In East, five teams showing some Finals potential

Bucks, Raptors, Pacers, Sixers, Celtics all in mix to claim East championship

So much for the East as the league’s relegation conference.

It wasn’t supposed to be pretty this season over on this side of the NBA. With LeBron James’ decision to spend his late prime in Los Angeles, the Eastern Conference looked initially like a default situation. Somebody was going to win it, whether they were worthy of challenging whoever came out of the West (subliminal: Golden State!) or not.

> The West: Who can contend with Warriors?

Nine days later, though, Toronto traded for the San Antonio Spurs’ unhappy star, Kawhi Leonard. The Milwaukee bucks perked up instantly under the tutelage of new coach Mike Budenholzer. The Philadelphia 76ers flipped Dario Saric and Robert Covington for Minnesota’s All-Star disruptor Jimmy Butler. And lo and behold, the East began to look not merely interesting but formidable.

So much so that an arms race ensued at the trade deadline. The Raptors (Marc Gasol), the Sixers (Tobias Harris) and the Bucks (Nikola Mirotic) all upgraded their talent bases. Boston? Well, the Celtics kept their powder dry presumably for the Anthony Davis sweepstakes this summer. But then, with Kyrie Irving around after having missed last spring’s playoffs and Gordon Hayward back, period, it could be argued those guys already got their infusion of help. And at a level higher than any of their rivals.

Then there’s the plucky Indiana Pacers, who seem almost to have been galvanized by the loss of their star player, Victor Oladipo.

With insights from a few NBA advance scouts (who remain anonymous here), here is a breakdown of the East’s Fab Five, in order of their position in the standings as the dash to the postseason begins.

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Milwaukee Bucks

Other than the Lakers (James) and the Rockets (James Harden), no team in the NBA — and certainly no team in the East — is more dependent on one player than the Bucks.

Giannis Antetokounmpo probably is the leading candidate for 2019 Kia Most Valuable Player at this point, but the talent and impact gap between him and Milwaukee’s second-best player is greater than any of these other contenders.

The Bucks are 13.7 points better than their opponents when “The Greek Freak” is on the floor. They’re 2-2 in games he has missed vs. 41-12 when he plays. Now imagine even a minor injury that costs him, say, two games in a best-of-seven series. Yeah, trouble.

Still, if Antetokounmpo stays healthy and gets rest late in games when wins are secure, Milwaukee has a legit shot at its first Finals trip since 1974. The ensemble cast around Antetokounmpo fits him perfectly, spreading the floor to open penetration lanes and seizing on the kick-outs when defenders converge on him. The Bucks are third in 3-pointers made, second in attempts and — if you take out Antetokounmpo’s 29-of-130 — they rise from 34.9 percent to 35.7 percent in 3-point accuracy. And this is without Mirotic.

Defensively the Bucks are taking away the other guys’ 3-point opportunities, sweeping the defensive boards and relying on Antetokounmpo’s and Brook Lopez’s size as needed in the paint.

There’s a noticeable bump in Bucks chemistry this season that those inside the locker room will tell you sparks winning, rather than vice versa. Two ongoing goals have kept them focused and resilient, too: Milwaukee has yet to lose two games in a row, and the Bucks have struck back hard whenever facing a team that beat them previously.

Toronto Raptors

None of the East powers stood to benefit more from James’ shift from Eastern to Pacific time zones than these guys. It wasn’t just his basketball excellence that had gotten in the Raptors’ way postseason after postseason — it was his dominance in the East (eight consecutive Finals trips) that had tormented them. Not since, oh, Michael Jordan vs. the New York Knicks had a single superstar seemed to pitch a tent inside an opponent’s heads.

Even a status quo version of Toronto, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, might have seen different results this time. But with Leonard, Gasol and underrated buyout pickup Jeremy Lin, this is a bolder, mentally freed squad that could be more efficient than last spring’s edition.

Gasol figures to keep divvying minutes with Serge Ibaka. But as well as Toronto played with Jonas Valanciunas, Gasol should be that and more. Similar size, more adept as a passer and shooter.

“He’s so skilled and he’s really motivated,” a scout said of Gasol and this opportunity to salvage a difficult season. “And they got out of a couple contracts in C.J. Miles and Valanciunas.”

Granted, Toronto has gone 13-3 when Leonard has not played. But keeping one of the NBA’s elite two-way players healthy is a must once the playoffs start. Forward Pascal Siakam might be the favorite at this point for the Kia Most Improved Player Award (16.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 55 percent shooting). Lin stabilizes the backcourt, especially while Fred Van Vleet recovers from thumb surgery.

It was not without some downside risk that boss Masai Ujiri changed coaches, firing Dwane Casey to promote assistant Nick Nurse. But Nurse has tweaked the Raptors masterfully. They won their last six games before the break and 10 of 13. Not only are they 24-5 at home (and 16-6 against the West), but they are 9-4 in games decided by three points or fewer.

As our John Schuhmann points out: Toronto has the easiest schedule in the league from here till the postseason (only two back-to-backs, with 16 of 23 games against foes .500 or worse).

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers exit the All-Star break third in the East, one game ahead of both Philadelphia and Boston in the standings. Most insiders and even Indiana fans figure them to dip to fifth, considering the loss of Oladipo. Still, it speaks volumes about the roster and staff that they’re projected not just to hang onto a playoff berth, but keep a gap between themselves and the last three seeds.

Granted, being up 8 1/2 games on sixth-place Brooklyn with 24 left to play is swell math regardless. But the Pacers are the closest thing the East has to Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” Black Knight, the feisty sentry who refuses to quit regardless of how many limbs he loses. It might not say much for Oladipo in a classic, how-much-do-they-miss-him MVP argument that Indiana looked locked into a third-, fourth- or fifth-place finish with or without him. But it says plenty about the Pacers’ fortitude.

“I think they’re going to stay in the battle,” one scout said. “They’re very well-coached. They’ve got a lot of good character guys. And Wes Matthews isn’t Victor Oladipo, but he will help them. They’re a team.”

Indiana has tough, no-muss-or-fuss performers such as Thaddeus Young and Domantas Sabonis. Coach Nate McMillan and his staff are underrated on an annual basis. And this team rises and falls on its defense (first in fewest points allowed and second in defensive rating). That’s key, because the Pacers don’t have the firepower of the East’s presumed Big Four, and the offense has been more raggedy without Oladipo.

“You know what they say, ‘defense travels,’ too,” said the scout.

The Pacers are 8.5 points worse defensively away from home, but they have managed a 16-12 road mark. That’s the East’s third-best mark behind the Bucks (20-9) and the Raptors (19-11).

Philadelphia 76ers

As soon as Harris joined the Sixers, the quickie description of this team became: Best starting lineup in the NBA other than Golden State. They have All-Stars, real or worthy, at all five spots, making it impossible to double Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons or any of them, frankly.

“I’d worry about their depth,” a scout said. “Then with Jimmy Butler, he just doesn’t quite fit their team, for me. Yes, he can defend, but he’s not a space-the-court jump shooter and he needs the ball a lot for their offense.”

With all the frontcourt depth Philadelphia has, you can mix and match as needed. Coach Brett Brown should never have to rely entirely on reserves unless he wants to (or it’s garbage time). Butler is quite happy to take charge of second-unit duties for the ball dominance it offers.

Another trade deadline move that could help came in sending Markelle Fultz to Orlando for Jonathon Simmons and a first-round pick. The pick makes up a bit for the one they shipped to Boston in a pick swap before the 2017 draft. It also closes the book on Fultz and what looks like a regrettable detour in “The Process,” up there with Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.

Additionally, new GM Elton Brand has been impressive in his early days on the job, so the buyout market still is in play. The “fragile” days of Embiid sure appear to be over … or did, until Wednesday’s reveal of left knee soreness. And few other teams run as “hot” as the Sixers emotionally, which can be a positive if directed toward the Finals prize.

Boston Celtics

It would seem to be a terrific problem to have: too many quality players. Yet Boston has sagged this season in part because of a blurry pecking order, an abundance of talent in which no two or three talented leaders have emerged to embody the will of coach Brad Stevens on the group.

There are personalities and insecurities involved in that, such that even a presumptive conference favorite can get sidetracked. Said one scout: “When a team gets deeper and a guy’s minutes get pinched, sometimes when they do get out there, they press.”

Let’s not overlook the Davis speculation, either. Boston has been all about the summer on that, so the uncertainty hasn’t been as pressing as for the Lakers. Still, there are young Celtics players who wonder how long they’ll be around.

Then there’s the challenge of being the East’s hunted, at least when this began. “Expectations were so high for that team,” said another scout, “and some of them may have thought it would be easier than it’s been. Working Hayward back into the rotation was a bigger challenge than many expected. There are young guys who are playing for contracts a little bit.”

Hayward has been better lately, averaging 14.6 points and 4.0 assists in February vs. 10.4 ppg and 3.8 rpg in December.

Irving reigns as the best finisher in the league and more playoff battle-hardened than any other player in the conference. And yet the Celtics have gone 9-2 when he hasn’t played. That might say less about him than it does the rest of the roster. When a herd like this gets thinned, a more streamlined pecking order can emerge. Besides, Terry Rozier is a defensive upgrade on Irving.

The Celtics have confidence built over the past two seasons against the Sixers and they seem up to any challenge posed by the Raptors. The Bucks, however, could pose a matchup because Boston’s frontline that gives up a few too many inches to Milwaukee’s when Al Horford plays.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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