NBA Stretch Run: The Best of the East


Courtesy of Jim Feist


It's been a long haul, this NBA regular season, but the playoffs are just around the corner. So who wins the NBA title? We all know the favorites don't waltz to the NBA Finals. Last year San Antonio had to go 7 games with Dallas in the first round, then six with Oklahoma City. Two years ago Miami needed to go seven games with up-and-coming Indiana to get there, then had to pull off a miracle in Game 6 to stun the Spurs. Three years ago San Antonio was a No. 1 seed and up 2-0 on the young Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Then, WHAM, Oklahoma City won 5 in a row to take a 1-0 lead in the Finals. Then, WHAM, Miami won 4 in a row to shell-shock wide-eyed OKC.

Even in college we saw a slew of upsets and surprises, with No. 1 Villanova going down early, one day before a pair of No. 2 seeds (Virginia, Kansas) fell. And didn't Wichita State and tiny Butler make a deep runs in recent years? Butler was a fifth seed in 2010 and a No. 8 seed in 2011, advancing to the NCAA Championship game twice. Four years ago the Dallas Mavericks were the No. 4 seed in the West, then knocked off everyone on the way to a surprising title.

There's another factor that stands out, best summed up in a famous quote: "It is not the critic who counts. 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."

That was not from a coach but Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. 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. San Antonio exemplified teamwork a year ago on the way to winning the title. The West has won 11 of the last 16 NBA titles. This week, it's the best of the East.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland started slow with new pieces all around, anchored by LeBron James. They struggled on defense, too, but as the calendar turned so did the Cavs, roaring down the stretch looking ready to make a run to the Eastern Conference championship.

30-year old Lebron James (26 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.3 apg) has paced himself but still has had a monster season, tutoring 23-year old Kyrie Irving. 26-year old Kevin Love (16 ppg, 10 rpg) is still a force and the Cavs added depth with J.R. Smith and Iman Shumbert in mid-season. If there's any weakness it might defense, bottom 10 in field goal shooting allowed, along with a free throw percentage that is in the middle of the pack. Still, they look like the team to beat in the East and the Cavs are 12-2 ATS against the West. They are also 37-14 over the total playing on two day's rest.

Atlanta Hawks

Where did these kids come from? In case you've forgotten, one year ago Atlanta was 38-44. The outstanding backcourt leads the way behind 26-year old 6-7 Jeff Teague (16 ppg, 7 apg) and 34-year old Kyle Korver, a pair of unselfish players, which is why Atlanta has been Top 3 in assists all season.

30-year old Paul Milsap (17 ppg) and 28-year old Al Horford (15 ppg, 7.4 rpg) have stayed healthy up front and the bench has been outstanding. And what balance: The Hawks are Top 10 in points scored and allowed, as well as field goal shooting defense. The Hawks are 11-29 ATS on two day's rest, though 13-6-1 ATS against the East. Cracks in the armor? They haven't played anywhere near that 36-5 run before the All-Star break.

Chicago Bulls

If this team from the Windy City could ever get healthy...Even banged up they've been a force in the East. The offense has improved from a year ago with the additions of Pau Gasol and 6-10 rookie Nikola Mirotic, but the heart and soul of this team remains defense and rebounding. Joakim Noah anchors the physical frontcourt and the defense is one again Top 10 in field goal shooting allowed, a necessity in April. That defense helps on the road: The Bulls are 20-8 under the total on the road against a team with a winning home record.

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Sep. 5, (PST)

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