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NBA Stretch Run: Best of the East

   by Jim Feist - 04/12/2011

It's been a long haul, this 82-game NBA regular season, but the playoffs are just around the corner. So who wins the NBA title? The most talented team? The luckiest? The favorites?
We all know the favorites don't waltz to the NBA Finals. We just watched tiny Butler, a fifth seed in 2010 and a No. 8 seed this year, advance to the NCAA Championship game twice. Upsets littered the March tourney, as it was the first time since 1979 that a No. 1 or No. 2 seed didn’t make the Final Four. There's another factor that stands out, best summed up in a famous quote:
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
The speaker? Not a famous coach, but Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. The quote was from his speech "Citizenship in a Republic," but the hard work he was describing about the man "In the Arena" could apply to any NBA star pulling on sneakers and battling for the right to advance to the championship over the next two months.
It takes teamwork and effort, lots of effort, to hoist the crown at the end of a long season. In 2004 and 2008 the Lakers appeared to be the most talented team in the NBA Finals, favored each time, but were knocked around by the hard working Pistons and Celtics, both of whom really earned their rings. Next week I'll take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won nine of the last 12 NBA titles. This week, it's the best of the East.

Bulls: Chicago has been a great story, a sparkplug guard in 22-year old Derek Rose (25 ppg) runs the offense, a lot of young talent, and a first-year coach in Tom Thibodeau who has come in stressing DE-Fense! Combined with the best home record in the East and the Bulls have a shot at their first NBA Finals since 1998.
Chicago is No. 2 in the NBA in rebounds, led by Joakim Noah and hard working Carlos Boozer, plus No. 2 in the league in points allowed. The Bulls are 23-7 ATS in their last 30 games following an ATS loss. And if they get to the Finals, note that the Bulls are 47-22-3 ATS in their last 72 vs. the Western Conference.

Heat: Miami isn't quite the dominant team many predicted, including LeBron who spoke about winning 6 or 7 titles here, but they are one of the top teams and will be a playoff force. The Heat is not lacking for star power with 26-year old Lebron James (26.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 7 apg), 29-year old Dwyane Wade (25.7 ppg) and 27-year old Chris Bosh (18.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg).
There are very good role players in Mike Miller, Mike Bibby and Eddie House, and they are one of the top defensive teams in the league. But this group hasn't excellent when stepping up in competition and there’s no doubt all eyes will be on their play, particularly at crunch time. The Heat is 3-10 ATS in their last 13 games playing on two days rest.

Magic: Orlando flopped in the Finals in 2009 and again last season despite home court against the Celtics. So they brought back former playoff hero Hedo Turkoglu in mid-season, along with newcomers Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas, while dumping 34-year old Vince Carter (15 ppg), their second leading scorer, and Rashard Lewis. The makeover has brought mixed results, but overall they appeared to move sideways, at best.
They still have a superstar at center in 25-year old Dwight Howard, averaging 23 points and 14 rebounds. They can play defense, as well, allowing .437% shooting, fourth best in the NBA. The backcourt was a terrific weapon in 29-year old All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson (14 ppg). Orlando is 3-13 ATS in their last 16 games as a favorite. Perhaps getting their defense ready for the playoffs, Orlando is 21-7 under the total in the Magic's last 28 home games.

Celtics: What to make of the aging Celtics? This team won the title three years ago and is loaded with talent, height and depth this season, but has had terrible luck with injuries. The talent is there, with Paul Pierce (18.8 ppg), 35-year old Ray Allen (16.8 ppg), 34-year old Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo.
They traded center Kendrick Perkins in midseason and added to very good players in 6-9 Jeff Green and center Nenad Krstic. However, Krstic hopes to be back for the playoffs (knee), Shaq hasn't played much because of Achilles and hamstring problems, while Jermaine O’Neal just returned after missing 56 games. Boston had a great shot at the No. 1 seed the last month, but was erratic and lost several games to weak teams. The Celtics are also 8-20 ATS in their last 28 games following an ATS win.

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