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Eastern Conference playoff race

Derrick Rose has been injury prone this season, but that hasn't stopped the Bulls from building the best record in the East. Will Chicago be able to hold off Miami for the conference's best record?

Our 5-on-5 crew answers that question and more.

1. Fact or Fiction: The Bulls will finish with the East's best record.

Dan Feldman, Piston Powered: Fact. I still like Miami over Chicago in a playoff series and I guess for the remainder of the regular season, too. But a three-game lead at this point means much more than most realize. The Heat don't have much time to make up that ground.

Brett Koremenos, Hoopspeak: Fact. The Bulls currently hold a three-game lead over Miami in the standings and have arguably the easier of the two remaining schedules ahead of them. The only thing that could possibly cost the Bulls is dropping a couple winnable games while working Derrick Rose back into the lineup after he's fully recovered from his groin injury.

Jeremy Schmidt, Bucksketball: Fact. Chicago is a step ahead of Miami defensively. That's kept the Bulls moving right along without Derrick Rose and it will carry them until he returns. Consistent, dominant defensive efforts rule the day in the regular season.

Robert Silverman, Knickerblogger: Fact. If only because there are nights where the sultry sea breeze blowing off South Beach beckons and the Floridians seem less than wholly devoted to the task at hand. The Bulls, however, are genetically incapable of taking their foot off the pedal -- even when last year's MVP is in a fancy suit. That selfsame relentless style may hurt them in the long run, but it should ensure the No. 1 seed.

Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Fact. The Bulls seem to have hit their stride with or without D-Rose. And considering that Miami plays 14 of its final 21 against teams in the playoff race, it should give the Bulls a slim cushion to hold onto the top spot.


2. Fact or Fiction: Chicago and Miami are the only East teams with a shot at the Finals.

Feldman: Absolute fiction. The Bulls and Heat clearly have the best shots, but Orlando could definitely make it, and the 76ers have an outside shot if the top teams play down to them. If the Magic's outside shooters get hot, they could knock off anyone.

Koremenos: Fact. Orlando and Philly occupy the third and fourth spots in the conference, but neither has much of a case. The Magic were just held to a combined 140 points in back-to-back losses to Miami and Chicago, and the Sixers are just 8-13 over their past 21 games.

Schmidt: Fact. It's a two-horse race in the East. Star power wins out come playoff time. The Sixers have had a good season. The Pacers too. And the Hawks and Magic are still relevant. But Chicago's defense and Miami's everything will overwhelm the rest of the East come playoff time.

Silverman: Fact. My heart holds a special place for underdogs, lost causes and fools' errands, but barring a catastrophic injury, we're going to get a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference finals. There will be those who point to the '99 playoffs as an example of the tumult that can occur in a shortened season, but those Pacers and Heat didn't compare to the dominance of these heavyweights.

Wallace: Fiction. The East could feature some very interesting matchups. Yes, Chicago and Miami are the two best teams, but Orlando and Boston -- if relatively healthy -- are as capable of upsetting either of the front-runners as they are of being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.


3. Fact or Fiction: The Celtics will make the playoffs.

Feldman: Fact. Their 3½-game lead, like I wrote above, means more than most acknowledge. It was probably foolish keeping the Big Three together past the trade deadline for the meager reward of a playoff berth, but at least the plan comes with the meager reward of a playoff berth.

Koremenos: Fact ... but barely. While they currently hold a 3½-game lead over the Bucks, the Celtics' schedule is much tougher than Milwaukee's and New York's the rest of the way. And, unlike those two teams, Boston has been very heavily reliant on its four stars to have success. Any injury problems, even if they result in less than a handful of missed games, could be enough to derail their playoff aspirations.

Schmidt: Fact. Boston kept all its veterans and didn't sell on Rajon Rondo at the deadline. Given that and the team's three-game lead on the eight spot, the Celtics should be able to fight off father time for one more season and grab the seventh spot in the East.

Silverman: Fact. If you watched Monday's execrable Celts-Hawks tilt, and even though the Celts are wafer-thin, Boston is still better than any other Eastern Conference team at executing plays at the ends of games. It's a painfully tired cliche, but these cats just know how to win. They'll be the seventh or eighth seed.

Wallace: Fact. Being as though I just classified the Celtics -- if relatively healthy -- as a potentially dangerous team that could be a tough out, I've got them in. They have enough experience and talent to pull it together and get into the postseason tournament.


4. Fact or Fiction: The Bucks will make the playoffs.

Feldman: Fiction. I answer that way begrudgingly, knowing Milwaukee has won five straight and has just added two solid players in exchange for a pair of non-contributors. But there's still that whole matter of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis playing well together, which affects both Milwaukee's offense and defense significantly. This race will be close.

Koremenos: Fiction. Milwaukee's schedule is by far the softest of the three teams fighting for the final two playoff spots, but the key to the Bucks' quest will be how they fare in their two remaining matchups against both Boston and New York. If the Bucks can sweep all four, they will be in the driver's seat. If they drop three or more, they will most likely see their postseason dreams fall by the wayside.

Schmidt: Fact. Milwaukee's second-half schedule isn't too difficult, as last week's games against the Raptors, Nets, Cavs and Warriors illustrated. The recent additions of Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh and the loss of zero rotation players will only help.

Silverman: Fiction. Even though they didn't give up any rotation players, I (and I may be in the minority here) think acquiring Monta Ellis is going to turn out to be a colossal mistake. Either he or Jennings is going to pout about the number of touches on offense, and Scott Skiles won't be happy with the shot selection between the two of them. Nor do I think Drew Gooden and Ersan Illyasova can continue to play at this level.

Wallace: Fiction. Credit these role players for performing well beyond expectations this season, but I think the Bucks' combination of attrition and lack of size will catch up with them in the end. It'll go down to the wire, but they'll fall just short.


5. Fact or Fiction: The Knicks will make the playoffs.

Feldman: Fact. Three good games aren't enough to prove Mike Woodson has fixed the Knicks, but if they think he has, that might be enough. New York can field a complete and impressive lineup, and that team -- if it has put behind the petty problems that tend to engulf losing outfits -- should make the playoffs in the East.

Koremenos: Fact. Thanks to the coaching change, an engaged Melo should help New York successfully navigate relatively mild scheduling waters toward one of the final two spots in the East. As mentioned before, the Knicks' fate will also depend quite a bit on the outcome of the two matchups versus the Bucks. It's important to note, though, that any injury that sidelines Tyson Chandler for more than a few games would be a death knell for the Knicks' hopes of playing into May.

Schmidt: Fiction. The Knicks have a more difficult second-half schedule than the Bucks and if they lose to the Bucks once more (two more meetings), they'll have lost that tiebreaker too. It's going to be New York's isolation unit battling Milwaukee's teamwork-focused squad in a battle for the eighth spot.

Silverman: Fact. The Bockers have had more personalities than Sybil, but it looks (fingers crossed, knocking on wood) like they're finally settling in under the firm fist of Mike Woodson, Dean of Discipline. That said, of the final three candidates for the last two spots, they've got the highest ceiling and the highest probability of spontaneous combustion.

Wallace: Fact. When it's all said and done, two improbable men will get credit for pushing the Knicks into the playoffs -- and they are not Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Instead, Knicks fans can thank guard Jeremy Lin and interim coach Mike Woodson for sparking the team when the season was almost a lost cause.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Michael Wallace writes for ESPN.com. Dan Feldman, Brett Koremenos, Robert Silverman and Jeremy Schmidt contribute to the TrueHoop Network.

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