10 Eastern Conference Game Changers

10 Eastern Conference Game Changers
April 13, 2011, 3:18 pm
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By: Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

(This is the first in a two part NBA Playoff preview. With Part 2 -- a more specific look at the Celtics -- coming Friday)

At this point it's pretty much official: Derrick Rose is your 2011 NBA MVP.

Yeah, you can still make your argument for Dwight Howard, LeBron James or Manu Ginobili (good one, Dr. Jack!), but its a foregone conclusion that, sometime in May, Rose will raise that trophy.

Its a great honor; well deserved, at that. Its a testament to how hard hes worked, and a terrifying development for the rest of the NBA.

Starting Saturday, its also insignificant.

From the moment the playoffs tip-off until the eventual champion's crowned, regular-season accomplishments, even the league MVP, will be as irrelevant as Troy Murphy. Over the last 10 years, only one MVP has won the title (Tim Duncan, 2003). In 2007, Dirk Nowitzki didnt even make it out of the first round. Success is promise to no one.

In the big picture, of course, the MVP will always be remembered. 2011 will forever go down as the season Derrick Rose figured it all out and released holy hell on the NBA. But for now, the details of the last six months pale in comparison to the prospects of the upcoming two.

So, lets end the MVP talk especially since the conversations deadease up a little on past performance, and shift focus to the future.

Lets talk about Eastern Conference Playoffs games changers. Not the 10 best players, per say (although thats certainly a factor), but 10 guys whose presence and performance might have the most to do with which team emerges to take on Memphis in the Finals.

Lets start the countdown . . .

10. Udonis Haslem: The Reinforcement

OK, youre first question: Why the hell is Udonis Haslem on this list?

He hasnt played since November 20. He then rehabbed his injured leg all season, with the expectation hed be ready for the playoffs, but suffered a setback last week and now probably wont play until the second round. Theres a chance he doesnt play at all. After the surgery, Haslem proclaimed there was no chance he wouldnt be back. But now, who knows?

But if the Celtics are allowed to remain positive about Shaquille ONeal, the Heat should be allotted some optimism about Haslem, because truth is that when healthy, Haslem will make an impact, and exactly in the manner Miami needs.

Right now, Miamis enforcer is a 38-year-old who plays seven minutes a night and has reached the second round once in 16 years. And thats fine. Whatever. Juwan Howards had a solid career. You cant hate on the cabbage patch. But in the playoffs the Heat need more. They need to get tougher. And scrappier. They need someone whos been through the grind and won a title. And not as a superstar, but as a role player. Someone who knows how to fit in.

Thats Haslem.

If hes out there, he can help change the attitude of this team. He makes them tougher, and more grittier. He allows Miamis Big Three to go about their business feeling a little better about who has their back.

The situations reminiscent of a Kevin Garnett quote from back in November, after Shaqs 25 point11 rebound performance against the Nets.

When asked about ONeals effect on the Cs, KG said: Its almost like walking to the park and you see the bullies but you have your big brother right there.

Haslem can be Miamis big brother; Howards just their over-the-hill uncle. Theres a big difference, and Haslem can make it. Even if its not until Round 2.

Doesn't hurt that he averaged 14.5 points and 10.5 boards in his two games against Boston.

9. Shaquille ONeal: The Big Infirmary

When Shaq went down in February, he was still an enormous luxury.

Perk was back. Semih Erden was hanging tough. Jermaine ONeal was still expected to be healthy (enough) for the home stretch. If Shaq was there? Fantastic. His presence probably boosted the Celtics from contender to favorite.

But worst-case scenario, Boston was still a top team. Even without Shaq, they were good enough to win it all.

Fast forward to March, and hed become the key to the Celtics success.

In making (and then constantly defending) the trade, Danny and Doc turned Shaq from luxury to necessity. With every explanation of what they did and why they did it, there was always: P.S. This only works if Shaqs healthy. Thats the only way we felt comfortable making this deal.

With Perk and Semih now out of the picture, and JO more occupied with Le Jaunty than Le Celtics, the season was suddenly hanging in the balance of Shaqs failing 39-year-old limbs. Without him, impossible was everything.

Now it's nearly two months after the trade and Bostons expectations have been grounded a little. With every setback, and the ugly scene after his six-minute comeback, faith in Shaq has plateaued. Yeah, you can still pretend that hes part of the plan, but even if he does come back, you know that:

1. He wont consistently give the Cs any more than 20 minutes a night. And even thats being generous. Theres been too much wear and tear, and the playoffs are just too physical, for him to last under any other circumstances.

2. He wont factor much into crunch time. Healthy or not, games will generally be won and lost with him on the bench.

Theres still the feeling that the Celtics cant win without ONeal in the middle, but what was initially, We need him back for the home stretch! and then became We just need him back by the playoffs! has now become We just need him by the Conference Finals!

And moving forward, who knows where it will go.

Watching that game in Chicago last week, you could feel the void left by Shaq. You could see how, even in limited action, he could help the cause against Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. You could see how difficult this will be without him.

But what if the Conference Finals roll around and Shaq still cant consistently contribute? Will the Celtics just fold? Will Boston just lose hope? No, well do what we have for the last two months. Well say: Hey, you know, back on January 8, Shaq played 20 minutes against Chicago, the Bulls didnt even have Joakim Noah, and the Celtics lost. On November 5, the Shaq didnt play at all against Chicago and the Celtics won. You see, nothings automatic! And now that Bynums banged up in LA, maybe Shaq wont be as essential for the Finals, either!

And maybe he wont be.

But were not there yet.

8. Ray Allen: The Dagger

Paul Pierce isnt on this list. Heading into this postseason, Pierce is almost a victim of his own consistency. And by that I mean, there aren't too many questions about what he'll give Boston in playoffs. There's been no question about Pierce all season. He's the one guy in that locker room who been immune to the late-season malaise. Not that he's been perfect, but he's been far more consistent and efficient than he has in some time. Maybe Since 2008. Paul Pierce will be there in the playoffs. There's no question.

But Ray Allens been off lately, and the worst part about it is that no can quite put their finger on the problem. Every one has an opinion. Hes not getting the ball. Hes not being aggressive. Hes dribbling too much. Hes just in a slump. There are a ton of theories, but still no answers. And thats at least a little unsettling. But then again, he's Ray Allen! You still have faith. One bad month doesnt discount a Hall of Fame career. But he'll head into the playoffs without having snapped out of that slump (or whatever we want to call it).

We know what theyre getting from Paul Pierce, but it's what they get from Ray that might end up making the biggest difference.

7. Dwight Howard: The Huh?

Last Wednesday in Charlotte, Dwight Howard was called for a 10-second violation at the foul line. Appalled by the call, he tossed ball in the opposite direction of the refs, was hit with his league-leading 18th technical, and was suspended for last Sundays game against the Bulls.

In the process, he summed up everything I still dont understand about Howard.

I'll explain: Every time Howard goes to the foul line, hes dangerously close to violating the 10-second rule. He pushes the envelope on every single attempt. Its ridiculous. It makes no sense. No one needs that long especially not a guy whos shooting 59. Howards your friend who sucks at putting but still take 15 seconds reading the green before every shot. It can drive you nuts. But thats beside the point.

The fact is, even if the refs arent completely consistent in how they choose to enforce the 10-second rule, Howard should never be surprised when they do. Regardless of the situation, it should never be Oh my God, really?! I cant believe they called that!? It just comes with the territory.

Yet somehow, on Wednesday, Howard was so shocked and disgusted by the whistle that he not only willingly gave up a T, but also Sundays game against Chicago. He had to know that throwing that ball would equal a T, and he definitely had to know that a T would equal a suspension. Yes, maybe the Bulls game wasnt as important as it could have been. Still, he should be out there.

But something didnt click. Theres still some sort of whacky mental gap standing between Howard and his full potential (as a player and a leader), and if the Magic are to overcome all the commotion of this past season and make a run back to the Finals, then that needs to change. It has to click for Howard. Best defender in the league. that's not even close. His offense is finally showing promise. He's developed moves and looks more comfortable than he has . . . since ever. He's just looking for the total package. He might not find it until he's already left Orlando in the dust, but when he does, it will be scary.

6. Carlos Boozer: The Second Banana

On December 3, the Bulls fell 104-92 to the Celtics and dropped to 9-8 on the season. Its crazy to think about think now, but things weren't always so easy for Thibs and the MVP.

But after that Celtics game, the Bulls turned it around. They won 14 of 16 games and never looked back. Coincidentally, or probably not, this run was accompanied by Carlos Boozers return to the court.

After missing the first month with whatever really happened to his hand, Boozer made his Bulls debut the game before Boston, playing 21 minutes in a loss to the Magic. He played another 21 in that loss to the Celtics, before officially taking the training wheels off the the following night in a win against Houston. In that game, he recorded 25 points and 9 boards in 31 minutes. Two nights later, it was 29 and 12 in 36 minutes against the Thunder. He's was back. And the Bulls were off.

Boozer helped take them to that next level.

With Roses ridiculous season, its been hard to look at Chicago as anything more than his team. There's the temptation to just see them as Rose, and a very solid supporting cast. And maybe it should be that way. But Boozers far more than a supporting cast contributor.

You could say the same thing about Chris Bosh, but his role changed in Miami. Boozer can still play his game without stepping on Roses toes.

5. Kevin Garnett: The Revival

Kevin Garnetts effectiveness cant be measured with stats.

Look at it this way: He averaged 14.9 points and 8.9 this season. Last season, he averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. Stats-wise, the two seasons are comparable. In reality, they werent even close.

You watched the games. You saw him struggle through last year, as he dealt with his knee. You saw him fight losing battles for rebounds and low-post position. You saw missed assignments, missed lay-ups and all sorts of frustration. The numbers were still respectable, but the game was off. The real KG wasnt there.

Then this past October, he was back. The numbers were better, sure, but that wasnt what impressed you the most. It was the way he was moving. It was the way he covered the court, crashed the boards and had a hand in nearly every loose ball. He was creating chaos.

One of KGs greatest strengths has always been his motor. That no matter whats going on or how long hes been out there, he never takes his foot off the gas and just runs you into the ground. When this season got underway, that motor was back, and so was KG. Not quite the 2008 version, but much closer than we ever imagined.

But for the last month or so, that KG hasnt quite been there.

The mere suggestion of this drives some people nuts. What do you mean? He's still putting up the numbers.

Right, but with KG its not always about numbers. Hell be able to hit an open jump shot until hes 50. Hell be able to score 14 points a night for far longer than hes willing to stick around. KGs just as much about the eye test than he is a numbers game. And over this last frustrating month for the Cs, he hasnt passed it. Not entirely. Not compared to earlier in the year. The motors been running a little low. He hasnt attacked the boards with the same ferocity. Hasnt been as ubiquitous on defense. He hasnt been that guy from October and November.

That could very well be part of the plan.

I dont think anyone would be shocked to find out that KG had been preserving himself for the last month or so. He knows his body better than anyone. He knows with Perk not there to help anchor the D, and the attitude how much more hell be leaned on. He knows what a long, hard trip the Celtics are in for. Hes just pacing himself.

Or at least Boston hopes thats the reason.

4. Dwyane Wade: The Other Half

Its been a long road, but the Heat made it in one piece. They finished with a better record than the Celtics, a fact that obviously tells two stories, but one you never thought possible a few months ago. But with the playoffs set to begin, they're still looking for that perfect harmony. Or any consistent harmony. And by now, it's obvious that it's no longer about the Big Three. It's Wade and LeBron, They're the ones on need to make it happen Bosh is fine but he's not in there league. Miamis success will be determined by the Big 2.

3. Rajon Rondo: The Mystery, Part 2

At this point, its beyond hard feelings, or pride or whatevers been affecting Rondo this past month. Now, its the playoffs. Its bigger than all that.

Its probably the Big 3s last real shot at a title. It might be his last real shot for a while. Theres too much on the line, and I cant envision Rondo letting it slip away so easily.

I mean, would anyone be shocked if he came out and dropped a triple-double in Game One against the Knicks? Of course not. He might have some bumps and bruises, but Rondo's struggles are mental. He hasnt been attacking. Its not his body, it's his state of mind. In the end, the Celtics are only as good as Rondo lets them be.

And then the only concern is whether he can last. In each of the past two post season, Rondo has come out on another level. He's been the most important player on the floor. But he's also faded as the playoffs have worn on. He's been taken down by the physicality of playoff hoops. Maybe this last month off will have him better prepared.

2. Derrick Rose: The Superstar

Hes yet to do it in the playoffs. Thats literally the only negative thing we can say about Rose right now. And, really it doesnt even have to be negative. Its just a mere fact: Hes yet to dominate the playoffs.

Its true, he hasnt. And for that reason, maybe its slightly difficult to envision Rose leading this team to the title. It's one of the deals where, we wont know for sure he can do it until he actually does it.

And Im not saying it won't happen.

Maybe he's never done it before, but hes also never been this good.

1. LeBron James: The Chosen One

I hate calling him that. But its true. Despite everything Rose has accomplished this season, and the strides Howard has made, LeBron James is still the best player in the East.

Hate him all you want. He makes it unbelievably easy. But when hes on the court, hes still the best. No one takes over like LeBron. Kobe can hit more shots, but scoring, rebounding, passing, defense, no one can control and thrive in every facet of the game like LeBron does. No ones as versatile.

And thats why its ultimately on him to make this thing work. Why he needs to figure out how to play with Dwyane Wades game, not the other way around.

Not that it's a one way street. Wade still has to adjust. But as great as Wade is, LeBron's capable of so much more. Hes more dynamic than Wade, more dynamic than anyone in the game. And if hes serious about winning, he needs to figure out how to be great alongside Wade, and not the other way around.

It might hurt his style but it could win him the ring.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33