A look at the standings after one-third of the season and upcoming schedule
The NBA regular season is basically divided into thirds. 1) Opening night in late October until Christmas. 2) Christmas until the mid-February All-Star Break. 3) Post-All-Star to mid-April.
The Milwaukee Bucks are obliterating everyone, having just reeled off 18 wins in a row, and 21 of their last 22. Most see the Bucks as the heavy favorites to represent the East in June’s Finals. After 31 games, the Bucks are on a 71-win pace. They’ve built a five-game cushion, three in the loss column over Boston, and 4 fewer losses than Miami. As we head into the NBA’s Christmas Day extravaganza, the Bucks will face Philadelphia. MVP favorite Giannis Antetokuonmpo is taking twice as many threes (5.1 per game, making 34%) as he has in the past, and he showed serious swagger in knocking down a career-high 5 of 8 from deep in their recent statement win over the Lakers. This should terrify all title contenders. Milwaukee’s toughest stretch of the season won’t come until late February. Barring injury, expect them to stay on a 70-win pace. Tough match-ups in late February and early March will determine whether or not they have their eyes on 73 wins. The smarter approach would be to settle for high-60s and be 100% healthy for April, but fans will be clamoring if they stay at this level.
The Boston Celtics have been rolling again, winning seven of their last nine games. After starting 10–1, the Celtics took a brief dip on their western conference road swing in late November. As of Monday, December 23, Boston has played one-third of its schedule, sitting at 2nd in the East, with a 20–7 record. The Celtics schedule has been bizarre. They’ve played 3–6 fewer games than most of their East brethren, and are about to hit the heaviest stretch of their season over the next six weeks, which will provide some significant tests.
Boston has to love the growth of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The young duo are showing what can happen with confidence and increased patience. Removing Kyrie (and Marcus Morris) and replacing him with Kemba and a healthy-ish Gordon Hayward has kept the ball from sticking. Quick decisions with the ball means less congestion and more shooting rhythm. Unless they acquire a sweet-shooting big (hello Davis Bertans, who the Wizards don’t seem ready to part with) Marcus Smart’s improved shooting may determine the ceiling of this Celtics team in April/May. Smart has missed games recently, but his splits are extreme. 20 games played. 15 Celtics wins, 40% from deep. 5 Celtics losses: 13% from deep.
Celtics Upcoming Schedule (Dec 25-Feb 13 All-Star Break)
Celtics fans with dreams of the Finals, or even the East Finals, should keep an eye on how they deal with their toughest stretch of the season over the next two months. During that span, Boston faces 9 of the NBA’s best, plus four games that occur as the 3rd in 4 nights.
12/25 @ Toronto
12/28 vs Toronto (B2B)
1/9 @ Philadelphia (B2B)
1/16 @ Milwaukee (B2B)
1/20 vs Lakers
1/28 @ Miami
2/1 vs Philadelphia
2/11 @ Houston
2/13 vs Clippers
Tired Factor: Back to Backs/3 in 4:
12/28 vs Toronto (B2B, 3rd in 4)
1/4 @ Chicago B2B
1/6 Washington (B2B, 3rd in 4)
1/9 @ Philadelphia (B2B, 3rd in 4)
1/11 vs New Orleans (B2B, 3rd in 4)
1/16 @ Milwaukee (3rd in 4)
1/18 vs Phoenix (3rd in 4)
Despite the 60-win pace, the Celtics are only one game up on 6th-seeded Indiana (21–10) with Miami (22–8), Toronto (21–9) and Philadelphia (22–10) squeezed into the 3rd-5th spots. Of this tier, only Philadelphia was expected to be this good, but all have benefited by the East’s weakened middle tier.
The Miami Heat have enjoyed Bam Adebayo’s leap into a play-making big man in the mold of Draymond Green. Adebayo’s defensive potential has been real for the last couple of years, but his facilitation (4.6 assists from a big man!) has turned the Heat offense into a problem. Miami has five players averaging over 3.5 assists, no small feat in the modern star-heavy NBA. That ball movement has enabled the emergence of former Division 3 college star Duncan Robinson, shooting 45% on 7.2 attempts per game from deep. Undrafted after a solid career at Michigan, Robinson’s shooting has spaced the offense. Without Adebayo, Miami wouldn’t be able to keep Robinson on the court. How this all translates into the playoff basketball remains to be seen. Expecting Adebayo and Robinson to continue at this pace would be a mistake. At the same time, Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic haven’t been at their best. Jimmy Butler holds it all together, but can he dominate the 4th quarter of a playoff game against the Bucks or Sixers defense?
The Toronto Raptors have seen Paskal Siakam slide effortlessly into the slashing wing role he watched DeRozan and then Kawhi Leonard play over the last two years in Toronto. Siakam’s growth off the bounce and finishing have been buoyed by his range. His recent injury (groin) is a major blow to Toronto, though their resilience is nothing new. Toronto’s depth has kept things from falling apart. First, it was making up for the departures of Kawhi and Danny Green. Next, it was filling in for injuries to Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and now Siakam. The Raptors were way more than just Kawhi last year. They’re proving it this year. Nick Nurse knows what he’s doing.
The Philadelphia 76ers remain gigantic and, with the addition of one more perimeter threat, will likely be Milwaukee’s biggest threat in the second round. The health of Joel Embiid and Al Horford remain the priorities for Brett Brown’s crew. The Sixers are 19–7 with Embiid. To Brown’s chagrin, Ben Simmons still refuses to shoot corner threes. Even worse, Simmons’ average shot-distance is 4.7 feet, which is historic, close to Shaq’s dunk-tastic shot profile. Without even a baseline mid-ranger, Simmons’ sinks the spacing the Sixers need. At the same time, Simmons’ defense, rebounding, and transition savvy are undeniable.
A recent blowout loss at home to the Mavs (without Doncic) was embarrassing. Tim Hardaway Jr. roasted the Sixers vaunted defense with 7 threes.
The East is a bi-polar conference this year, with the top six appearing legit and the bottom six a watery stew of mediocrity and defense-less potential, with only Brooklyn, Orlando and Chicago showing any middle-tier charisma.
The Brooklyn Nets have been better without Kyrie Irving (4–7 with; 12–6 without), though there was inevitable adjustment time needed. As the Celtics have seen with Kemba and the Nets have seen with Kyrie, sometimes the oohs and ahs of dribbling wizardry are far more entertaining than effective. Teammates really thrive when touching the ball, and Kemba doesn’t dribble for oohs, but dribbles with a purpose.
Irving’s replacement at point guard, Spencer Dinwiddie, is a better defender and the ball moves on offense, allowing the 3s to fly freely (hello, Garrett Temple!) The role players have been given the green light. Temple’s production has kept the Nets afloat: shooting 42% from deep in Nets wins; 23% in Nets losses — closely correlated with his home/road splits. When Kevin Durant returns next season, it will be interesting to see how Kyrie adjusts, and what Dinwiddie and Temple
The Orlando Magic have stumbled out of the gate after a nice finish to last season. Losing Vucevic for a stretch and Aminu for longer hasn’t helped, but the fact that Evan Fournier is the only member of the Magic above 37% from deep is the biggest issue. Markelle Fultz has resurrected his career, but is still only 25% from deep, limiting him to reserve status.
The Chicago Bulls were supposed to be a 35–40 win team this year, but they staggered out to a 6–14 start before steadying the ship recently. The disappointing Lauri Markkanen (33% from deep), the absence of Otto Porter (played 9 of 31 games), and the general lack of ball-movement (Coby White 11 ppg on 11 FGA makes him one of the least efficient scorers in the NBA) are all to blame. Still, if the Bulls get Porter back and Zach LaVine and Markannen can learn to trust their teammates, the Bulls should make a run at the 8th spot. Coach Jim Boylen may be the biggest issue, as his demeanor (tough love!) and lack of trust in his stars (see: Zach LaVine) makes it hard to imagine the Bulls developing organically under his guidance.
The rest of the East isn’t worth mentioning — though Davis Bertans’ Nowitzki imitation in Washington has been remarkable. Bertans should be in contention for Most Improved Player. The Atlanta Hawks would be worth mentioning if forward John Collins hadn’t been hit with a 25-game suspension, testing positive for human growth hormone. The Hawks were 4–21 in his absence. Salvaging the season and getting a top pick should give the Hawks a chance at the 8th seed next year if they can manage even mediocre defense.
On we go as we make our way to the February All-Star Break.