For some time now, we’ve grown accustomed to the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors staying atop the Eastern Conference with the Boston Celtics looking up. That could change however, if the Celtics make a late season run following the All-Star break. Sitting 6.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks, obtaining the top seed is still not completely out of the question. With these factors in mind, who is the legitimate team to beat in the Eastern Conference?
The Milwaukee Bucks have taken the conference by storm with a 43-14 record heading into the break. They’ve shown major improvements on defense (No.1 in defensive rating) and have become one of the toughest teams to play on a nightly basis. The team is leading the league in rebounding (48.8) and have proven to be an efficient shooting team (48%). Giannis Antetokcounmpo is having yet another MVP- caliber season and will provide one of the toughest matchups in any potential playoff series. The addition of Nikola Mirotic at the deadline only makes the team scarier, as it has instantly given the Bucks another sharpshooter in their lineup. Expect the Bucks to be the favorite to come out of the East based on their strong defense and shooting which will keep them competitive.
Despite losing to the Celtics in their last meeting, the Toronto Raptors can easily come out of the East with their talented roster. After trading for Marc Gasol before the trade deadline, the Raptors have become even more scarier due to his incredible defense and ability to space the floor. Led By Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors have the ability to shut down a team’s best player, which is a big advantage to have in the playoffs. Having Serge Ibaka and Gasol paired up, the Raptors easily have one of the strongest front-courts in the conference. A breakout season for Pascal Siakam (16/7/55%) only makes the Raptors more dangerous with their size and depth. It won’t be easy, but the Raptors could certainly make a Finals appearance after some disappointing playoff runs in past years.
Like the Raptors and Bucks, the Philadelphia 76ers stayed active at the trade deadline acquiring Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers to form a “Big four”. With a lineup composed of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and now Harris, the 76ers can definitely climb up the ladder from the fifth spot to be one of the candidates to get out of the East. Although they’ve struggled against teams in the East, specifically the Celtics (0-3 this season), the team is strong enough to make some noise this postseason. Embiid is having a career year, with career highs in points (27.3), rebounds (13.5), and assists (3.5) which will be hard to stop come playoff time. The 76ers also now have a relatively deep bench after acquiring both Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott in the Harris deal. The 76ers need to still prove they can win in the postseason, much like the Bucks, but for now as the team chemistry improves we could give them a strong case to advancing to the NBA Finals.
Unlike the top two teams in the East, the Boston Celtics simply haven’t been able to put together consistent play through 58 games. Sitting 4th in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics are hoping to get on a run that gives them much better seeding come playoff time. Despite some early struggles, Gordon Hayward has shown signs of getting back to his regular form, averaging at least 18 points in his last three contests. Along with Hayward, Jaylen Brown seems to have accepted his role as a slashing defensive weapon coming off the bench which has made the Celtics’ bench much more effective. One of the team’s biggest strengths is their depth which will become crucial come playoff time as we saw last season’s squad run out of gas with their depleted lineup. Kyrie Irving is still producing at a high level this season (23.6/4.9/6.9/49%), which only helps the team’s chances in making a deep playoff run where he has the experience. There’s no guarantee the Celtics shake off the struggles that have haunted them this season, but heading into the break on a two game winning streak without Irving gives them some optimism of getting over the hump.
There’s going to be some stiff competition in the Eastern Conference playoffs than in past years, which will be intriguing to watch. The Bucks and Raptors will lead the discussion, but don’t count out the Celtics who can be dangerous if they figure out the chemistry and their roles. It is still a bit early to predict, but expect the Bucks to be the favorites to come out of the East with their retooled roster.