The second hardest-fought prize in the NBA this season is finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference, which might be necessary in order to get the biggest prize.
Yes, it’s quite possible the path to the NBA championship must first take the mountain up to the penthouse in the East, where three teams — arguably the three best teams in the league — are all in the running for first place and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
And actually, home-court is the fringe benefit here. The real goal is to avoid being the No. 2 and No. 3 seed. Because the two “unlucky” teams that finish in those positions must play each other in the playoffs, and the survivor then must face the top seed, assuming the seedings hold firm.
As it stands today, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — provided they both won in the first round — would meet in the semifinals, with the winner facing the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals (provided they get that far, too). The easier way to the promised land in June is to finish first and go through one of those teams, not two.
So that’s what’s at stake here in the final three weeks of the regular season, where first place has yet to be officially claimed. Normally this time of year, contending teams might lift their foot off the accelerator, preserve their stars for the playoffs and experiment with rotations. If that strategy costs them a few games in late March or early April, no big deal.
Not so this time.
The Bucks, Sixers and Celtics all have meaningful games remaining and are behaving accordingly. They know the punishment for pumping the brakes. These three have dominated the conference from opening week. First place in the East has been the exclusive home of the Bucks or Celtics since the season’s fifth week. The Sixers have been in second or third place since mid-January and are also the hottest team of the three between then and now.
The issue of first place could be decided by back-to-back games on April 2 and 4, days before the season ends. That’s when the Sixers play the Bucks, then the Celtics. Expect to see some playoff intensity if first place is still up for grabs.
Here’s a look at the state of those teams, their remaining schedules and any nagging concerns as the final sprint to first place begins:
First place is theirs to lose, no question, for two reasons — they’re already in first, and they’re rolling at the moment, winners of 22 of their last 25. This is reflective of how the Bucks have finally jelled as a complete and healthy group, a season-long development. That’s due to the return of Khris Middleton, who missed the first 20 games after recovering from offseason wrist surgery, then dealt with knee issues not long after. Overall, he has played only 26 games and was the missing piece whose absence last spring probably cost Milwaukee a chance to win back-to-back championships. Given Middleton’s importance as a shooter and defender, the Bucks weren’t taking any chances in 2022-23 and put Middleton on load-management ice for much of the season. But he’s now back in the starting lineup, and is looking fluid, and started this week with a 31-point effort (his first 30-point game in roughly a year). Overall, the Bucks are in great shape, starting with the greatness of Giannis Antetekounmpo and his durability and impact at both rims.
The next massive asset in their favor is defense. Brook Lopez is the current leader in the Kia Defensive Player of the Year ladder and he isn’t even the best on his own team (Giannis). Add Jrue Holiday and Middleton and Bobby Portis and the Bucks bring the deepest defense in the league that ranks No. 3 overall in defensive rating (110). So, yes, first place is Milwaukee’s to lose, and in most situations, this would be a mere formality. But they’re being chased by the streaking Sixers, and the Celtics are certainly capable of providing heat as well.
Yes, they lost to the Houston Rockets days ago. Yes, they’ve looked rather mortal this entire month. True, they are just 6-5 since the All-Star break. Yet the Celtics are still led by an MVP candidate and are built to peel off a winning streak at any given time.
The Celtics held onto first place for two months before losing their grip in late February and have been stuck in second place ever since. Maybe it was too much to ask for them to keep surging after winning 35 of their first 47 games, after blowing out the Bucks by 21 points, after winning all three of their meetings with the 76ers. Boston is suffering at both ends of the floor over this time, looking less efficient offensively and more vulnerable defensively. Despite their recent lapse into ordinary-ness, the Celtics do realize what’s at stake, should they reverse their skid and put the Bucks on high alert these remaining few weeks. Star forwad Jayson Tatum seems slump-proof and even when he recently went through a tough three-game stretch where his efficiency tanked, he recovered with a pair of 40-pieces over the last two weeks.
Even better for the Celtics: Jaylen Brown, who just went a two-game stretch scoring 78 points and has been this team’s best player since the All-Star break, maybe longer. The key for the Celtics is getting Robert Williams back into the fold, perhaps by next week, as the center recovers from a hamstring issue. Overall, though, the Celtics need to stop sleepwalking against lesser opponents. Meaning, everyone except the Bucks and Sixers, at least in the East.
Philly is home to the league’s maddest team in March and baddest player in March as well. Or maybe that’s even selling Joel Embiid a little short — he’s wrapping up his MVP campaign with a flourish. The Sixers and their dominant center are collecting wins and respect along in the stretch run, elevating Embiid in the MVP conversation and themselves in the pecking order of title contenders.
It’s not a one-man team, either. James Harden is leading the league in assists and is on the cusp of some history with Embiid, too. He’s proving to be the ideal complement to the second-best teammate he ever had (after Kevin Durant). Harden wasn’t chosen to play in the All-Star Game and you wonder if that was actually a good thing for the Sixers as any lingering hard feelings/motivation will undoubtedly help the 76ers moving forward. Philly is the only team other than the Warriors and Pacers to beat the Bucks since Jan. 23. That shows how this team gets up for the competition. That’s a good thing, too, because the Sixers have arguably the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA.
The hazardous road begins a week from Friday when they’ll see the Warriors, followed by the Suns (KD might be back), Nuggets and Mavericks, with games remaining against the Bucks and Celtics. Also, the Sixers play nine of their last 14 on the road. Assuming they stay healthy and Embiid goes into overdrive as he tries to convince MVP voters that he’s the one, the Sixers can take their March muscle into April and make the last few games interesting.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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