Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 28, 2013

NBA’s Eastern Conference Power Shift Is Complete

Wednesday evening brought surprising results in at least two NBA arenas. At the United Center in Chicago, the Miami Heat lost a game. Meanwhile at Quicken Loans Arena, a six hour drive to the east in Cleveland, the Boston Celtics won one. The fact that both results can be counted as unexpected is but the latest proof of just how thoroughly the power structure of the NBA’s Eastern Conference has changed.

As even casual fans know the defending champion Heat have been playing like they might well never lose another game again, piling win upon win as they closed in on the league record of 33 consecutive victories, set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. But Jerry West and the ghost of Wilt Chamberlain can rest easy. Wednesday night the Heat’s pursuit of history fell six games short, their winning streak stopped at 27 by the Chicago Bulls, 101-97.

Still the Heat are on track to win 65 games this season. While short of the 72-10 record posted by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the .789 winning percentage represented by that many victories will place this Miami team in elite company in the annals of NBA history and easily be the best regular season record in franchise history. With just three weeks and eleven games left in their 82-game schedule, and with Dwayne Wade back in the lineup after missing a couple of games with a bruised knee, it would probably be unwise to bet against Miami finishing with a win total short of the mid-sixties.

Miami’s lead in the East Conference naturally ballooned while they went more than seven weeks without a loss. They are the only team to have already clinched their division, and they need just one more win or a single loss by the New York Knicks to claim the conference crown for the first time in eight years.

This is the third season since LeBron James decamped from Cleveland to team up with Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach. Due largely to the self-indulgent and over-hyped way in which James announced his departure from the Cavaliers, the suddenly superstar-laden Heat instantly became the team that fans of all 29 other franchises loved to hate. There was plenty of rejoicing when the Dallas Mavericks soundly defeated Miami in six games in the 2011 NBA Finals. But James has an undeniably engaging personality, and has shown the good sense to express some remorse over the way he handled his free agency. By the time the Heat won last year’s title there was cheering in locales well beyond the boundaries of Miami-Dade County. This season, as the Heat have steamrolled their way through the heart of the schedule and closed in on their first regular season conference title of the King James era, there is more than just cheering; there is awe.

Pat Riley wasn’t the first NBA General Manager to figure out that if the chemistry was right, putting a group of superstars on the court at the same time could produce terrific results. In the summer of 2007 Danny Ainge engineered two trades that brought first Ray Allen and then Kevin Garnett to Boston, where they joined the Celtics’ Paul Peirce to form the Big Three. The immediate result was the largest single-season turnaround in NBA history, as the Celtics improved by 42 games to post a regular season record of 66-16. Boston went on to win its 17th NBA championship, while Peirce was named the MVP of the Finals, Garnett the Defensive Player of the Year, and Ainge the league’s top executive.

While it is true that five seasons later Celtics fans are still waiting to celebrate the team’s 18th title, Boston has been a postseason factor every year. The Celtics have dominated the Atlantic Division, and opened each year’s playoffs at home. They have always made it to at least the second round of the playoffs. In 2010 they took the Lakers to seven games in the Finals, and last season they did the same to Miami in the Conference Finals.

But the era of the Big Three in Boston ended with that loss to Miami last spring. Ray Allen departed for, of all places, South Beach. Ainge made no bold moves to replace him, apparently content to rely on his two remaining superstars and point guard Rajon Rondo, the likely future face of the franchise. But Rondo has yet to mature as either a player or a person, as attested by his frequent ejections. Then just before the season’s midpoint he was lost for the year with a torn ACL. Meanwhile Garnett is approaching his 37th birthday and Peirce is 35. There were rumors at the trade deadline that one or the other might be shipped out, though in the end Ainge again stood pat. Now Garnett is out for at least a week and probably longer with an ankle injury, and the Celtics arrived in Cleveland losers of five straight games and seven of nine.

In the first of the five consecutive losses Boston watched a 17-point second quarter lead over the Heat gradually disappear, eventually turning into a 2-point deficit at the final buzzer. Then after a 0-3 road trip the Celtics returned home to be embarrassed by the New York Knicks, 100-85. On Wednesday it looked to be more of the same as they fell 14 points behind Cleveland. But Boston’s defense stiffened down the stretch and the game seesawed through its final minutes. At the end the Celtics’ hero for one night was Jeff Green. This time last year Green was recovering from heart surgery. Wednesday night he zipped through the Cleveland defense and scored the winning layup as time expired.

The win improves Boston’s record to 37-34, some 19 games behind Miami in the Eastern Conference. As telling as those numbers are about the shift in power, the Division standings speak even louder. Boston’s five year run atop the Atlantic Division is about to end, as the Celtics are 7 ½ games behind the Knicks and 5 ½ back of the Nets. Boston is virtually certain to make the playoffs, mainly because the 76ers, ninth in the Eastern Conference, are a full five games below .500. But the Celtics will likely be the 7th or 8th seed, opening on the road against New York or Miami, two teams that clearly no longer fear the Celtics’ mystique.

Despite the second-longest winning streak in NBA history and their huge Conference lead, there’s no guarantee that LeBron and company will win a second straight championship. As every fan knows anything can happen in a short series; and even if Miami rolls through the first three rounds of the playoffs there will eventually be a worthy opponent from the far deeper Western Conference waiting for them in the Finals. But it will be a shock if any team but the Heat is the Eastern Conference representative once the Finals commence. Meanwhile in Boston, Celtics fans must adjust to a new reality in which their team is just one more squad in the middle of the pack; a bunch of old guys wheezing their way into the playoffs, soon to be dismissed.

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