1. Celtics pass the Buck back to Cleveland
The Cavaliers’ slide (5-8 in their last 13 games) has been both one of the biggest stories in the NBA and also completely insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It’s still hard to think that LeBron James isn’t going to make the NBA Finals, especially when Boston can’t go out and seize first place in the East. Entering last night a half-game up on the Cavs, the Celtics fell at home to Milwaukee, dropping back to even in the standings.
Boston has the easier schedule down the stretch and hosts the last head-to-head meeting with Cleveland. But the Celtics also need homecourt advantage far more. They have yet to win a playoff series under Brad Stevens, so expecting this team to rattle off three straight and make the NBA Finals is a tall order. Securing that one-seed would greatly help them in a potential Eastern conference final with Cleveland: Boston is 27-10 at TD Garden this season (versus 21-17 on the road).
For the Cavs, the only goal down the stretch is figuring out their defense. Their efficiency on that side of the ball has been downright dreadful, but you can give them a little leeway, as they just got Kevin Love and JR Smith back this month and the starters are all figuring out how to play together again. Also, I can’t stress this enough: they have LeBron.
Ultimately, it’s still a long shot to think there will be any team in the East other than Cleveland making a surprise run to the Finals. But there could be some surprises in the first round, mainly from those aforementioned Bucks…
2. Milwaukee gives more reason to Fear the Deer
Losing Jabari Parker was supposed to be a death blow for the up and coming Bucks. But when you play in the terrible Eastern Conference, you’re never truly out of it. Milwaukee kept plugging away, and then, when Khris Middleton returned from a torn hamstring, the team went on a run. Winners of 13 of their last 16, the Bucks have charged up the standings, and are likely to grab the five-seed.
Already one of the top five teams in the league in true shooting percentage, the Bucks are also seeing a big improvement on defense with Middleton back. Then you remember they also have a superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo who can take over a game for stretches, a rookie in Malcolm Brogdon who continues to step up in big moments, and a bench chock-full of scrappy veterans, and Milwaukee becomes the one lower seed in the East you don’t want to face.
Toronto and Washington are battling it out to secure the three-seed in the East, with the winner likely avoiding Cleveland in the second round. But now there should be the added motivation of avoiding Milwaukee in the first round. The Bucks are primed to pull off a first-round upset, especially over a Toronto team that will be reinserting Kyle Lowry into a lineup that has thrived without him.
Photo Credit: Erik Drost (Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]