Twice a week, Knicks writers Ian Begley and Jared Zwerling will share with you their insights and the latest news about the other teams in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
Here’s Zwerling’s breakdown:
The Latest: For the first time in almost 14 months, the Bulls dropped back-to-back games (April 1 and 2), due to drop-offs defensively in the second half. But they’ve been recently without their leader and reigning MVP Derrick Rose, who’s missed the past 10 games with a serious right groin injury. How serious? Last week, he said, “[When the injury occurred], I was actually bleeding. My groin was bleeding, but now it’s healed. It’s just scar tissue and it’s pretty hard trying to get that to move around.” The good news for the Bulls is that they’ll likely be back at full strength later this week. Rose’s recently hobbled backcourt buddy, Richard Hamilton (shoulder), returned on Monday, and the point guard resumed practice on Wednesday, even taking contact, and is a gametime decision for Thursday against the Celtics. The Bulls also have a lighter schedule (in terms of fewer games and rest time) looking ahead until the finish line. As of right now, it’s looking like a Knicks-Bulls first-round matchup, and if that’s the case, combo guard Iman Shumpert will automatically become the most important defensive player in the series.
Injury Report: Rose (groin; doubtful)
Upcoming Opponents: Celtics, Knicks, Knicks, Heat, Pistons, Wizards, Bobcats, Heat, Mavericks, Pacers and Cavaliers
Seed Prediction: First
The Latest: After suffering their worst loss of the season to the Celtics on Sunday, 91-72, the Heat rebounded in a big way on Tuesday against another playoff competitor, the Sixers, 99-93. Swingman LeBron James recovered from an eight-game scoring slump to put up 41 points, and he said afterwards, “I needed to take control a little bit more.” That was especially true with shooting guard Dwyane Wade out. As it looks now, the second-seeded Heat would play the Sixers in the first round — a rematch of last year, in which the Heat ran away with the sweep. That’s already happened this season. Overall, the Heat have struggled much more on the road this season, as evident by their 16-12 record (in comparison, they’re 22-2 at home, the best record in the league). That’s a positive sign for the Knicks if they do face the Heat in the first round, because many opposing players around the league consider Madison Square Garden one of the toughest places to play as a visiting team.
Injury Report: Wade (knee; questionable) and small foward Mike Miller (ankle; questionable)
Upcoming Opponents: Thunder, Grizzlies, Pistons, Celtics, Bulls, Bobcats, Knicks, Nets, Raptors, Bulls, Wizards, Rockets, Celtics and Wizards
Seed Prediction: Second
The Latest: Those two back-to-back losses to the Knicks on March 16 and 17 were the last straw for the Pacers’ best player, swingman Danny Granger, who scored nine and 11 points, respectively. From the start of the month up until that point, Granger was only averaging 15.3 points per game on 41.3 percent shooting. Since then, as the Pacers have changed course, winning seven of their last 10 games, Granger has upped his scoring to 21.6 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting, including 26-for-47 (55.3 percent) from 3-point range. In the Pacers’ 112-104 win over the Knicks on Tuesday night, Granger was a fourth-quarter downtown killer and he finished 5-for-8 from that distance in the game. In addition to star players needing to step up their game at this critical stage of the season, that goes for second units as well. That’s exactly what’s going on with the Pacers. While Granger is on, the Pacers’ bench has been averaging 34.8 points per game during their 7-3 stretch — eighth-best in the league (in comparison, the Knicks’ average has been 28.7). What’s also in the Pacers’ favor is their health (no current injuries) and their fairly easy schedule the rest of the way.
Injury Report: N/A
Upcoming Opponents: Wizards, Thunder, Celtics, Raptors, Cavaliers, Cavaliers, Bucks, Timberwolves, 76ers, Bucks, 76ers, Pistons and Bulls
Seed Prediction: Third
The Latest: If there’s one thing that players around the league can agree on about the Celtics, it’s this: No matter how up and down they may start the season or in games, they always finish strong. And that’s just what they’ve started to do in their last five games, heading into the final month of the season. After winning their first four against mostly marginal teams, they showed they were not fooling anyone on April 1 by handing the Heat their worst loss of the season, 91-72. Not only has point guard Rajon Rondo been simply ridiculous passing the ball, averaging nearly 14 assists per game during the Celtics’ recent winning streak, but his fellow starting five teammates — swingman Paul Pierce, center Kevin Garnett, power forward Brandon Bass and shooting guard Avery Bradley — have all stepped up their scoring. Bradley has been most impressive, averaging 14.6 points per game in Ray Allen’s injury absence. He’s also providing shutdown defense, even limiting Dwyane Wade to 6-for-17 shooting (15 points) on Sunday. The biggest thing going against the aging Cs is their strength of schedule. (See below.)
Injury Report: Ray Allen (ankle; probable), power forward Jeff Green (heart; out for the season), center Jermaine O’Neal (wrist; out for the season) and shooting guard Mickael Pietrus (concussion; out until early or mid-April)
Upcoming Opponents: Spurs, Bulls, Pacers, 76ers, Heat, Hawks, Raptors, Nets, Bobcats, Knicks, Magic, Hawks, Heat and Bucks
Seed Prediction: Fourth
The Latest: Things have been spiraling out of control for the Magic since they touched down in New York City on March 27, the day before they got completely trounced by the Knicks. Reportedly, center Dwight Howard and Co. partied to the wee hours of the morning, which did not sit well with head coach Stan Van Gundy, who called out his players a couple of days later. Since the Knicks loss, the Magic have dropped three straight, with Howard missing the last two because of back spasms. Meanwhile, reports coming out of Orlando are saying that Howard is demanding that Van Gundy be fired. Hmmm. Whether or not Howard is really not content with who’s calling the plays, if he’s not on the court, the Magic won’t get out of the first round. His dominance inside (20.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per game) has enabled his perimeter teammates to make the most 3-pointers this season (553), with the third-highest accuracy (38.0 percent). As for their home game on Thursday night against the Knicks, Superman, who’s been a villain to even his own fans with his indecisiveness this season, is being called questionable.
Injury Report: Howard (back; questionable), point guard Jameer Nelson (calf; questionable) and power forward Ryan Anderson (ankle; questionable)
Upcoming Opponents: Knicks, 76ers, Pistons, Wizards, Hawks, Cavaliers, 76ers, Celtics, Jazz, Nuggets, Bobcats and Grizzlies
Seed Prediction: Sixth
The Latest: The Hawks’ spirits were so high at practice on Wednesday that power forward Ivan Johnson even sang “Happy Birthday” to head coach Larry Drew. There’s a big reason why. Their upcoming schedule is the easiest one out of all the teams currently in the East playoff picture. Their overall opponents’ win percentage is .429. Here’s a complete breakdown entering Tuesday’s play (from the AJC):
The biggest thing plaguing the Hawks, however, is that they struggle against teams over .500. They’re 3-6 in those games in March and April, with their last loss coming against the 76ers on March 31. But one of the wins was over the Knicks, 100-90, the night before. If swingman Joe Johnson (19.3 points per game since March 23) can play more routinely to the level that power forward Josh Smith has been demonstrating lately (25.4 ppg since that date), the Hawks will be extra dangerous heading into the playoffs. For the Knicks, the takeaway from this is that they need a legitimate and consistent second scorer after Carmelo Anthony — just like the better teams in the league have.
Injury Report: Center Al Horford (pectoral; out until mid-April), swingman Tracy McGrady (illness; questionable), point guard Jannero Pargo (appendix; probable) and power forward Vladimir Radmanovic (back; doubtful)
Upcoming Opponents: Bobcats, Pistons, Bobcats, Celtics, Magic, Raptors, Raptors, Pistons, Celtics, Knicks, Clippers and Mavericks
Seed Prediction: Fifth
The Latest: While the 76ers remain the top defensive team in the league, holding opponents to 88.0 points per game, they’ve lost their mojo on offense during their recent 7-10 stretch. Their biggest player issue involves small forward Andre Iguodala’s tendinitis in his left knee, which could make the team’s best versatile playmaker (12.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game) a gametime decision for the rest of the season. (He’s also dealing with a left eye contusion, suffered against the Heat on Tuesday night.) Off the bench, power forward Thaddeus Young (12.6 points per game) has lost some of his explosiveness, and those who cover the team say he looks fatigued. Young has scored in double figures in only two of his previous seven games. On the team front, their inability to close out tight games is most concerning, which is a skill needed in intense playoff competition. On the flip side, the Knicks have the the league’s second-best fourth-quarter scoring margin (+2.1), right after their potential first-round matchup, the Bulls (+2.7). In comparison, the 76ers are at -0.3, a mark that puts them near the bottom of the league.
Injury Report: Iguodala (eye; questionable)
Upcoming Opponents: Raptors, Magic, Celtics, Nets, Raptors, Nets, Magic, Pacers, Cavaliers, Pacers, Nets, Bucks and Pistons
Seed Prediction: Eighth (the Knicks will take over the seventh spot)
The Latest: Since the Bucks traded away center Andrew Bogut to Golden State for shooting guard Monta Ellis, they haven’t quite figured it out on the court. Ellis is still learning how to play off of point guard Brandon Jennings, and that’s a good thing for the Knicks. The Bucks are not a very strong defensive team (98.4 points allowed per game), so if the Knicks can continue to take care of business on that end, and put away teams — something they’ve been doing lately, except in the Pacers loss on Tuesday — they won’t have to worry about the Bucks creeping up on them.
Injury Report: Small forward Carlos Delfino (groin; questionable), center Kwame Brown (shoulder; likely out for the season) and point guard Beno Udrih (hand; questionable)
Upcoming Opponents: Cavaliers, Bobcats, Trail Blazers, Thunder, Knicks, Pistons, Pacers, Wizards, Pacers, Nets, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics
Seed Prediction: Ninth (they will not make the playoffs)
You can follow Jared Zwerling on Twitter.