Slowly but surely as the season has unfolded, it has become apparent that the Celtics' biggest challenge in the East might not be one of the Florida teams after all, but the Chicago Bulls.
Consider the ingredients for postseason success. Size certainly matters, and the Bulls are bigger and stauncher than Miami in the frontcourt and have much more front-line depth than Orlando, which underlines the phrase "foul trouble" whenever Dwight Howard is whistled too often. Defense is another staple of a legitimate contender, and the Bulls rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency despite injuries to key frontcourt players. Then there is familiarity, and while Chicago experienced a major roster shake-up during the offseason, it's no more jolting than what Miami did last summer or Orlando's dramatic overhaul in December.
Last but not least is star power. While Chicago can't compete with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (and Chris Bosh) in that category, Derrick Rose has emerged as a viable MVP candidate and Carlos Boozer is proving his value by both his presence in Chicago and his absence in Utah.
Put it all together, and no one should be surprised if it is the Bulls versus the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
Of course, that's just the way it looks on Feb. 1, barely past the halfway point of the season. Fortunes can change quickly -- just ask the Mavericks. Two weeks ago, they were missing Dirk Nowitzki and dropping seven of eight games. Now Dirk is back, Tyson Chandler is hot at both ends of the court and Dallas is the big gainer in this week's Power Rankings, jumping five slots to fifth as it rides a five-game winning streak.
(All stats and records are through Jan. 31.)
NBA Power Rankings