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The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks have all separated themselves from the pack in the Eastern Conference. The rest of the standings? Well, that picture is much less clear.
With six teams — the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers — separated by just three games, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the bottom half of the East will shake out with a little more than a month remaining in the regular season.
For teams like the Heat and Celtics, who met in last season’s conference finals and entered 2020-21 with championship aspirations, avoiding the play-in round is a top priority.
Which team should be considered the favorite to break from the logjam to capture the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs? Which potential play-in matchup would create the most drama? Should Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the star-studded Nets be considered a lock to reach the NBA Finals?
Our NBA experts are tackling the most important questions surrounding the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
1. What are you watching most closely between now and the end of the regular season in the East?
Tim Bontemps: Who finishes with the best record in the conference. The race between Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee for the top seed in the East has massive implications. The most obvious is that whoever gets the best record gets home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs — a significant advantage for Philadelphia, which has been dominant at home for years (and now is getting fans back in the building, like many other arenas).
Bobby Marks: Whether Miami and Boston can both avoid the play-in tournament. Last year’s conference finalists are part of a group of five teams in the No. 4 to No. 8 range that are separated by only two games. If either falls out of the top six, it would be faced with an elimination scenario before the first round of the playoffs started. Although they are sitting outside of the top six, the Celtics are 7-3 in their past 10 games and had their most impressive win of the season Sunday at Denver.
Kevin Pelton: The race for the No. 1 seed. I know it’s considered gauche now to care about seeding, but the top spot in the East conveys not just home-court advantage through the conference finals but also the ability to avoid playing one of the other top three teams until then. It’s a huge edge this year that is well worth chasing for the top three teams.
André Snellings: I’m watching who gets into the playoffs at full strength. The top three teams have been battling injuries all season, and the Nets in particular have yet to see their entire team play together. But for the top three, if they make it to the playoffs in good form they should be primed to make deep runs.
Brian Windhorst: Health. This is such a grind, and the tolls of these past 10 months are showing up everywhere. Injuries shape the title race every year, but this season it feels heavier. This might come down to which team can avoid calf injuries. I’ve never seen more of them.
2. Who is the fourth-best team in the East?
Bontemps: The Heat take the honor that no one seems eager to grab. Miami has never been whole this season, but at full strength I like the Heat’s combination of skill and depth at both ends more than that of the Celtics or Hawks, the other two teams most likely to finish with the fourth seed.
Pelton: I’m going with Miami. While I don’t expect a repeat of last year’s impressive run to the NBA Finals, I think the Heat can find enough offense in the playoffs to go along with their top-10 defense. Given their combination of star talent, experience and depth, I think Miami has the best chance of reaching the conference semifinals outside the East’s top three.
Snellings: The Heat are the next strongest team in the East. They’ve been there before, are a tough-minded group and they play a defensive style of play that has proved to be strong in the playoffs. They also rank fifth in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) among East teams, directly behind the top three.
Marks: This is more about a process of elimination than a reward for standing out, but the Heat rank as my fourth-best team in the East. Although they have looked more like first-round fodder for most of the season, the Heat are playoff-tested and return many of the same faces that lost in the NBA Finals last season. They also strengthened their roster at the trade deadline with the additions of Trevor Ariza, Nemanja Bjelica and Victor Oladipo (despite his most recent injury).
Windhorst: Miami. The Heat’s record is really 22-14, because that’s what they are when Jimmy Butler plays. He transforms them. He’s having a great season, and Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro have been playing better lately, too. I wouldn’t put anything past them when Butler is right.
3. Who is the best player in the East?
Pelton: Joel Embiid. “Best player” is a surprisingly loaded question. For the 82-game regular season, I’d rather have Giannis Antetokounmpo or James Harden because of their superior durability. Come playoff time, Kevin Durant certainly could regain this title. But if I had to win one game today, Embiid would be my pick.
Snellings: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the East. He can put more pressure on opposing defenses than anyone outside of James Harden, forcing them to design their entire units to wall him off and try to keep him away from the rim. He’s also as good of a defender as can be found in the conference. Durant is the best scorer, Harden the best offensive player and Embiid the best pure center, but Giannis is the best all-around player.
Marks: The body of work this season is only 21 games, but Kevin Durant has proved that he is the best player in the Eastern Conference. In the small sample of games, the former MVP has averaged 28 points on 52.8% shooting from the field and career highs of 43.7% from 3 and a true shooting percentage of 65.7.
Windhorst: Durant is one of the greatest players of all time. Giannis is right there, of course, but Durant has two Finals MVP awards on his shelf.
Bontemps: You could have your pick of Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant and the answer would never be wrong, but I’ll take Embiid. He’s playing better than he ever has, is a foul-drawing machine and is the one player whom the other two teams atop the East truly don’t have an answer for. That’s enough to give him the slightest of edges over the other two.
4. What East play-in scenario do you most want to see?
Pelton: I’m already on the record here: Let’s get Chicago, Indiana, Miami and New York in there and re-create the Eastern Conference playoffs of the 1990s, albeit probably with fewer fights between the Heat and the Knicks.
Marks: A Knicks-Pacers play-in game does not compare to the days of Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing, but it would be the most intriguing of the potential matchups. The two teams have played three times this season with New York winning the last two by a combined seven points.
Windhorst: It would be good for the NBA if the Knicks could make it back to the playoffs, and it would be a huge boost to their fans. Seeing them get into the field of eight and getting playoff games back at Madison Square Garden would be a welcome sight.
Bontemps: A Knicks-Bulls game would be pretty fun to see. Two of the league’s glamour franchises — both of which have fallen on hard times but have had fun seasons — playing a must-win game to get into the playoffs would be a good way for the league’s newest venture to attract attention. The drama of either Miami or Boston falling into the play-in tournament would also be interesting. So too would a Boston-Toronto rematch from last year’s playoffs, though that isn’t looking likely these days.
Snellings: I’d like to see the Wizards make it to the play-in game, as their starting backcourt could be electric in a win-or-go-home scenario. Almost like the NCAA tournament, a hot backcourt like Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal could make that type of format a lot of fun to watch.
5. Pick one to make the Finals: The Nets or the field.
Bontemps: The field, easily. And that’s not a knock on Brooklyn, which might be the favorite to make it out of the East. But if there are three teams that have a legitimate shot to make it out of the conference, and they’re all bunched together, why wouldn’t you take two chances over one? Given Brooklyn’s shaky health this season, I’ll take my chances with the field (but really Milwaukee and Philadelphia) to find a way past the star-studded Nets.
Pelton: The field. Gonzaga’s loss in the national championship was the latest reminder that “Team X or the field?” is a dangerous proposition, albeit somewhat less so for a best-of-seven series. If you told me that the Nets would be the No. 1 seed, I would probably pick them. But if Brooklyn potentially has to beat Milwaukee in the conference semifinals and Philadelphia in the conference finals without home-court advantage for the latter series, that tips me toward the field.
Snellings: The field, because I’m not certain the Nets are the best team in the East. Arguments could be made for each of the Bucks and 76ers, individually, ahead of the Nets, and the Heat will be a challenge as well. The Nets have serious question marks in the middle, as well as on defense and on the boards, which are all difference-makers in the playoffs.
Marks: I picked Brooklyn to make the NBA Finals and I am not going to second-guess my decision now.
Windhorst: The Nets have the most talent, and I would argue they also have the biggest margin for error with those three superstars. If they don’t do it for any reason other than injuries, it would probably be a disappointment.