5 Burning NBA Questions: The Atlantic Division

The push this year will come stronger and faster. You can’t work your way into it. There’s no waiting for tomorrow. You have until April 28 – that’s less than two months – to work your way into the postseason. If you’re in the East, there’s hope. Outside of three or four teams, everyone else is one big injury away from a five-game slide and a shot at extinction. Outside of Miami and Chicago, get too big-headed and you’ll be slain. Lose your confidence and you’ll take up residence next to Washington and Charlotte.

Questions abound for everyone, but each team has specific discrepancies they must address if they are going to maximize their potential. We hit you with the Northwest earlier today. Now, here are five burning questions for the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division.

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Defensively, the Celtics are still No. 3 in the NBA in efficiency, a product of a mentality that’s heard to break. Even newcomers like Keyon Dooling and Chris Wilcox, once they’re in Boston, they buy into it.

But the same problem they’ve had for the past few years is still there: scoring. Their offensive efficiency is just No. 23 in the NBA, and they have a turnover rate of 27, barely better than dead last in the NBA. With no post presence, and with a point guard who excels at dishing rather than finishing, Boston’s entire offensive game plan revolves around getting Paul Pierce isolation touches, and Ray Allen open looks off screens.

As this season has wore on, Rajon Rondo has actually started getting touches in the post, fascinating because who REALLY wants to double team a 6-1 guard who can’t really score? Alas, Rondo’s best characteristic as a scorer is his ability to contort shots from out of nowhere at the rim. Before last night’s shocking undressing against Kyrie Irving, he was having his best season as a scorer (he’s averaging 14.1 points per game).

With Rondo in the post surrounded by perimeter shooting, it’s a nice wrinkle to have. But hardly a solution.

Their largest problem of all? Their two best scorers line up at the same spots as Miami’s, who also happen to be two of the top five defenders in the world. There are rumors of a Rondo-for-Pau Gasol swap, and while that might not change anything, it would help to balance out Boston’s perimeter-heavy lineup.

After shooting out of the gates at 18-7, the Sixers have sputtered to only three wins since a five-point home win over the Lakers in the first week of the month. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see Detroit, Cleveland and Charlotte are the team’s only Ws during that stretch. Why? For starters, once they stopped doing people early in the season like Gaear did Carl in Fargo, they quickly found out why most organizations would rather have one or two great players rather than five or six good ones: Late in games, you need a pecking order.

Many of Philly’s problems can be traced to the continued absence of Spencer Hawes (he’s expected back on March 16) and the time missed by Elton Brand. Amazingly, they haven’t broken the 100-point mark in over a month. January 23 against Washington was the last time they did it, and YOU BETTER score 100 against the Wizards. These injuries have placed too much of a burden on the team’s perimeter players. Andre Iguodala, for one, went multiple games recently without scoring a single fourth quarter bucket.

Brand’s having a dismal season by his standards – 10.6 points, 6.1 rebounds a game – but when you were starting Lavoy Allen and Nikola Vucevic for a brief period, you need help almost as much as you need air.

The only way Philly can advance in the playoffs is by beating a good team. The only way to do that is to develop a fourth quarter rhythm and get healthy. They better start soon.

I made a joke this weekend that the Deron Williams who plays in Jersey and rocks a headband is the evil cousin of the one who grew up in Salt Lake City. He shoots WAY more threes (6.6 a game this year. He had never shot more than five a night before.), is turning the ball over at a personal-worst 4.2 times a night and his shooting percentage has withered away to barely 40 percent. While he’s been scoring more often than Van Wilder lately – 25.8 points a night in his last 10 games – Williams is doing what all great players on bad teams do: Get meaningless numbers.

I doubt the Nets have a chance at the playoffs. But if Brook Lopez keeps playing like he did last night (38 points), and Williams eases off on the joystick just a tad, they have a chance. The question is, who else can step up?

At 10-24, even the eventual return of Andrea Bargnani won’t be enough to turn the Raptors into anything more than a 25-win team. But Toronto fans aren’t so concerned with the playoffs as they are with progress. Il Mago has made progress. The team’s defense – despite falling closer to the middle of the pack (No. 16 in defensive efficiency) as the season has gone on – is definitively better than that toll booth D they’ve played for the past few years. Even Jose Calderon (10.9 points, 8.9 rebounds) is playing his best basketball since 2009, the one year he actually mattered in fantasy.

But what happened to DeMar DeRozan? The third-year swingman’s PER is a dismal 11.77, and his numbers have dropped off across the board from last season. Part of that is a willingness to play further away from the rim. He’s shooting three times as many triples (0.6 a game last year to 1.8 this season), and even as his dimes have stayed the same, his usage rate is at a career-high 22.4. Toronto needs him to make the same jump as he did during the final months of 2011. If he does, the team comes back for 2012-13 with a couple of near All-Star talents in DeRozan and Bargnani, hopefully Jonas ValančiÅ«nas and a probable top-10 pick in this summer’s lottery.

You can’t get anymore obvious than this: Working the big names back into the lineup, and how it affects Jeremy Lin is what’ll make the difference between a long ride in the postseason, and another quick exit.

Already since the return of Carmelo Anthony, you’ve seen the good and the bad. Against Miami, the Heat attacked Lin like he was a slab of meat in a piranha pool, and Anthony didn’t have the rhythm to produce more than 19 points on 20 shots. But in a 17-point win over Atlanta the previous night, Lin and Anthony made enough magic that the starters sat out most of the fourth quarter.

At 97.9, they have the worst offensive efficiency of any playoff contender in the league, and even though it’s improved with Lin at the point, the re-integration of Anthony is key.

What are the biggest issues on these teams?

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