At this point in the season, enough wins and losses have happened for most every team that any win or any loss feels like it has less and less impact for records. However, with the East’s top 5 being as close as they’ve been, and with the entire West minus Phoenix gunning for a playoff spot, any one game could decide where you fall in the seeds, and consequentially, what match-ups are played in the first round and who hosts those series. So, without any further introduction, here is the upcoming week’s NBA games to look out for:
Bucks @ Celtics: The Bucks started out this season red-hot, holding on to the longest undefeated streak to start out the season in the NBA, and that whole time, the Celtics had some serious issues to work out. In the most recent stretch of the season, those roles were reversed. Boston recently won 8 games uninterrupted until Detroit snapped their streak, which brought them back into the fray with the other Eastern Conference contenders, record-wise. The Bucks have had some predictable regression to their shooting, and it’s made life harder for Giannis Antetokounmpo as a result. Not only is he getting less scoring help from the likes of Middleton, Lopez, and Brogdon, but with less incentive to respect the 3-ball, Giannis is getting defended more effectively by opponents, as well. Both records are very close, and a win from Boston would put them only 1 loss more than the Bucks in record. Not to mention, this game is at home for the C’s, and TD Garden is one of the most hostile arenas in professional basketball. This should be a test on both coaches, especially Brad Stevens, who is starting to figure out which lineups work even amid injuries from Al Horford and others. Defending the perimeter and guarding bigs in the paint has always been a strength for Boston, but is it enough to handle the Freak?
Raptors @ Sixers: This rematch of EC contenders will take place in the Wells Fargo Center, and the Sixers regained a little bit of rhythm in their win against Cleveland. The most striking thing was the fact that Simmons, Embiid, and Butler all had good games simultaneously, even though Butler was on his first game back from injury rest. Not to mention, rookie guard Landry Shamet went 4 for 4 from 3 before garbage time to pick up the slack left by the lackluster shooting from the rest of the bench. Most importantly, the Raptors will be short Jonas Valanciunas, making the defense at center a bigger issue for Toronto than it normally is. This presents an opportunity for Embiid to have an easier time scoring than he did in these teams’ first game against one another. Embiid looked exhausted and downright frustrated before. But with only Serge Ibaka to do defensive work at center, it may disrupt some of the lineups that Nick Nurse has succeeded with thus far. And if the Sixers’ shooting is on, then look out, because Embiid will have all the space in the world to work in, and with fewer big bodies capable of slowing his roll. A loss for Toronto isn’t earth-shattering, but a win for Philly is a big step in the right direction.
Grizzlies @ Lakers: The Western conference is as jumbled as ever, and while these teams are currently at the 6 and 4 seeds, respectively, you can’t take a single unnecessary loss if you’re trying to make the playoffs and earn a respectable seed. Especially for the Lakers, who need to capitalize on every home game and win some away in order to stay on track after a somewhat troubling loss to the Wizards just this past week. As I mentioned in the introduction, any one game can decide if you even make the playoffs this year, so the Staples Center better be wild during these games against other teams in the bubble. As good as LA’s defense has been since the Chandler signing, they may struggle against the duo of centers in Marc Gasol and Jaren Jackson Jr., who are having great seasons on both sides of the ball. Jackson, for as young as he is, is shaping up to be one of the most impactful players in this rookie class, and is covering up for a lot of sins for the Grizzlies’ bench. The recent signing of one former DPOY Joakim Noah might have a bigger impact than one would have expected, too. LeBron can always turn it on whenever he wants, but if the young core continues to be inconsistent, the Lakers’ defense will have to be on if those shots aren’t falling.
I apologize for discussing the Sixers in a column that’s specifically meant to be about the other 29 NBA teams, but that’s a big game, and to be fair, one of those other 29 is playing against them. This season just got a lot more interesting, with the trade window opening up for pre-season signings. The Lakers, for example, missed out on the Trevor Ariza sweepstakes, and that was an opportunity for them to dump KCP and pick up a more playable, veteran presence, which LeBron loves oh-so much. There are plenty of shoes yet to drop before the trade deadline, some of which may define a team’s entire post-season calculus. Maybe Ariza would have turned the Lakers from a good team to a great one. The needle can move a lot for any one team, especially in the crowded Western Conference playoff bubble.