This Ain't Your Early-Season Eastern Conference

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Miami are still the favourites to reach the NBA Finals, but it's no longer a formality; and it's certainly not a given that they'll have to go through Indiana to get there.

For NBA coaches and players, looking too far ahead can be dangerous. As much as it’s a well-worn cliché to spout things like, we're taking things one game at a time and, we’re not looking past our next opponent, those directly involved in the game of basketball – aside from the general manager – cannot afford to be distracted from the immediate task at hand.

For fans, however, looking ahead – debating future playoff match-ups, speculating, writing bad blog posts – can be fun. It has zero bearing on the outcome of the games, and the biggest danger is simply that you raise your expectation levels to a point where you’re emotionally crushed when your team fails to reach those imagined heights. No big deal.

Let’s look back, and then ahead…

At the turn of the year, the Eastern Conference, with the exception of two teams, was terrible. Putrid. Garbage. A stinking hot mess. The Chicago Bulls, without Derrick Rose, were unwatchable – just agonizingly bad – the Brooklyn Nets were slow, injury-riddled, and dysfunctional, the Washington Wizards were still trying to figure out their identity; and our beloved Raptors were at a ‘to tank, or not to tank?’ crossroads. The less said about the win-now, Detroit Pistons, and Cleveland Cavaliers, the better.

The Eastern Conference playoffs looked set to feature 6 mediocre-to-bad teams entering the Miami-Indiana meat-grinder, promptly being pounded into mush, and gratefully expelled from our collective memories, as we sat down to enjoy 7 games of LeBron James trying to score at the rim against the human road-block that is Roy Hibbert.

Fast forward a few months, and while the East still pales in comparison to the Royal Rumble-esque Western Conference (the 46-31 Phoenix Suns would currently have the 3rd best record in the East) it's no longer the cesspool of ineptitude that it was at the start of the calendar year. Far from it, in fact. The bottom end of the conference remains lean, but the upper-end has really filled-out.

The Nets have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA in 2014, the Bulls led by Joakim Noah have played inspired basketball as of late, the Wizards are blossoming into a solid young team; and even the Al Jefferson-led Charlotte Bobcats -- 7 and 59 just two seasons ago -- are streaking into the post-season.

And those Toronto Raptors, 6 and 12 and heading nowhere with Rudy Gay on the books, have gone 39-20 since the December 8th trade, have a winning record against the aforementioned Western Conference; and are just 3 games shy of breaking the franchise's all-time record for wins in a season.

Only the 'battle' for the 8th seed -- the 'who screws up least' crapshoot between the Hawks and Knicks -- resembles the East's early-season awfulness.

And while the Miami Heat remain the team to beat in the East -- and in the NBA, in general -- a Heat-Pacers Eastern Conference Final no longer seems like the sure-thing it did just a couple months ago. The Heat should be there. The Pacers? Who knows.

While Frank Vogel's team remain an great defensive unit (although they're slipping as of late), their offense in recent weeks has fallen off the proverbial cliff -- they scored an all-time franchise-low, 23 (TWENTY THREE) first-half points, in yesterday's loss to Atlanta. At the time of writing, they rank 22nd in points per possession, and thus, have a very small margin for error. The body-language of their stars is bad, their bench is awful; and if they can't score -- in recent games they haven't looked like being able to -- they're not even a guarantee to beat the Bobcats in the likely 2-7 match-up. Writing that sentence two months might have got you locked in an asylum.

No one should completely rule out the Pacers being able to 'flip the switch' come playoff-time, of course -- last season they were a different team once the post-season began. But if we judge them on what's in front of our eyes at the present time, and assuming they remain the 2-seed, a path to the Eastern Conference Finals has most certainly begun to open up for whichever team can snag the 3-seed. At present, that looks like being a battle between the Raptors and Bulls.

Chicago will most definitely have nothing to fear against the Pacers in a conference semi-final, but neither should the Raptors. The Raptors, if they finished 3rd in the East (given their remaining games, they really should) would have to get past the talented Wizards to get to those Pacers, of course. But if they triumph over John Wall and company (the Raps won the season series 3-1 against Washington), a match-up with Indiana, as illustrated by Friday's tilt, is winnable. Tough, but winnable.

That may not be saying a lot -- it's probably nothing more than banal speculation, in fact -- but not too far in the recent past, imagining that the Raptors had anything resembling a realistic path to the Eastern Conference Finals seemed absurd.

Of course, whoever comes out of the likely Bulls-Nets, 4-5 series will feel like they have a shot at the Heat (Yep, the Heat are definitely getting past the Knicks or Hawks). Whether or not the Bulls or Nets can actually take 4 games off Miami is one thing; but again, the notion that they could run them close would've been deemed crazy for a large chunk of this season.

And the fact is, the Brooklyn Nets might be the one team who can topple the Heat in the East. They've taken all 3 games from Miami so far this season; they have playoff experience, and just seem to match-up well against Spoelstra's team.

Ultimately Miami are still the favourites to make it to their 4th straight NBA Finals. But just a few months ago people joked that it would be better to skip the first two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and simply have Miami and Indiana play their series, while something resembling the Clash of the Titans played-out in the West.

No one's making that joke now. 3 through 7 in the East is better than anyone could've imagined it would be at the turn of the year. Each one of those teams -- the Raptors included -- will feel that they have a legitimate shot at the making the Conference Finals.

And then, who knows? Let's not look that far ahead.

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