Five Bold Post All-Star Break Predictions: Eastern Conference
With All-Star weekend in the rearview, the end of the NBA season and playoffs are quickly coming into focus. Now is the time where the team’s at the top tighten the screws, while the league’s middle class really begins to scrap.
In the East, the quartet at the top of the standings are among the best teams the conference has produced in quite some time. These four clubs are anchored by a b-list of organizations fighting to save some face with a playoff spot. How will it all shake out?
1. The Celtics host the Sixers in the Conference Finals
When the postseason finally comes around, it really will be a bloodbath at the top. Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks own the league’s best record and sit in the top-five in offense and in defense. North of the border, Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors are a more mysterious juggernaut.
At the end of the day, however, talent will be the most lucrative commodity. For that reason, the Eastern Conference Finals will feature the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Philly has created a monster through in-season trades, and the team’s starting line-up is as imposing as any. It’s fair to wonder how everything will fit together under head coach Brett Brown, and depth will be an issue for the Sixers. All the same, Philadelphia should be able to coast through the early stages of the postseason on talent alone.
Up in Boston, the Celtics enjoy their own gluttony of talent. Despite some early woes, the C’s are largely back in business. While the Sixers will struggle to earn meaningful bench minutes, the Celtics’ second-unit could likely be a starting core for a playoff team in the East. Afterall, this team went to the Conference Finals last season with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward on the sideline.
Philly and Boston will simply be too much for Milwaukee and Toronto to handle. Assuming the Pacers drop in the standings, and that these are indeed the top-four seeds in the Conference, expect the Sixers and the Celtics to compete for a trip to the Finals.
2. The Magic make the playoffs
The East may be a bit top-heavy, but that doesn’t mean the race for the last few playoff spots will be any less exciting. Right now the Hornets, the Heat, the Pistons, the Magic, and the Wizards are fighting for seventh and eighth seed, and are all separated by just three and half games in the standings.
The Orlando Magic will earn one of those spots.
Orlando has been absent from the postseason for quite some time, and their reticence to sell off assets at the trade deadline suggests the team is fully intent on making a run at the playoffs.
Right now the Magic have the sixth best defensive rating in the Conference. That’s a critical asset as games become more meaningful later in the season. Miami is the only team in the conversation with a similarly competent defense.
The Magic also have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NBA. This includes quite a few games against teams that will soon turn their attention to tanking. The determined Magic should be able to take advantage and climb their way into the playoff picture.
3. Giannis wins the MVP
While I don’t believe the Bucks will make the ECF, I don’t for a second want to detract from the unbelievable season we’re seeing from the Greek Freak. At present, Giannis is averaging 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game. That’s simply preposterous.
The Bucks have the NBA’s best record. Often the MVP - a regular season award - is given to an exemplary player on one of the top clubs in the Association. Giannis checks the box there as well.
After a high-profile stint at All Star weekend, Giannis’ stock has never been higher. Not only is he dominating on a nightly basis, but he’s increasingly beloved by casual NBA fans. James Harden is his strongest competition for the award, and I feel the Beard will eventually run out of steam. So long as his Bucks finish the season strong, Giannis will have a very strong case for MVP.
4. The Knicks fall in love with another superstar
It’s the “Two max slots!” heard around the world. As Knicks fans would have you believe, the friendship shared between Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant is a sign that the two will bring their talents to New York this summer, and a very public conversation after the All Star game about their plans is the proof in the pudding.
Believing that the hyper self-conscious Irving would have this chat with Durant in front of a thousand media members is a bit much. But then again, it takes a special sort of delusion to be a Knicks fan. The high that comes with choosing to believe this hype will fade.
Soon New York basketball fans and ownership alike will ease up on their open lust for Irving and Durant. But because the Knicks will indeed have “two max slots,” the organization will soon begin to daydream about all sorts of other stars.
How about Bronx native Kemba Walker? Certainly giving Walker a max contract is a pretty Knicksy sort of move. Or what about the walking enigma that is Kawhi Leonard? New York hipsters love New Balance. Are we overlooking future NBA champion Boogie Cousins? That achilles looks fine to me.
Well into June we’ll be hearing stories about the Knicks and their quest for another chance to botch something great. I eagerly await the riff raff.
5. Indiana finishes with the league’s best defense
With Victor Oladipo out for the season, the Pacers were dead in the water. The team isn’t just missing a star, but a clear No.1 option on offense. It’s only a matter of time before things start to unwind a little bit for Indiana.
Head coach Nate McMillan is unlikely to go quietly in the night, however. His team plays hard-nosed basketball, and currently has the second best defensive rating in the league. His Pacers will only double down on this as the playoffs loom.
Since Oladipo went down, Indy is a respectable 7-5. That isn’t enough maintain the third-seed in the East, but suggests this club will remain competitive. The Pacers have the personnel to continue to play defense at a high-level, and as it has become an even more critical part of their game, the club will fight until the bitter end.