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Fran Blinebury

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose takes the Bulls into the NBA playoffs, which begin April 16.
Ray Amati/NBAE via Getty Images

Playoff pic still fuzzy, but some things coming into focus


Posted Mar 25 2011 10:21AM

About three weeks from today, Xs and Os will be getting devoured like candy, fingers will be worn out from hitting the rewind buttons on the video players and smoke will be coming off the nets from all of the jump shots being polished.

It will be the start of the 2011 NBA playoffs, when we begin nine weeks of finding out what nearly six months of regular-season buildup didn't quite answer.

Now, as the 82-game season turns into the homestretch, playoff seedings are yet to be sorted out and matchups are not yet determined.

Still, we think we already know some things ...

Prime Time

East

Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat -- They'll be coming at the playoffs from three widely different directions. Since the first month of the season when they were still trying to digest and comprehend coach Tom Thibodeau's defense, the Bulls behind Derrick Rose have climbed steadily up the mountain and will likely enter the postseason as the most complete team in the East. You can't help but admire and enjoy the way they share the ball and play together.

The Celtics have been struggling to find their swagger ever since losing Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline. So much now might rest on the fitness of the aging O'Neals, Shaquille and Jermaine. But as long as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are healthy, they're legit.

There will be questions about and critics of the Heat until they pile up those three, four, five championships they promised last summer. They still have so much to prove, but with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, they keep a puncher's chance to prove it.

West

San Antonio Spurs, L.A. Lakers -- Admit it. Nobody expected the Spurs to bounce back from last year's second-round playoff sweep at the hands of Phoenix to control the race for the league's best record from wire-to-wire. They are not the same inside-out team that pounded its way to four championships in the past dozen years. They might be better. They are at least more balanced. Of course, everything goes out the window if Tim Duncan isn't fully recovered from his sprained ankle by the start of the playoffs. But here's a history lesson. The last time Duncan went down with a sprain was March of 2005. There was worry, alarm and he was shelved for weeks. But when the playoffs began, he was in the lineup and leading the Spurs to a Game 7 win over the Pistons in the Finals.

Same old Lakers, always thriving on the Hollywood drama, making everyone wonder if they'd ever snap out of their funk. Now here they are with a 13-1 record since the All-Star break, rolling like a boulder down the side of a mountain ready to flatten anything in their path. For all of the noise in the early rounds, it's really a two-horse race. If it's anyone but Spurs vs. Lakers in the Western Conference finals, the Earth will have slipped off its axis.

Knocking at the Door

East

Orlando Magic -- Two years ago they were the team on the rise, losing only to the Lakers in the Finals and ready to rule the East for a decade. Now they've turned over the roster twice and become regarded in their own home state of Florida as a mere warmup act for The Heatles. But as long as Dwight Howard is playing at an MVP level -- and he is -- and if those 3-point shots fall, they're never out of it, even when down by 24. Just ask Miami. The Magic are 2-1 against the Heat.

West

Oklahoma City Thunder -- As G.M. Sam Presti continues to do a masterful job of assembling the pieces of the NBA's next potential dynasty, it's probably still a year too early for the Thunder to break through for a run at the Finals. But they have young gun All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they've mixed in some grit and attitude from Kendrick Perkins and they have an amazing home-court atmosphere in OKC. Stranger things have happened.

Cinderellas

East

Philadelphia 76ers -- Does anybody really want to line up at this point against the surging Sixers, who shook off a 3-13 start to go 34-21 over the past four months? When you look at them 1-for-1 in individual matchups, you wouldn't think they'd stand a chance against any of the Eastern heavyweights. But Doug Collins' team has taken down Chicago, Boston, Orlando and San Antonio in this run. The Sixers will make anyone they meet in the first round work hard and will be in a loose enough, no-pressure situation to maybe pull off a surprise.

West

Portland Trail Blazers -- This is a Blazers team that has flown beneath the radar since October when another season began with Greg Oden going on the shelf and Brandon Roy limping. Now Roy is back to join LaMarcus Aldridge in his best season as a pro, with Andre Miller still quietly on top of his game. They're a two-way threat with a long, rangy lineup that can change positions and be effective. The potential is there to take down one of the top dogs -- Dallas, maybe? -- in the first round and maybe go further.

Vulnerable

East

New York Knicks -- What happened to all of those echoes of past greatness that were supposedly awakened at Madison Square Garden with the arrival of Carmelo Anthony? The Knicks are 1-7 over the past two weeks and tumbling like a piano off a rooftop. Can they fall to eighth place? Can they pretend to be interested in what Mike D'Antoni is preaching? Can Amar'e keep his cool? Can 'Melo stand the heat? Can they survive until the summer of 2012 and get Chris Paul?

Dallas Mavericks -- Coming out of the All-Star break, Jason Terry proclaimed that the Mavs were ready to roll and would, in fact, run down the Spurs for the best record in the West. But they lost Caron Butler and lost their offensive spark. Coach Rick Carlisle called them soft and Tyson Chandler objected. But Dallas is still just 6-5 over the past three weeks and, considering the Mavs' playoff history, could be ripe for another early fade.

On the Brink of Disaster

East

Atlanta Hawks -- The Hawks are looking more and more like a team facing elimination -- even before the playoffs arrive. They've lost eight of their last 11 games and are getting hammered in the process. At least they usually played hard under previous coach Mike Woodson. Now it seems they've quit on his replacement Larry Drew. The Hawks have All-Star talent with a minor-league commitment and might get passed by Philly for the No. 5 seed in the East.

West

New Orleans Hornets -- If the term Pyrrhic victory ever applied, it could be to the Hornets' 121-117 overtime win at Utah on Thursday night. When David West fell horribly and painfully to the floor with 22.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter, everything that coach Monty Williams and New Orleans had worked for this season might have gone up in smoke. If the injury to West's left knee is as serious as it appeared, it will impact his free agency and the franchise in the long run and in the short term could make the Hornets' chances of hanging on in the West playoff race slim. They're only three games up on the hard-charging, ninth-place Rockets.

Something to Prove

East

Dwight Howard -- While the debate for most of the season has been about the relative merits of LeBron James and Derrick Rose for MVP, the best center in the NBA has been nothing but that practically every time he steps on the floor. The numbers alone -- 23.1 points, 14.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game -- are staggering. Then you add in the fact that he usually has to carry almost all of the load on this constantly changing roster and Howard could be a guy ready to state his own case -- in the playoffs -- that the regular-season MVP award will go to the wrong player.

West

LaMarcus Aldridge -- It would have been easy for Aldridge, seeing his Trail Blazers hit more misfortune early in the season, to simply put it on cruise control. Instead he accepted the challenged, raised his game and has been playing consistently like an All-Star. Of course, the problem is that he was somehow left off the West All-Star team by the vote of the coaches and now one coach -- or more -- could pay for that omission as Aldridge exacts his revenge.

Dream Matchups

East

LeBron James vs. Derrick Rose -- They won't square off head-to-head against each other. But Larry Bird and Magic Johnson didn't either and they were still the focal points. What could be more delicious than an Eastern Conference finals showdown between the Heat and Bulls with the presumptive MVP contenders finally settling the matter under the white-hot spotlight of a seven-game series? Who makes the plays? Who makes the late shots? Who rules?

West

Kobe Bryant vs. Manu Ginobili -- The thing about both of them is that you never know what they're going to do any time they come down the court, because they never know either. They're flamboyant. They're daring. They're fearless. They're outrageous. Kobe, of course, has always been the lead dog. With the change in the Spurs' offense this season, it's Manu's time to howl louder than ever. As age creeps up on the pair, it could be the last time they meet with so much on the line.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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