Don’t count the Boston Celtics out in the Eastern Conference

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat

The Boston Celtics have beaten the Eastern Conference favorite Miami Heat twice in the span of 10 days and have sent a message that is loud and clear to the rest of the NBA; don’t count us out yet.

After starting the first half of the lockout shortened season with a 15-17 record, the Boston Celtics have turned things around and are now one of the hottest teams in the league.  Since the all-star weekend, Boston has posted 18 wins to only seven losses giving them the third best record in the NBA since the break behind the San Antonio Spurs and the Chicago Bulls.  As the NBA playoffs approach, Celtic fans have to be wondering if their team can return to the Finals.  The answer to that question is yes and here is why.

As mentioned previously two of Boston’s wins during the second half of the season have come against the Miami Heat.  Losers of 5 of their last 10, the Heat are slumping and steadily losing ground on the Eastern conference leading Bulls.  If the Heat can’t pull things together prior to the playoffs, an early exit may be in order for LeBron James and company.

The Bulls have problems of their own.  Despite having the best record in the NBA, defending league MVP Derrick Rose has been sidelined with nagging injuries throughout the season.  Rose has missed 23 of Chicago’s 58 games this season.  Although the Bulls have stood tall above the rest of the league in his absence, his presence will be a must in the later playoff rounds.  Chicago has been great during the regular season but don’t expect them to go deep in the playoffs without a healthy No. 1.

So with the Heat slumping and the Bulls hurting the way to the NBA Finals could be paved for the Celtics.  Doc Rivers has done an exceptional job with this team and should make some noise in the Coach of the Year balloting.  Kevin Garnett has been playing like the KJ of yesteryear while Paul Pierce and Ray Allen remain very solid.  Throw Rajon Rondo in the fold, who is capable of exploding at any time, and the Celtics still have a very formidable lineup that has gotten hot at the right time.

The key for Boston throughout the playoffs will be to keep the series’ short and avoid game seven’s.  Shorter series’ equates to more rest and a fresher Boston team will be a dangerous one; especially if the Heat and Bulls aren’t playing up to par.

If the Celtics can advance through the East and get to the Finals it will make the third appearance for their Big three.  After beating the Los Angeles Lakers and then losing to them two years later, Boston appears hungry for a return trip and the opportunity to bring home the organization’s 18th title.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @Da_Bear_Truth

NBA playoffs preview: Thunder, Northwest Division

Oklahoma City Thunder Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

Oklahoma City Thunder Kevin Durant and Russell WestbrookFrom the prospective of a Game of Thrones junkie, the NBA’s Northwest Division resembles a tyrannical nation-state ruled by two young legendary Oklahoma City Thunder war generals on a quest for greatness, without an equal to stop them. They tower over their opponents and crush all who defy their rule (except the Washington Wizards). But alas, all is not lost; the nations of Utah and Colorado could have a large role in stopping Oklahoma.

The Thunder (39-12,1st in the West) have an ironclad, eleven and a half game lead on the Denver Nuggets (29-24, 7th in the West) and the Utah Jazz (28-26, 9th in the West). Boltsquad will take the Northwest Division crown, but there’s a high probability that their first round opponent will be a familiar and gritty foe.

Both the Nuggets and Jazz will be tough outs in the playoffs and it’s no secret why: they both possess deep and balanced rotations with unselfish players that just want to win. The prospects of either team winning the NBA Finals are slim, but they have the firepower to run with any team in the West for seven tough games, possibly pull it out, and while absolutely exhaust the opposing team. Even if they don’t win, they’ll have an impact on the playoff picture. Here’s the storyboard for each Northwest team the rest of the season and playoffs, from the bottom of the table, to the top.

Portland Trailblazers (25-29, 11th in the West)

 With Nate McMillan out, along with Gerald Wallace, the front office is banking heavily on the performances of LaMarcus Aldridge, Raymond Felton, and Jamaal Crawford to keep them afloat. The Trailblazers have beaten some quality opponents, but they needed G-Force, coupled with a productive Felton to really make a run. Management shook up the roster out of frustration with McMillan’s grind-it-out style of play and his inability to consistently get the offense firing. Portland’s management has committed to rebuilding around Aldridge and letting every current Blazer know that they’re auditioning for a spot on next year’s team.

Bottom Line: No playoff berth, and a draft pick in the 10-20 range that will be used wisely. Another season of mediocrity will be on its way unless the right pieces are acquired this summer.

Minnesota Timberwolves (25-30, 12th in the West)

Minnesota’s record in no way represents the amount of talent on the roster. Losing wunderkind Ricky Rubio for the season was the end of their playoff hopes, but Kevin Love has been doing everything in his power to keep his team relevant. Leading the league in 30 point-20 rebound games and averaging 31 points and 14 rebounds for the month of March put to rest any questions on who the franchise cornerstone was.

Bottom Line: Barring Michael Beasley playing out of his mind down the stretch, the Timberwolves will be watching the playoffs from their couches. With Rubio returning next year and a top twenty draft pick in sight, the Timberwolves will be a tough out in the 2013 playoffs.

Utah Jazz (28-26, 9th in the West)

 Give some credit to Ty Corbin, he could have complained at the lack of star power on the roster, but instead utilized what he had to continue the franchise’s storied success. The Jazz have beaten the Miami Heat, Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers this year and have established their identity as a gritty squad that can punish you in the low-post or spread you out. They’re far from invincible with a couple of hiccup games here and there, but the foundation for success is there. The building blocks are quietly in place, with Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson,Devin Harris, and Gordon Hayward truly buying into what Corbin is selling. Both Millsap and Jefferson are heavily underrated as scorers and rebounders, the latter of which allows Utah’s speed guys to get open on the break and do some damage.

Bottom Line: An overachieving Houston Rocket’s squad will fall back to earth down the stretch, leaving the door open for a seven or eight seed for Utah. If the Thunder draw the Jazz first round, look for the series to go to six or seven games and sap a lot of energy from the Thunder.

Denver Nuggets (29-24, 7th in the West)

Who would have guessed that Carmelo Anthony’s former team is doing better than his current team? The star-less Nuggets have embraced their identity and utilized their deep roster to keep fresh legs on the floor. Head Coach George Karl’s deep rotations create advantageous mismatches, and with Ty Lawson running the show, the Nuggets score at a torrid pace. The agile Lawson allows Denver to keep up with much stronger low-post oriented teams by running the break and constantly pushing the pace. Danilo Galinari’s injury plagued season and the trading of Nené have heaped some extra losses on an otherwise competitive team.

Bottom Line: The Nuggets will most certainly make the playoffs and could really challenge the likes of the Spurs, Lakers, and Thunder in whatever round they meet. However, if Galinari isn’t up to speed when he returns, the offense will sputter and an early exit is certain. If Denver’s offense is running and the defense gains some tenacity, they can win a seven game series against anyone. The Thunder need to watch them closely.

Oklahoma City Thunder (40-13, 1st in the West)

The Thunder have benefited greatly from a shortened season by keeping their structure homogenous with last year’s and not having to adjust to new players or personnel. The combination of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden has, on a nightly basis, proved to be too much for most teams. The defense of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins is the perfect complement to the aforementioned scoring trio’s offensive prowess. Although the defense is not where Head Coach Scott Brook’s would like it to be, it has steadily improved throughout the year and will be effective in the playoffs.

Bottom Line: This seems to be the perfect year for the Thunder to put it all together and take home the championship. However, anything short of the winning the Larry O’ Brien trophy will be a disappointment for the fans and players. On the plus side, the Thunder have two superstars signed long-term, both of which are only 23, and are committed to winning a championship together.

Eric Eulau is an NBA writer for The Sports Blitz.  He can be contacted at EEulau@TheSportzBlitz.com.