But the bullies just referenced make up the final four seeds in the current Eastern Conference playoff rankings. OK, so they've only been pushing other teams around on the limited basis that I've traced all the way back to the start of the calendar year. Chew on this. Since Jan. 1, the fearsome foursome — Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat — have combined to win 40 games and lose a measly 23. Not bad. Those numbers seem considerably more impressive when I point out that the Cavs, C’s, Magic and Hawks are a combined 36-25 over the same stretch.
I’m not proposing that you anticipate LeBron James and his cronies walking off early (sans handshake) for a second consecutive postseason, but it's nice to think the EC's opening playoff round could be almost slouch-proof. Anyway, now that it's been determined the Eastern Conference may not have to hang its collective head with the shame of fielding multiple sub-.500 playoff teams, it's our responsibility to figure out how this has happened.
Let's start with the fifth-seed Toronto Raptors, who are riding a five-game winning streak and have won 10 of their 15 dates since New Year's Day. The five-game streak includes four home victories and triumphs over the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. No need for cartwheels. However, the Raptors also took down the Los Angeles Lakers and the aforementioned Heat.
Not exactly a gauntlet, but commendable. A quick check of more significant numbers reminds us that the Raptors are last in the league for defensive efficiency, surrendering 112 points to the opposition per 100 possessions. But they've been a bit stingier of late, stingy enough to hold foes to reasonable totals while their relatively efficient offense (fourth in the NBA) gets to work.
The blame for better defense can be traced to an injury sustained by point guard Jose Calderon, something of a turnstile on defense, and the subsequent increase in minutes for the more hard-nosed Jarrett Jack. While Jack has been providing more resistance at the front of the Raptors' defense, finding more time for Sonny Weems enabled Toronto to do a better job of containing the league's crowd of monster wing scorers.
I also can't overlook how newcomer Hedo Turkoglu is starting to blend with superstar Chris Bosh and shot-chucking 7-footer Andrea Bargnani.