The NBA season is winding down to a close with the All-Star break over and a quarter of the schedule remaining for most teams. The trade deadline has passed and the buyout market is coming to a close. And suddenly, things look a lot different in the Eastern Conference.
Blake Griffin is a Piston, the Cavaliers are a totally different team than what they were at the start of the year, and the four through eight seeds in the conference are separated by only a few games.
The Celtics currently sit in second place in the conference. The team slumped through the weeks before the All-Star break and gave up over 120 points in their final two games before the break.
Two things were obvious for them: They were gassed and they really missed Marcus Smart. Fatigue does not excuse poor play, but it really took a toll on the Celtics effort, execution, and mindset in the final few games before the break.
Smart continues to be a roller coaster for fans. The fourth year guard punched a picture frame, had to sit for a month, and now may have actually gained himself more stock and money by doing so.
Smart can be frustrating. The threes, the temper issues, and just the general lack of offense that sometimes becomes apparent on a given night. Still, it was clear in his absence what he does for the team.
He sets the tone defensively and brings an intensity no one else on the team can match. Now, he’s back and the Celtics are ready to roll, but things are much different around them and there are a lot of teams in the East who could threaten a run to the finals come April.
The guys north of the border overtook the C’s for the one seed and currently sit in first place in the East. The Raptors have been hot as of late and have eight wins in their last 10 games.
Kyle Lowry remains dangerous and Demar DeRozan is a sneaky MVP candidate. Last time the Raptors played the Celtics they beat them 111-91. The game didn’t even feel that close.
The Raptors present Boston a tough matchup, they’re skilled on the perimeter and they can bang inside. A seven game series between these teams would be interesting, and it may in fact go the full seven.
It is too early to make predictions now, but Toronto is a team to look out for in the east down the stretch.
So maybe the new looks Cavs are not the Earth shattering force that everyone thought they were after their first two games. Still, they have LeBron James and that is really all that matters come playoff time.
Cleveland sits in third right now and they are still trying to work all the moving pieces together. I am beyond the point of doubting LeBron and Co. when it comes to the postseason.
James has been the ghost hanging over Boston for years and this feels like the year that they may finally be able to dethrone him. We’ll see what the future holds, but Cleveland is certainly more athletic and capable than they were those first 50 games of the season.
Washington has kept themselves afloat in the absence of John Wall and now they are positioned to be a top 4 seed with their All-Star guard coming back and having a month to knock off rust before the postseason.
The Wizards are tough. Beal is a legit scorer, Wall is a star, Porter and Morris are good role players, and Kelly Oubre is much improved off the bench. The team is capable of beating any team in the NBA on any given night.
But as we’ve seen, they can be beaten in a seven game series (thanks, Kelly Olynyk). Washington will be a tough out for anyone come playoff time, especially if Wall gets to full strength.
Indiana has been a pleasant surprise this season and a lot of that is due to the efforts of Victor Oladipo. He was named an all star this year and he has done a lot to carry the Pacers to the point they are at.
Indiana isn’t overly talented but they play very well at home and feed off the energy of their crowd. Between Oladipo, Myles Turner, and the antics of Lance Stephenson the Pacers can steal games quickly.
Indiana may not be a scary threat as a tea, but Oladipo is a lock to put on a show come playoff time and everyone should tune in for that.
Giannis Antetokounmpo. Playoff Giannnis Antetokounmpo. When it comes to Milwaukee the Greek Freak is the number one concern. The young Bucks pushed Toronto to the brink in the first round last season and now they all have another year of experience under them.
Giannis is the front runner for MVP, Jason Kidd’s ancient style offense is gone, and Jabari Parker is back from his torn ACL. The Bucks are 7-3 over their last 10 games and that’s without Malcolm Brogdon.
The Bucks length is tough on Boston, mainly Kyrie as it clogs his driving lanes. Milwaukee is a dark horse to make a run to the Conference Finals. Boston will dodge them in the first round but a potential meeting in the second round or in the Conference finals would be a lot to handle.
Mark the Greek Freak down as a player you do not want to see lined up across from your team in the playoffs.
Right when it looked like the youth of Philly was catching up to them, the 76ers have rattled off a seven game win streak. This team is a lot of fun to watch play. Ben Simmons passes reminiscent of Rondo, Joel Embiid is everything we could ask for in a star, and there is something about random T.J. McConnell triple doubles that gets a crowd going.
Philly will fight, but this is not the season that they will win a first round playoff series. Except to see some fun moments and glimpses into the future, but the team should be out in 4 or 5 games in the first round this postseason.
The Heat through injuries, inconsistencies, and a lot of player movement. A lot of the credit belongs to Erik Spoelstra who quietly remains one of the best coaches in the NBA.
The Heat, like Philly, do some exciting things but they are unlikely to go further than five or six games in the opening round of the playoffs. Spoelstra can coach circles around a lot of teams, but he cannot make up for his rosters talent deficiency.
Last, but not least, the boys from Motor City look a lot different now. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond form a twin towers duo on the frontline, but behind them the rest of the roster is not overwhelming.
The Pistons may sneak into the eighth seed, and they would certainly provide a physical first round matchup for whoever they face, but they likely won’t win a series this year. Griffin is capable of carrying his team on any night.
The Eastern Conference is in a state that it hasn’t been in for a long time and that is that LeBron James is not the favorite to come out of the conference.
There’s still a quarter of the season to go, but now there is the potential for some fun playoff matchups down the road.