The NBA continues to break into the middle part of the season, with every team now having played 20 or more games. So, without further ado, here is this week’s docket of exciting and interesting games with non-Sixers teams:
Nuggets @ Raptors: The Nuggets (15-7) and Raptors (20-4) both sit in the upper echelon of their respective conferences, with Toronto leading the East and Denver at number 2 in the West. The aspect of this match is how Denver’s star big man Nikola Jokic will perform against Toronto’s deep rotation of defensive bigs in Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and occasionally flashes of defensive strength from Pascal Siakam. The biggest knock on Jokic, for obvious reasons, is his lacking defense-especially against other bigs. As complete as he is on offense, you can’t score points if you get benched for being in foul trouble, which has proven to limit Jokic’s ability to shift a game in Denver’s favor. Further developing storylines also include Kawhi Leonard, who despite sitting games now and again has stepped up offensively in the past few weeks, and continues to assert his defensive dominance.
Spurs @ Jazz: This game takes place Tuesday night, and it comes at a big crossroads for both teams. Despite being only two wins back from the 8th seed, both sit in the bottom 3 of the Western Conference, record-wise. Both teams are usually great defenses that have struggled incredibly often this year, as the Spurs have allowed 130 points or more multiple times this year, and the Jazz just look clumsy sometimes, despite having reigning DPOY Rudy Gobert. On offense, the Jazz need to find a way to continue to empower shooters like Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles, although Mitchell’s success usually comes at a very high volume and with low assist numbers, making efficiency a problem as well. The Spurs have struggled to find a coherent gameplan, as often individual players have good performances, but not enough to match the amount of points they’ve been allowing lately. A win means a lot for both of them, and boy, they both need a reason to celebrate, too.
Warriors @ Bucks: Last week, the Warriors saw the Raptors for an overtime thrilled in which Kevin Durant scored 51, but the Dubs fell short. This time, GSW will visit another Eastern Conference leader in the Milwaukee Bucks, who despite their long win streak to start the season have begun to falter. The Bucks’ shooting has regressed a little bit as was expected, and it will be a test on Mike Budenholzer’s ability to manage how many shots players are taking if all of them aren’t shooting the lights out, and of course, how Giannis factors into all of that. The Warriors, thankfully, graciously, have regained Steph Curry from injury, which couldn’t have come enough for the Warriors or my sanity. I just can’t hear about Draymond and KD beefing anymore. It’s boring and dumb and the media is annoying me by trying to force a storyline, but that’s neither here nor there. It is perfectly reasonable to expect this game to be into the 125-135 range for both teams, especially once Steph has had a game or two under his legs again.
This stretch of the season has the potential to be a large stratifying force in both conferences. Will those in the hunt fall further behind? Can those in the playoffs solidify their position? Will the West ever get a clear pecking order, or at least win records that actually reflect a team’s capabilities? This is what keeps the middle of a season, what could normally be the doldrums of garbage time games, fun and interesting.
Unlike the West, the Eastern Conference projects to have a reasonable level of stability with who is in the top 8 seeds going into the playoffs, and while individual seeds may shift a bit, there’s little reason to believe that the 8 teams currently in can’t stay there. In the West, the 1 seed and 9th seed are only 4 wins apart, albeit with differing game totals, so there is plenty more opportunity for moving and shaking: being in or out could be decided by a few 4 game win streaks in February and March. Likewise, being the 3 seed vs being the 8th seed might come down to a single game. The order of the East is not nearly so fragile and has way fewer asterisks. So with this current group of 8, what does the Eastern Conference have in store for the post-season?
While I will look at the playoff picture with these 8 teams, I will change the seeding just a bit. This is partially due to certain seeding placements currently being very subject to how many games have been played, and teams that have better outlook going forward (i.e. Indiana getting Oladipo back). With that said, this is the playoff bracket I would expect, using the 8 teams currently qualifying:
1 Toronto Raptors vs. 8 Orlando Magic 4 Boston Celtics vs. 5 Indiana Pacers 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6 Detroit Pistons 2 Milwaukee Bucks vs. 7 Charlotte Hornets
Going match by match, here are some expectations:
Raptors/Magic: Not much to say here, most likely a sweep as the defensive prowess and overall depth of the Raptors would be very difficult to overcome for the extremely inexperienced Magic, even for a single game. Raptors win 4-0.
Celtics/Pacers: The C’s are a team that got moved from their current seeding, as despite their slow start they are perfectly capable of figuring it out, and possibly making some trade-deadline moves. The Pacers should also improve as they’ve been coasting without star guard Victor Oladipo. The 4/5 match-up is logically going to be the closest, and it will be on Indiana role players like Darren Collison, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner to make their value known in order to contend in a 7 game series against a deep but somewhat vulnerable Celtics. In this simulation, the Celtics have home-court advantage as well, adding another burden to Indiana’s load: winning a game in the Garden. I see a Celtics win 4-3, however this could easily be an upset, and is probably the most likely candidate for one of the first 4 sets.
Sixers/Pistons: Embiid might have a chance to cash in on his real estate in opposing big men’s heads again in round 1, as the current trends would have the Sixers playing Andre Bumm-I mean, Andre Drummond’s Pistons. Like Hassan Whiteside before him, Drummond will probably get exposed just a little bit, which will put so much more of a burden on Blake Griffin to keep his all-star level play up in a playoff series. Likewise, the moves the Sixers are likely to make before the post-season will only make the matchup harder on Detroit, as they lack any capable shooting outside of Griffin and some streaky guards like Ish Smith. I think the Pistons take one at home, Sixers win 4-1, although this could easily be a sweep as well with the lack of playoff experience some of the role players have, and how problematic the team vs. team match-up can be.
Bucks/Hornets: Similarly to the previous matchup, the Hornets simply do not have enough surrounding Kemba Walker to make this an appealing set. He could go for 60 each of 4 games, and it wouldn’t matter because the Bucks have too many people capable of shooting 3-balls to cover, even if their numbers regress a little bit into the post-season. Oh, last I checked, the Bucks have that greek dude too. I’ve heard he’s okay. I think Bucks win 4-0, but the Hornets can steal one if Kemba detonates and freaking Brook Lopez has a bad shooting night, or something.
That about wraps up the first round, leaving the following sets in the Semis:
1 Raptors vs. Celtics (possibly Pacers) and the 2 Bucks vs. 3 Sixers, which I think is all but a lock to occur unless Boston breaches the top 3 seeds. So what would those sets look like?
Raptors vs. the 4/5: I think the Raptors win this one convincingly, as well. Toronto is hard as hell to play in, and unless you have LeBron you need that home-court advantage badly. Kawhi is the perfect player for modern basketball, as he locks down the perimeter and prevents any and all funny business from the arc. If Boston wins the first round, I could see a 7-game series as the Garden is extremely hostile and Brad Stevens is a chess-master in the post-season, who might just out-coach rookie HC Nick Nurse enough to win at home. If Indiana wins the first round, I see this as a sweep. Oladipo isn’t enough to overcome full-court defense that strong, and the depth Toronto has in the paint will likely prevent Turner and Sabonis from getting any real value. Raptors win 4-3 over the Celtics, or 4-0 over the Pacers.
Bucks/Sixers: This is, by far, the most difficult game for me to try and parse for a 7 game series. The Bucks are deep, and are playing the modern NBA like a fiddle to maximize Giannis Antetokounmpo, and blow out nearly every team they beat. Moreover, the Sixers as currently constructed are relying on inexperienced players like Shamet to keep the shooting up, or Mike Muscala who could get hunted on defense. The Sixers are likely to make a move before the trade deadline to bolster their bench, and that is what makes this a hard one. Additionally, the shooting that makes the Bucks so proficient as a regular season team is bound to regress, and at that point you’re relying on Brook Lopez to score against Embiid, or Khris Middleton to score at the arc against Jimmy Butler or Ben Simmons, two guys who can at least force some tough shots. Essentially, this would come down to who wins between a team with 1 crazy guy and 6 average guys, versus a team with 3 extremely talented guys but not quite to the level of Giannis, and 3 guys who can back them up. Does the trifecta of Simmons, Butler, and Embiid outweigh the gravity created by Giannis, or is the supporting cast not good enough to capitalize on the mismatches? Who knows, as so much could change come round 2 of the playoffs. Simmons is just getting hot for the first time all year in the past few weeks. Butler is doing well but still nestling into his role. Embiid is playing like an MVP but needs to stay healthy and not be too worn by April. Giannis is shooting plenty of 3’s to get his confidence up, but can he do that if the shot doesn’t solidify before the end of the season? What if any of the Bucks role players get hurt? There is so many questions both ways in this match-up, but I think that will make it all the more fun to watch.
Thank you all for sticking around through this slightly longer post. I’m going to cut it off there as being unable to decide what makes the match-up between the Process and the Deer makes it equally difficult to decipher their respective matches against Toronto, who might win either way. I do plan on doing something similar to this for the West soon, but I’ll definitely have to change the formula to account for the insanity going on in those standings.