Joel is the newest writer to hit the pine for NBAMate. A basketball tragic who lives and breathes the NBA and sees the world through his green-tinted Celtics glasses. When he’s not out balling, you can find him rambling on endlessly about how good Larry Bird and Bill Russell would be in today’s game. It’s not an obsession, so he tells me…

The extravaganza and theatrics of the All-Star Weekend are done and dusted. The drama of the trade deadline is over. Finally, we have some peace and quiet to ponder the road ahead for the 2010-2011 season, and of course, start thinking about the real season. The playoffs. Here’s a look at the major players and potential shakers in the Eastern and Western Conference down the home stretch.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Boston- Sit atop the Eastern Conference but many are questioning their status as favourites after curiously trading Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to the Thunder for Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic. What makes it mystifying was Doc’s claim that the starting five had never lost a playoff series – why shake up that five? They have also traded back-up bigs and rookies, Semih Erden and Luke Harangody leaving a space for whom many believe Troy Murphy will fill. However, they should still be more than capable with Shaq, KG and Jermaine O’Neal with Glen Davis taking an even more prominent role as the potential sixth man of the year. Of course this all depends on chemistry and health. Scary thought; is Sheed coming back?

Miami - Lebron and Wade have been such a synergy this year that both are MVP candidates. Miami biggest weakness is still its lack of a center which will be exposed in the playoffs with a more half-court oriented game. But if they can obtain a center through a buyout (maybe Troy Murphy) then a trip to the Finals is looking likely. What also remains to be seen is whether Miami’s biggest threat – the Celtics – will have disrupted their own chemistry by making the Perkins/Robinson trade.

Chicago – Tom Thibodeau has turned this team into genuine contenders in the East despite several key injuries throughout the season. Undoubtedly Derrick Rose is this season’s MVP with an improved jump shot and defense. With Joakim Noah set to return this week, watch Derrick Rose to lead the Bulls to a serious push in the East. Rose can get to the line at will, which will suit the physicality of the playoffs.

Orlando -The Magic went 16-9 before trading for Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas, Earl Clark and Hedo Turkoglu. Since then they have gone 20-13. Despite replacing half of its starting line-up, the Magic still remain as one the favourites in the playoffs. It shows how valuable Dwight Howard is to the Magic and their fortunes. For that reason, it is highly surprising how little MVP consideration Dwight has received. The Magic will be a tough first round match up, but it’s hard to see them coming out of the second round with a lack of perimeter defense that will be exploited by Miami, Boston and Chicago.

New York - With the Melo-drama finally over, the Knicks may prove to be the biggest shakers in the East. Although they lost half of their starting line-up of Gallinari, Felton and Chandler, the Knicks have an excellent 1-2 punch in Anthony and Stoudemire, plus Chauncey Billups, a seasoned veteran with strong leadership. With Amare in the post, Melo may not get as many touches but will still dominate as the court is parted open like the Red Sea.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

San Antonio -The Spurs currently sit atop the Western conference with a revamped up-tempo offense. But don’t believe for a second that Popovich doesn’t know that defense is the key to winning championships. Somehow the Spurs have gone unnoticed in obtaining the league’s best record while preserving Duncan for the playoffs suggesting that the best may be to come. Will be interesting to see if the Spurs can maintain 1st place with Tony Parker out 2-4 weeks with a calf injury.

Dallas – The perennial chokers of the NBA have been retuned with Tyson Chandler directing the defense from the back. Despite losing Caron Butler to injury for the rest of the season, the Mavs haven’t lost a step, currently sitting second in the West. A zone defense that the Mavs utilise doesn’t usually suit playoff basketball. However, last year Phoenix showed that it could be used to a certain level for success. The key is who will step up with Dirk and Kidd in the playoffs?

LA Lakers- The team to beat despite an underachieving regular season record. With back-to-back championships and three consecutive Finals appearances, Phil Jackson knows exactly what it takes to win a championship or two or eleven. The Lakers are willing to sacrifice the regular season to rest Kobe and Bynum. Ron Artest is still highly capable in defending star players when he is interested

Oklahoma City - In last year’s playoffs, the Thunder took the Lakers to six games despite being overmatched by the Lakers forward line. In facing the Spurs, Mavs and Lakers, they got the coveted big men they were seeking in last second trades with the Celtics and Bobcats for Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. Plus they have some guy called Kevin Durant. The conference dark horse.

Portland – The most injury depleted team in the league. It is astonishing that the Blazers remain competitive on a nightly basis, let alone in the race for playoffs. Despite being inexcusably left off the All-Star team, LaMarcus Aldridge has been an inspiration in leading this team with a career year. He is averaging his highest numbers with 22.4 points, 9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. Aldridge deserves substantial MVP consideration. Furthermore, they acquired Gerald Wallace, which gives them a strong defender. Depending on the health of Brandon Roy and Marcus Camby, this team could give the West a little shake up.


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