The Eastern Conference contenders can be readily described as: reeling, storming, holding and lurking.
Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston have all held those titles at points this season, which is why they’re so tightly bunched they can smell each other’s mouthwash with 15 days remaining in the regular season.
It still is the stronger conference despite Phoenix running away from everyone and hiding, with so many teams capable of making a trip to June or being sent home before the calendar turns to May.
The mere presence of the Brooklyn Nets and their voice-for-the-voiceless point guard being released from his self-made dungeon changes things for everybody, whether they’d admit it publicly or not. Provided Kevin Durant is healthy and Kyrie Irving is available, the Nets will be considered dangerous — but flawed.
Flawed, as in the Nets being 9-13 when he plays and their defensive issues still yet to be solved. The play-in makes it tough to project where the Nets could land in the playoffs, so they can’t exactly be avoided by the teams at the top.
And there are no easy matchups, so getting away from one means running yourself into another tough out with only slightly better odds.
That’s the case for the main contenders, all of which could win 50 games and find themselves staring at a rejuvenated and slightly unfamiliar Nets team in the first round. There have been close races, and years where having multiple 50-win teams isn’t uncommon.
No disrespect, but there’s a difference in having a full-grown Giannis Antetokounmpo validated as a champion and lurking again, in addition to Joel Embiid playing at a similarly high level along with the aforementioned Durant.
And while the Celtics have Jayson Tatum earning some MVP consideration of late, it’s hard to put him in the class of those three supernovas. The numbers say, though, we should pay more attention to him and his team.
Tatum leads the league in defensive win shares, per basketball-reference.com. It’s not the most accurate indicator of value on that end, but it can’t be dismissed. Even if he’s a product of a tightly wound unit that concedes nothing on that end, Tatum isn’t disrupting the chain.
For context, the three-man unit of Tatum, Williams and Jaylen Brown outscore opponents by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions. That dwarfs the Suns’ best unit of Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder (+11.4 points per 100 possessions) and Milwaukee’s trio of Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis (+13.5 points per 100 possessions). With Williams’ injury, it places more weight on a soon-to-be 36-year-old Al Horford to anchor the backline of a defense, which has been a huge key to the Celtics losing four games in the last two months.
Tatum has been on a tear, putting up 32.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists since the All-Star break, and raising those numbers in March with 33.7 points on 54/46/91 splits. The Celtics’ overall team defense gives them a slight edge over the rest, especially considering the Bucks don’t feel they’ll need home-court advantage to get through the East when it counts and they have the sweat equity of being the champs everyone has to dethrone.
They’ve been mixing and matching lineups all season, perhaps playing possum a bit with Middleton and Jrue Holiday having a longer year than the rest. Their defense is the biggest concern, being fourth in offensive rating and being a top-five team from 3-point range. If it feels they’ve been sleepwalking through the season, traditionally the champions go through bouts of boredom.
And they’ve earned the trust of themselves in the meantime, unlike the 76ers. Like their trade partners in Brooklyn, the 76ers are trying to piece this together on the fly while managing the health of Embiid.
The common belief was James Harden was dogging it during his last days in Brooklyn, and there’s certainly evidence to support the claim. But his production hasn’t gone up after his arrival in Philadelphia, shooting just 41% and relying way too much on getting to the line to put some mascara on his numbers — which may not be reliable when the playoffs come around.
Embiid isn’t playing heavy minutes, but he’s more than made the best of them. However, his 3-point shooting and playmaking have taken a dip since Harden’s arrival — which was to be expected given how much of the offense Harden likes to commandeer.
Miami has been the East’s most consistent team until late, fighting off injuries and lack of continuity until now. On paper, it seemed like getting a rough, rugged, defensive band of bandits would go on a run to close out the season.
It’s been the opposite, and although the verbal altercation between Jimmy Butler, Erik Spoelstra and Udonis Haslem can be written off as “Heat Culture” or, rightfully, dismissed more as normal than in other franchises, it doesn’t mean they don’t have issues to address.
Who handles the ball late? Butler has always been a safe option because he’s a good decision-maker who doesn’t turn the ball over. But if defenses lay off because he’s shooting just 20% from three this season (on fewer than two attempts), the offense gets more gummed up.
Giving up 38, 37 and 33 points in fourth quarters in losses to Philadelphia, New York and Golden State doesn’t point so much to offense, although Miami still has the most consistent season-long defense of the contestants.
Fixing late-game offense will aid in the playoffs, but fixing the shortcomings of the defense can help in the last two weeks of the season.
In the span of one game, one quarter, you can see why every team is scary good and why you’re scared of them at the same time.
If nothing else, the NBA has what it wants — competitive games going down to the very last day of the regular season, and the only guarantee being it’ll be compelling.