Celtics Score!

Courtesy of fanpop.com

The NBA All-Star game is coming up this weekend, providing a nice reprise for players to get their legs back and recover from the grind of a long regular season. A lot is made of teams’ records heading into the All-Star Break, but the current standings in the East and West are by no means the only litmus test of how teams will perform in the playoffs.
This year, as is the case with most seasons, a surprise squad or two will undoubtedly make some noise in the postseason, while some of the upper-echelon teams in both conferences could be set up for an early exit.
Here’s an uncommon situation: a team enters the All-Star break ranked seventh in its conference, having recently lost a point guard to injury who had been leading the league in assists, and they’re just starting to look like a contender. This is exactly the case with the Boston Celtics, the best dark-horse bet in this year’s playoffs.
Whether Rajan Rando’s absence really makes the Celtics a better team is debatable, but right now, they’re  certainly playing like one; they just reeled off a seven-game win streak, beating the likes of the Heat, Clippers, Lakers, and Nuggets in the process. Both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are outstanding passers at their positions, helping the team maintain great offensive continuity in Rondo’s absence.
Several other factors also point toward a resurgent Boston team heading into the playoffs, including outstanding leadership, the emergence of Jeff Green to provide a desperately needed boost in youth and athleticism, and Pierce’s still remarkable ability to get his shots in isolation situations.
Out west, everyone seems to be doting on the Thunder and the Spurs, relegating the Clippers to “that team that’s just missing something.” Well, something was missing, and his name is Chris Paul. He’s back in the lineup now, and the Clippers are looking great.
Defense truly does win championships, and the Clippers are one of the best at it, to the tune of ranking fourth in the league in opponent points per game and best in steals per game. Offensively they can be dynamic as well, especially when Paul and Blake Griffin are both passing at their best. Jamal Crawford is a highly underrated weapon and one of the best sixth men in the league, averaging 17.1 PPG off the bench.
Don’t make the mistake of writing the Clippers off. If Chauncey Billups can return to form, they just might be the best in the West.

Speaking of the West, the Nuggets have been taking it by storm of late, if you haven’t noticed. They’ve risen to fifth in the conference by losing just two of their last eleven games. They’re the best rebounding team in the league, they have great athleticism, and Ty Lawson is possibly the most underrated player in the league. And it would be an absolute shock if they made it out of the second round.
Great as they’ve been looking, two main aspects of the Nuggets scream postseason bust. For one, they lack a go-to-scorer, which is essential against postseason defenses. Second, they’re awful when they’re not at home. The Nuggets have only lost three home games all season, but for whatever reason, they’re simply a different team on the road.
Which, sadly, brings me to the Knicks. Considering the host of problems with this team, it’s remarkable that they’re still ranked second in the East, but their style of play simply cannot be sustained through a deep postseason run. First and foremost, they play way too much one-on-one with Carmelo Anthony (and occasionally J.R. Smith). Of course ’Melo is great at it, but when his shot is off, the offense gets stagnant and otherwise effective role players like Steve Novak and Jason Kidd seem to lose their way.
The Knicks also struggle defensively when their two best scorers, Melo and Amaré Stoudemire, are in the game together. As a lifelong fan, I take no pleasure in saying this, but too much inconsistency on both sides of the ball could spell a first or second-round exit for the Knickerbockers.

    Fleming is a member of the class of 2013.

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