for him instead of always having to struggle to force tough looks, but the Pacers aren't there quite yet. That will hurt them as they go deeper into the playoffs.
Nevertheless, Indiana is certainly a tough out. I don't see them getting past Round 2, but don't be surprised if they give Miami more trouble than many expect.
Chicago vs. Philadelphia
- Chicago should feel good because ... : The 76ers are easily playing the worst ball of any playoff team right now. Philadelphia started 20-9 and has gone 15-22 since, losing several games in depressing fashion. The 76ers rarely turn the ball over, but that's mostly because they don't really bother attacking the basket. Chicago's defense should thrive against the 76ers' lack of aggression.
- Philadelphia should feel good because ... : Chicago isn't Miami. The 76ers have lost 11 of 12 to the Heat since The Decision, including last year's playoffs, and they tried desperately to avoid them in the playoffs this time around. If the 76ers can get their act together, they have the athleticism to beat Chicago up the floor and the defensive ability to shut down Chicago's tight sets.
- Key to the series: Which bench gains an advantage? Chicago and Philadelphia have two of the strongest benches in the league, but they do different things. The 76ers get a ton of offense from their bench, while the Bulls' defense goes to another level when they bring in subs. Philadelphia's only chance to make this a series is if Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young have several big games.
- Prediction: Bulls in five. The 76ers at their peak look like a tough matchup, but that 76ers team has been MIA since February.
Miami vs. New York
- New York should feel good because ... : They're peaking at the right time, and they have the two essential ingredients you need to win in the playoffs: an elite isolation scorer and a defensive anchor on the inside. How many NBA teams in general, much less lower seeds, can trot out a scorer/defender combo like Anthony and Tyson Chander?
- Miami should feel good because ... : They have played the Knicks well this year, going 3-0 against them -- though it should be noted that the Knicks came in with three very different teams. The ABC afternoon matinee two weeks ago may have been a harbinger for the series. New York played well and got a big performance from Anthony ... until LeBron James started covering him. Anthony was neutralized, nobody else stepped forward, and the Heat won the game.
- Key to the series: How healthy and effective is Stoudemire going to be? He didn't play in that April 15 game, but showed some nice signs upon returning from injury late in the year, especially in a one-point overtime win over Atlanta last Saturday. That said, the chemistry between him and Anthony is awkward. The Knicks thrived with Anthony at power forward. Will they go to it again and risk Miami matching up with their own small lineup, or will they play Anthony and Stoudemire and hope for the best?
- Prediction: Heat in six. Sure, the Knicks were a trendy upset pick last year and instead bowed out in four games to the Celtics, but they're actually playing well over a longer period of time down the stretch this time around. Miami's a tough matchup for them, though, which is why I have the Heat ultimately prevailing.
Indiana vs. Orlando
- Orlando should feel good because ... : It could be worse. While the Pacers have quietly surged in the last month, they aren't the Bulls, Heat or Celtics. Orlando's veterans have an experience edge, and if the three-point shots are falling, the Magic can hang with a Pacers team that is better suited to a free-throw line and down game.
- Indiana should feel good because ... : The Magic, on paper, are by far the weakest team in the playoffs. For a squad that is playing as a favorite for the first time, it's a nice transition.
- Key to the series: Roy Hibbert should have a big series with Dwight Howard out, but will the Pacers stay committed to getting him the ball? They've done a pretty good job all season, but they need to do an even better job against a Magic team which only has Glen Davis (if he's healthy) and Daniel Orton.
- Prediction: Pacers in seven in a tougher series than we think. The Magic are very shorthanded in talent, but they make up for it in unfamiliarity. It's tough to have much scouting material on a team that plays so differently without its superstar. While Indiana is way more formidable than people realize, they haven't seen this specific Magic squad, and that's a tough dynamic in a seven-game series.
Atlanta vs. Boston
- Atlanta should feel good because ... : The Celtics are a familiar opponent. The Hawks would have struggled against the unfamiliarity of Orlando sans Dwight Howard or the ascending Indiana Pacers, but they know how to stay tight with Boston. If they stay tight, they have a chance.
- Boston should feel good because ... : The Celtics know the Hawks are going to have issues scoring on them. Without Al Horford, the Hawks' frontcourt becomes much less dangerous, allowing Kevin Garnett to pick his spots between roaming and shutting down Josh Smith. Bradley will also give Joe Johnson all he can handle defensively.
- Key to the series: What can Ray Allen provide? Reports suggest he will be limited in the series due to an ankle injury, and that's a big-time loss for Boston. Even if Bradley is up to the task, he now has to play more minutes, which means someone like Keyon Dooling has to play more -- and better -- to compensate. Boston isn't deep to begin with, so all this is problematic.
- Prediction: Celtics in six. Was tempted to pick Atlanta, but even with Boston's scoring issues, it's hard to pick against them in the playoffs.
Finals prediction: Heat over Bulls in six.