NBA debate – How many real title contenders are in the East?

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Can anyone top the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference?

The Bucks are once again on a historic pace, with a real chance to top 70 wins. Should they be the favorites over the rest of the East field to make the NBA Finals? What are the biggest things to watch before the end of the regular season? And what potential first-round playoff matchup would be the most exciting?

Our NBA experts answer the big questions about the likely East playoff teams.

MORE: Latest NBA Power Rankings


1. What will you be paying the most attention to among the East playoff teams during the rest of the regular season?

Jorge Sedano: Did the Miami Heat give the league a blueprint on how best to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo this season? How many teams will try a similar strategy, and how many can actually be successful? What will the Heat become as they develop more chemistry with their new additions and get healthier? Lastly, how do the Philadelphia 76ers finish the season? Due to a mismatched roster and injuries, they seem to be a ship that has lost its rudder.

Bobby Marks: Which teams get to the finish line in one piece? For the 76ers, getting Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid healthy is the priority, even over favorable seeding. But all of the top teams have lost key players to injuries at some point this season.

Tim Bontemps: Can the Bucks become the third team to win 70 games? Can Victor Oladipo show signs of returning to his old self? Can the 76ers get healthy? And who will win the race for No. 2 between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics? Whichever team does will be the favorite to face Milwaukee in the conference finals.

André Snellings: The 5/6 battle between the Indiana Pacers and the 76ers. In this instance, the sixth seed might be preferred because it keeps a team outside of the Bucks’ bracket until the East finals. And for a wildly talented but unpredictable team like the 76ers, a romp from the sixth seed to the Finals is possible.

Kevin Pelton: Who finishes second, a competitive race with huge stakes. Not only will it determine home-court advantage if Boston and Toronto meet in the second round, it also entails a much easier opening-round matchup against either the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic, rather than Indiana or Philadelphia. Don’t tell the Celtics or Raptors that the rest of the regular season is meaningless.


2. What East first-round playoff matchup would you most want to see?

Snellings: I’d be eager to see Celtics vs. 76ers at some point. These are two young, talented teams with history between them. Al Horford moving to the other side of the matchup is intriguing. The Sixers have some of the best young size in the NBA, while the Celtics are chock full of young, talented wings. This would be an uber-exciting matchup.

Bontemps: Not the first round, but Toronto vs. Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals — a matchup that somehow hasn’t happened yet in the playoffs. It would be a really fun series to watch play out, with two deep, smart, well-coached teams capable of playing in a variety of different ways.

Pelton: Miami-Philadelphia. Since the Sixers won the first head-to-head matchup in November by 27 points, the Heat’s zone defense has given Philadelphia fits. How that evolves over the course of a seven-game series would be fascinating to watch.

Sedano: Miami vs. Philadelphia. Jimmy Butler clearly is enjoying trying to purchase property in the Sixers’ heads, especially after the social media exchange with Embiid recently. Butler seems intent on making them regret he’s no longer there. These fan bases don’t like each other, either, which always adds a layer of intrigue.

Marks: Philadelphia vs. anybody. We can likely pencil in the Sixers for the 4, 5 or 6 seed. That means the 76ers could be looking at starting Round 1 on the road vs. Boston, Toronto or Miami. Despite a starting five that ranks among the league’s best (at least on paper), the 76ers have struggled away from home (9-22) and could be out of the playoffs before we even enter May.

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3. What East finals matchup do you expect to see?

Bontemps: Milwaukee vs. whichever of Toronto or Boston finishes in second place. That potential Eastern Conference semifinal will likely hinge on whichever team can secure home court. And you have to expect the Bucks will make it there without much difficulty — especially if Philadelphia isn’t at full strength.

Marks: Milwaukee vs. the No. 2 seed. Getting the second seed is the equivalent to receiving a bye in the first round — no offense to Orlando or Brooklyn, but Milwaukee and either Toronto or Boston will be looking at a potential sweep in Round 1. Meanwhile, the other two series could be steel-cage matches. So if the Raptors find themselves at No. 2, we could be looking at a repeat of last year’s Eastern Conference finals.



Source : ESPN