* * *
Who are the true contenders to win it all in East?
* * *
Steve Aschburner: Milwaukee has what appears to be an insurmountable lead for the No. 1 seed and has been crushing this 2019-20 regular season. If the Bucks lose as many games (8) from this point forward as they’ve lost so far, they’ll finish at 66-16. If they play .500 the rest of the way, they’ll still match last season’s 60-22. Their historic scoring margin (+12.8 points) has convinced a lot of the numbers crunchers, too. And their repeat MVP-worthy star Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging only 30.9 minutes. Still, I wonder about two things with Milwaukee: the lack of experience at the highest level and the absence of any intimidation factor. Only two players on its roster have advanced beyond a conference championship series (reserves George Hill and Kyle Korver). And from chatter around the league, in spite of the Bucks’ strong regular season, none of their top rivals sound afraid or defeated. In the East, that means Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and Miami, each of which believes it could topple Milwaukee to reach the Finals (or clear the way for one of the others). So the Bucks may need to get nastier – not physically, but in a more sneering, dominant attitude – if they want to be playing in June.
Shaun Powell: This whittles down to the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics. Those are the three teams that have shown the least amount of issues and flapping red flags. Much props for the Raptors to even be in this discussion after losing Kawhi Leonard and watching Marc Gasol take another step toward the age abyss. The East-leading Bucks are not only winning most games convincingly, they're almost unbeatable on the road. Meanwhile, Boston brings the most well-rounded rotation to the fray.
John Schuhmann: A case can be made for each of the top five teams in the conference, but the Bucks should be the clear favorite. They have been, simply, the best team in the league by a wide margin. They rank in the top three on both ends of the floor and they have the best record (12-7) in games played between the 14 teams with winning records. The Raptors are probably the team best equipped to beat the Bucks. They have an elite defense that's practiced at protecting the paint and rotating out to shooters, and they have an offense that can take advantage of the Bucks' protect-the-rim-at-call-costs defensive scheme by moving the ball.
Sekou Smith: I can't believe I'm typing this, but I honestly think the East goes five deep in terms of true contenders. I could see any of the top five teams (Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Miami and Philadelphia) coming out of the East under the right set of circumstances. And each one of them would present a particular set of problems for their Western Conference counterpart, whoever that team might be. The Bucks are clearly the front-runners at this stage, but as we saw last season, matchups are everything. The Bucks don't seem like The Finals lock the Golden State Warriors did the past five seasons, but ... too soon, huh?
Michael C. Wright: Milwaukee. The Bucks have a legitimate shot to win 70 games, and they’ve got the No. 1 defense and the No. 2 offense in the NBA. They’re the favorite in the East by a large margin. But you can’t count out the Celtics or the defending champion Toronto Raptors, who ran off a 15-game winning streak before falling to the Nets just before the All-Star break. Philadelphia can’t win on the road, so they probably don’t belong in this conversation as much as Miami does.