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East's second tier now looks first class

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PHOENIX - JANUARY 22: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls in action during the NBA game agains...
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Randy Hill

Veteran columnist Randy Hill is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.
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Recent NBA history reminds us that the snooty Western Conference has too many quality teams to fit all of them into an eight-team playoff format.

While the West is presiding over another rough-and-tumble seeding derby, the Eastern Conference hasn't exactly been a gang of slouches this season. In fact, the alleged weaker conference can trot out four legitimate bullies. I’m not, however, referring to the Cleveland LeBrons, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. Sure, that's a fine quartet with enormous potential for lengthy playoff runs.

POLL

  • Which East team is most likely to win a playoff series?
    • Bobcats
    • Bulls
    • Heat
    • Raptors

But the bullies just referenced make up the final four seeds in the current Eastern Conference playoff rankings. OK, so they've only been pushing other teams around on the limited basis that I've traced all the way back to the start of the calendar year. Chew on this. Since Jan. 1, the fearsome foursome — Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat — have combined to win 40 games and lose a measly 23. Not bad. Those numbers seem considerably more impressive when I point out that the Cavs, C’s, Magic and Hawks are a combined 36-25 over the same stretch.

I’m not proposing that you anticipate LeBron James and his cronies walking off early (sans handshake) for a second consecutive postseason, but it's nice to think the EC's opening playoff round could be almost slouch-proof. Anyway, now that it's been determined the Eastern Conference may not have to hang its collective head with the shame of fielding multiple sub-.500 playoff teams, it's our responsibility to figure out how this has happened.

Let's start with the fifth-seed Toronto Raptors, who are riding a five-game winning streak and have won 10 of their 15 dates since New Year's Day. The five-game streak includes four home victories and triumphs over the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. No need for cartwheels. However, the Raptors also took down the Los Angeles Lakers and the aforementioned Heat.

Not exactly a gauntlet, but commendable. A quick check of more significant numbers reminds us that the Raptors are last in the league for defensive efficiency, surrendering 112 points to the opposition per 100 possessions. But they've been a bit stingier of late, stingy enough to hold foes to reasonable totals while their relatively efficient offense (fourth in the NBA) gets to work.

The blame for better defense can be traced to an injury sustained by point guard Jose Calderon, something of a turnstile on defense, and the subsequent increase in minutes for the more hard-nosed Jarrett Jack. While Jack has been providing more resistance at the front of the Raptors' defense, finding more time for Sonny Weems enabled Toronto to do a better job of containing the league's crowd of monster wing scorers.

I also can't overlook how newcomer Hedo Turkoglu is starting to blend with superstar Chris Bosh and shot-chucking 7-footer Andrea Bargnani.

Next up are the Charlotte Bobcats (nine wins in their last 12 games, 12 of 16 in 2010), who — under the direction of Coach Larry Brown — have been committing real defense (the NBA's fifth-best in terms of efficiency) for most of this season. The nastiest guard dog has been small forward Gerald Wallace, whose combination of blocked shots and defensive rebounding makes him the second-rated individual defender in the league. But with Brown in his ear, Wallace's on-ball hounding and defensive rotations have been upgraded to the level of stellar.

In addition to giving the Bobcats 19 points per game, the 6-foot-7 Wallace averages 11 rebounds.

While Wallace has been taking his All-Star turn, the addition of Stephen Jackson — swiped in a deal with the Golden State Warriors — has given Brown and the Bobcats a cold-blooded scoring threat. The combustible Jackson is hardly burning down the league, scoring 20 a night on 42 percent shooting, but his fearlessness has given Charlotte enough of an offensive edge to go quite nicely with the hard defense. It should be noted that Jackson — who previously worked for defensive-minded Gregg Popovich in San Antonio — has resumed his claim as a solid defender after taking a few years off from such duty in Oakland.

While I also note that the Bobcats' list of 2010 conquests is a bit modest, they do have a victory over Cleveland, one over the Spurs and two over the Heat.

Next up on our “How are they doing that?” tour are the confounding Chicago Bulls. How are they confounding? Well, after looking dangerously mediocre for most of the season, the Bulls rallied to win five consecutive games on their seven-game road trip. Hey, not bad. Oh, it's a bit more interesting than that. See, the first two games on this tour — both losses — were contests against the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers. That’s right, teams with losing records. Shame on the Bulls.

But the rally occurred with victories over the Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Hornets — teams with records above .500.

So the Bulls are playing to the level of their competition, which may be good news if the level of competition has legitimately increased in the Eastern Conference.

The leading culprit in this five-game surge is defending Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose, whose seasonal numbers — 20 points per game on 47 percent shooting — were eclipsed in convincing fashion. In the five road wins, Rose gave the Bulls 25 points per game on 55 percent shooting. In addition to taking on some pretty top-flight point guards (OK, so Steve Nash couldn't stay in front of his guy in a wax museum), Rose was aided in his dribble-drive to glory by Coach Vinny Del Negro. The Bulls’ coach incorporated more half-court sets to isolate his point guard and reduce the potential for help defenders, now occupied by staggered screens for Luol Deng on the weak side.

Getting Rose in space is a fine idea.

By the way, the Bulls also have been helped by the return from injury of power forward Tyrus Thomas. While Thomas is averaging a double-single (8 points and 6 rebounds) his presence upgrades Del Negro's depth and his shot-blocking (two per game) helps Joakim Noah keep things frosty under the hoop. Chicago, which was 7-15 in Thomas' absence, is 13-5 since he started suiting up again.

Ladies and gentlemen, our look into why Miami has excelled since Jan. 1 has been preempted by this inconvenient detail ... the Heat have won just eight of the 17 games they've participated in during that time. In the event of a legitimate run of success, you will be informed as to why this has occurred. For now, just be happy that if they stay about the same, we'll see LeBron vs. Dwyane Wade for at least four games.
Tagged: Hawks, Celtics, Pelicans, Bulls, Rockets, Pacers, Clippers, Heat, Knicks, Magic, Spurs, Raptors, Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Hornets, Jarrett Jack, Tyrus Thomas, Derrick Rose

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