In fight for home-court, Bulls may be more desperate than Celtics
As playoffs near, the Celtics and Bulls are battling for the East's No. 1 seed
A young, untested team, Bulls need the easier path to the Finals more than Celtics
More topics: Jalen Rose, Ettore Messina and whether NCAA excellence translates
Several playoff matchups appear to be in place, but there is much to be decided over the final four weeks of the season.
The most important fight is being fought atop the Eastern Conference, where the young Bulls and stubborn Celtics each hold the tiebreaker over No. 3 Miami, which is too far back to displace either of them.
Not only will the winner of the No. 1 seed earn home-court advantage throughout the Eastern bracket, but it will also be rewarded with the easier path to the NBA Finals. If Chicago was to maintain its current half-game lead at No. 1 in the conference, the Bulls would be facing these likely opponents in the playoffs:
Opening round: Indiana, Charlotte or Milwaukee
Conference semifinals: Orlando or Atlanta
Conference finals: Boston or Miami
Should the Celtics finish No. 2, this would be their punishment: A more difficult opening-round matchup, with the 76ers or Knicks; a brutal second-round series against the Heat; and then -- if they've survived -- a conference finals against Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau's defense.
The race for No. 1 could be decided April 7, when Boston (which holds a 2-1 lead in the season series) visits Chicago. Some will argue that the older Celtics can't afford the more difficult postseason schedule, but they have a history of flouting that logic -- last year they won on the road against Cleveland and Orlando and came within five minutes of upsetting the Lakers on their home floor in Game 7 of the Finals. Home-court advantage may be more important to the Bulls because Rose has never won a playoff series and will be dealing with an entirely new level of intensive opposition with each successive round. The Celtics know they can win on the road, while this Bulls team has yet to win a series under any circumstances.
The other important race in the East has developed between the Nos. 6 and 7 Knicks and 76ers, who were a half-game apart through Thursday. Should New York hold on to the No. 6 seed, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire would likely earn an opening round against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Heat are superior defensively and would be favored in a majority of the individual matchups, but it would be terrific theater to see James visit New York in a matchup against Anthony. After eight years in the NBA, dating to the comparisons that formed when they were viewed as the top two prospects of the 2003 draft, they would be postseason rivals at last.
The big race in the West is between the Lakers and Mavericks, who are tied for No. 2 in the conference as they look forward to a March 31 meeting in Los Angeles that will decide their postseason tiebreaker (they've split a pair of games in Dallas this season). Home-court advantage will be crucial to their potential matchup in the second round because Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks haven't developed a lot of playoff confidence after winning one series in the last four years, while Kobe Bryant's Lakers haven't won a postseason series on the road since 2004, when Shaquille O'Neal was still in charge.
The first-round opponents for L.A. and Dallas -- most likely either the Trail Blazers or Hornets -- will be determined over the closing month. The Lakers would probably prefer to avoid visiting Portland, where they've had a hard time winning in recent years. But the defending champs are a combined 5-0 vs. both teams and will be confident of prevailing in either matchup.
The Mavs will be more nervous. They're 1-2 this season against the Hornets and 2-1 vs. the Blazers, but all six games have been decided by five points or fewer. The opening round will show whether the Mavs' improved defense has made legitimate contenders of them.
The Nuggets will have incentive to maintain their current No. 5 seeding -- not only because they'll want to avoid the Lakers or Mavericks, but also because they'll look forward to a series of sprinters' heats against the No. 4 Thunder. Denver and Oklahoma City are among the top five scoring teams, and the more often the Nuggets are able to run and distribute the ball in transition, the less likely their absence of star power will hurt them in the playoffs.
The No. 8 spot in each conference remains under construction. While Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley has been stocking his team for a return to the playoffs this year, he is being chased by two franchises -- the Jazz and Suns -- that are torn between winning now and repositioning themselves for the future. Give the edge to Memphis (especially when Rudy Gay returns from a shoulder injury over the next few weeks) in the West and to Indiana in the East, where the Pacers are being chased by the Bobcats, who recently unloaded the salary of team leader Gerald Wallace, and the Bucks, who have been thoroughly depleted by injuries.
The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.
What is wrong with being candid and direct? Shouldn't honesty be praised? The mistake by me would have been to not tell it like it was.
-- J.R., Detroit, Mich.
Jalen Rose, in your documentary, The Fab Five, you acknowledge that you used to view Grant Hill as an "Uncle Tom" when he was starring at Duke against your Michigan team. I do commend your honesty, because your statement clearly wasn't meant to make you look good at his expense. Just the opposite: You were acknowledging envy for Hill's upbringing and lifestyle. But don't you see why Hill has been wounded by your comment? It's because you didn't go on to explain how you feel about him today. You didn't finish your thought. Do you really believe he has earned that aspersion? It is absolutely unfair to him, and regrettable for everyone.
The documentary itself was terrific because it cast you and your talented Michigan teammates as real people who were vulnerable to the scrutiny and criticism you received. It brought to mind the criticism the Heat stars have been receiving this season. People don't want to hear about the feelings of the Heat players because they (like the Fab Five) asked for it by bringing the attention upon themselves and (unlike the Fab Five) are being paid in the millions for their trouble. But from their point of view, they insist they came together to form the best team, just as you and your Fab Five teammates chose to do two decades ago.
I've long viewed Chris Webber as a sympathetic figure -- an extraordinary talent who struggled with the pressures that were created by that talent. And yet he didn't shy away from the biggest stages: He kept putting himself in positions that exposed him to those pressures. In Miami, LeBron James is filling the role of Webber as the extraordinary talent on an audacious team. A majority of fans don't feel sympathy for James now, just as they didn't feel sympathy for Webber as leader of the Fab Five. But to watch your documentary was to see Webber from a new perspective, as a young player overwhelmed by the environment created by his talent, and also by the choices he made in response to that environment. It all makes me wonder what we'll be saying about James 20 or 30 years from now, because perspectives of all of these stars change as they grow older and retire, and the view of James will surely change as well.