Pacers, Heat running away with East – for now

Christmas morning, 2008. The Boston Celtics were 27-2. The

Cleveland Cavaliers were 24-4. It could have been argued that those

teams were well ahead of everyone else, not just in the Eastern

Conference, but the entire NBA.

Neither made the NBA Finals that season.

Maybe that’s a warning to Indiana and Miami.

When the East’s 15 teams wake up on Christmas morning this year,

only the Pacers, the Heat and the Atlanta Hawks will be on pace to

finish with records of .500 or better. The last time things wound

up so bleak in the East was 1971-72, when only Boston and New York

finished with winning records. Of course, back then, the conference

had just eight teams.

By any measure, the East is Least right now, by far.

”The thing about the NBA is, you’re trying to build the right

habits each and every day, then it’s the teams that are playing the

best and are the healthiest going into the playoffs,” Chicago

coach Tom Thibodeau said. ”So that’s what you’re aiming for, to

continue to improve – and anything could happen.”

One thing for sure, outside of Indiana and Miami, there’s plenty

of room for improvement in the East.

Entering Monday, the Atlantic Division leaders were the Toronto

Raptors, fresh off a surprise win at Oklahoma City that left them a

mere 11-14 overall. Combined, teams in the East are winning 44

percent of their games so far; teams out West, 56 percent. Take

away the Heat and Pacers (a combined 42-11 entering Monday), and

the rest of the East is a putrid 135-214.

And it looks inevitable that some bad teams will be in the

playoffs come April.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that five teams with

losing records will get on the East bracket; that matches the total

of the last six postseasons combined, all on the East side. The

West hasn’t sent a sub-.500 team to the playoffs since 1997.

Nonetheless, those who look like also-rans in the East hardly

sound discouraged.

”We’ve got tough guys in here,” Toronto’s Kyle Lowry said.

”No matter what’s happening, we’re going to keep playing and

trying to get it done.”

It tends to happen that way.

Those 27-2 Celtics finished 62-20, and the Cavaliers were 66-16

with the NBA’s best record. Orlando was seven games behind

Cleveland, clearly third-best in the East.

That is, until the playoffs happened. Orlando won a Game 7 in

Boston to reach the East finals, then topped LeBron James and the

Cavaliers in six games for a trip to the NBA Finals. The Los

Angeles Lakers wound up winning the title.

”It’s never easy,” said James, now with the two-time defending

champion Heat. ”We knew that. We never thought it would be.”

There’s also plenty of people still around the Heat organization

who know that the season doesn’t end on Dec. 25. The 82-game

marathon isn’t even to the halfway mark.

Take, for example, Christmas 2003. The Heat had been 0-7 that

season and were just 11-17 at the holiday break. On Feb. 10 of that

season, they were 21-32. On March 2, 25-36. At the finish: 42-40,

not just good enough for the playoffs, but good enough for

home-court in one round and ultimately a trip to the East

semifinals.

That’s why Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is not only a staunch

defender of the East – young teams are going to get better in a

hurry, he said – but also insists that the race is a long way from

being classified a two-horse affair.

”You hear all that talk about the Eastern Conference and how

down it is this year,” Spoelstra said. ”That’s really from a

simple perspective and you’re not really looking at it with any

depth at all. That’s just the average, uninformed voice out there.

If you really looked at it in-depth … you see about three or four

teams that have that type of potential.”

Toronto won at Oklahoma City, something no one else has done

this season. Boston won in Miami. Detroit won in Indiana and Miami.

Brooklyn and New York probably can’t stay this bad – among the very

worst in the East – all season.

There’s still plenty of time for a race. Or if nothing else,

some surprises.

”It’s a long season, you know, and teams that have injuries

now, they get healthy as they go along,” said Thibodeau, whose

Bulls have lost Derrick Rose for probably another entire season

with yet another injury. ”Anything could happen at the end.”

True, but right now it doesn’t look good.

AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this

report.