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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, February 11, 2012 at 11:11 PM

With the Chicago Bulls visiting the Boston Celtics Sunday afternoon on ABC, followed by the Miami Heat at the Atlanta hawks Sunday Night on ESPN, this seemed like the ideal time to check in on the NBA Eastern Conference’s playoff picture.

Even though we haven’t reached the midway point of the shortened season yet, it’s pretty clear in general how things are going to shape up barring injuries to superstar players. Let’s run through the Eastern standings to set the tone for a big day in that conference. Note that we’ll be using the won-lost records through Friday Night’s games because of publication deadlines.

TOP TWO

Chicago 23-6

Miami 20-7

Chicago and Miami are still the two best teams in the East. And, that’s been true even with both teams dealing with injury issues. Derrick Rose is battling a bad back this week. Even when he sits, they crush people! Luol Deng missed extended time with an injury. You can barely tell in the standings even though he’s an impact player on both sides of the floor. Dwyane Wade was in street clothes for a few weeks. Miami just let LeBron James carry a bigger load and everything worked out fine.

At full strength, these two teams are head and shoulders above the Eastern field. With key players injured, it still looks like a shoulder. Maybe that would change in the playoffs if Rose or James were to be sidelined. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, the superpowers are pretty clear.

NEXT THREE

Philadelphia 18-7

Atlanta 18-7

Indiana 17-9

Philadelphia has been getting a lot of media run as a potential championship threat. That’s an indictment of a lazy media rather than the Sixers actually becoming a superpower. We talked about this several days ago when looking at Wins Minus Home Games played. Philadelphia’s had one of the easiest schedules imaginable this year, with 18 home games and just 9 road games. They also had a schedule frontloaded with the dregs of the East. Luckily, home losses this week to San Antonio and the LA Clippers splashed cold water on the faces of the delusional.

Don’t get us wrong…we like Philadelphia, particularly as favorites vs. the worst teams! But, they’re a contender to be a #3 seed in the East…NOT a contender to win the East in a playoff structure. Two one-sided losses to Miami in recent weeks has helped make that clear.

Indiana is a team to keep your eyes on because they’ve had a very unfriendly schedule. They’ve only played 9 home games and 17 road games! If the Sixers have a half game lead in the overall standings with that imbalance, what’s going to happen when the schedules balance?

Here’s the home/road split for those three teams through Friday’s action:

Philadelphia: 18 home games and 9 road games

Atlanta: 13 home games and 14 road games

Indiana: 9 home games and 17 road games

If you are listening to or reading a pundit who HASN’T NOTICED THIS…please ban that pundit from your television or newspaper.

Here’s a quick look at strength of schedule ratings from Jeff Sagarin at USA Today for these three teams.

Indiana 18th

Atlanta 24th

Philadelphia 29th

There are 30 teams in the NBA, so Philadelphia has the second easiest schedule to date (only Boston’s has been easier). Eastern teams will have a huge break here overall because so many doormats are in the East. Remember that in your Power Ratings…when you’re tempted to make Philadelphia one of the best four teams in the league. Once they face the West, they’re obviously not that good.

That’s five playoff spots that are relatively locked in. Who’s left?

NEXT TWO

Orlando 16-11

Boston 14-12

These two are perennial playoff teams…though neither is currently scaring the pants off league powers. Orlando has been inconsistent, and may ultimately trade Dwight Howard well before the postseason anyway. We just mentioned that Boston has had a gift schedule. They’re not a sure thing to be at .500 once their home/road split (17-9) equalizes. Yes, Rajon Rondo is back from an injury…but the team may have been playing better without him.

There’s a shortage of winning teams in the East this year relatively speaking. The last spot will go to a team that currently has a losing record. Boston could slump on their equalizing road trip and still end up in the seventh spot…and probably wouldn’t drop below eighth.

THE FIGHT FOR THE 8TH AND FINAL SPOT

Milwaukee 12-14

New York 12-15

Cleveland 10-15

For most of the year, this was kind of a laughingstock race. But, New York just got red-hot thanks to “Linsanity.” We don’t expect an inexperienced point guard who hasn’t faced tough defenders yet to lead the Knicks to greatness. But, their prospects for making the playoffs are now a lot better. Will Carmelo Anthony mess everything up when he returns by being a ball hog?

Milwaukee is also playing better lately since they sat Stephen Jackson. It’s amazing how long it’s taken league management to realize that scorers who hog the ball and don’t consistently hustle on defense are net negatives. We’ve been telling you this for about a decade online. It took Dallas winning a championship with team ball to convince anybody. Both the Bucks and Knicks are capable of playing winning basketball the rest of the way and reaching the postseason.

Cleveland lost Kyrie Irving to injury this week. They’re barely any good when he’s healthy, and the margin of error just got much smaller with the surges from the Bucks and Knicks.

Here’s the schedule this week for when teams in today’s discussion are playing each other…

SUNDAY

Chicago at Boston on ABC

Miami at Atlanta on ESPN

MONDAY

Miami at Milwaukee

TUESDAY

Miami at Indiana (third game in three days for the Heat)

WEDNESDAY

Philadelphia at Orlando

Indiana at Cleveland

THURSDAY

Boston at Chicago on TNT

FRIDAY

Milwaukee at Orlando

Miami at Cleveland

SUNDAY

Orlando at Miami

It’s never too early to start thinking about the playoffs. So, do whatever research you can with these games while also monitoring the West and all the great stuff going on in college basketball.

We know it’s hard for do-it-yourselfers to stay on top of everything. We do our best to help you out here in the NOTEBOOK. If you’re serious about making big money as a handicapper and legal sports bettor…it’s best to seek out help from JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK! We have great rates daily and for the rest of the season in the baskets. You can go through MARCH MADNESS or the NBA Playoffs at a great rate. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

We’ll be back with you tomorrow to talk about Syracuse-Louisville on Big Monday and run some numbers from marquee showdowns played in college and pro action this weekend. We’ve hit the stretch run in college baskets in the wake of Rivalry Week. Valentine’s Week is going to remind you how much you love making money on the hardwood!

Thanks for being with us today for our look at the Eastern Conference playoff picture. We’ll pick a day very soon to do the same thing in the convoluted but very exciting Western Conference. Football is over…which means you need to jump feet first into the baskets. GERONIMO!

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