There still hasn’t been much separation in the Eastern Conference, with 4½ games between first and 10th entering Monday. Still, our expert NBA picks lean heavily on the preseason favorites, who are each a solid winning streak away from moving away from the pack.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with the top teams in the East in our weekly Top 5 power ranking, which features a newcomer at the tail end.
1. Boston Celtics (+150 to win Eastern Conference)
The injury bug that hits everyone at some point has settled into the Celtics’ locker room, as newcomers Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday are both banged up. The squad is 2-2 in its last four games after outlasting Atlanta 113-103 on Sunday night at home.
We’ve wondered about Boston’s depth if and when the physical issues mount. Well, here’s head coach Joe Mazzulla on that very issue after several lesser-used players needed to step up against the Hawks:
“We’ve been playing eight for the majority of the season. You have to find moments to give guys opportunities, see what we can develop and give guys chances. That was a perfect opportunity when you have guys out.”
Dalano Banton started, Sam Hauser put in 32 minutes of work off the bench and little-known big man Neemias Queta hauled in a career-high 10 rebounds in just 15 minutes. That all served as a nice complement for the usual work by Jayson Tatum (34 points) and Jaylen Brown (21).
GOOD MORNING 💪🏾 pic.twitter.com/Jep1jaKmIz
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 27, 2023
Injuries are often a blessing in disguise, as they give guys like Mazzulla an opportunity to figure out what he has underneath the surface. Games like Sunday’s will pay huge dividends down the road, and could make this already dominant squad even better in the long run.
2. Milwaukee Bucks (+175)
Their only blemish over the last eight games was a three-point loss at Boston, which is nothing to sneeze at. There was, however, almost something to sneeze at on Sunday, as the Bucks trailed the hapless Blazers by 26 points, but the largest comeback in the NBA this season saved Damian Lillard and Co. against his former team.
Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo outscored the entire Portland team 32-21 during Milwaukee’s big comeback, starting in the third quarter. Fiserv Forum was rocking and the Bucks are rolling right now, but unlike the Celtics’ win with key players out, this one doesn’t have the same effect.
“We can’t start the game like that. We should not be down 26 and then try to come and win the game. That takes a toll on your body. But at the end of the day, I’m happy we were able to win.”
While overcoming injuries is one thing, overcoming huge deficits is another and something much less satisfying. NBA betting fans should consider that Boston leads the NBA by a considerable margin in first-quarter point differential (+6.2), while Milwaukee is 22nd (-1.6). Over the course of 82 games, that can make a difference.
At the risk of turning this into a bash-the-Bucks session while simultaneously bumping them up to second in the rankings, we note that they’re often simply outscoring teams. That’s also not a recipe for long-term success, so we’d like to see some better defensive numbers (117.5 points against) before considering them for the top spot.
3. Philadelphia 76ers (+650)
The Sixers endured a recent 2-4 stretch but it came against a pretty solid run of opponents, including Boston and Minnesota. The challenging run of games continued Sunday at Oklahoma City against a Thunder squad that had won six in a row.
Many likely sided with OKC while making their NBA picks. Philly was up to the challenge, however, riding a big game from Joel Embiid and surviving a late Thunder rally for a huge 127-123 road win.
The Sixers got to the line a season-high 37 times, continuing a theme that has elevated them numerous times this season. They average 24.4 made free throws per contest, more than two more than any other team in the league and three more than anyone in the East.
That’s the kind of stuff that can wear down opponents, and the main reason why Philadelphia is the best second-half team on the season (+5.3 points).
A third matchup (already) with Boston is on the horizon and they then have a breezy stretch after whatever comes of their In-Season Tournament situation. Starting Dec. 11, here are the Sixers’ ensuing five opponents: vs Washington, at Detroit, vs Detroit, at Charlotte, vs Chicago.
That’s five straight against the four worst teams in the East and a chance to pile up some wins.
4. Miami Heat (+1400)
They’ve lost two in a row and three of five since their seven-game winning streak, but we’ll cut the Heat some slack. They’ve endured one of the more challenging schedules, and the losses were bound to pop up at some point.
Entering Monday, Miami had played 12 road games, including three in four nights last week to end a five-game trip, finishing with a back-to-back at New York and Brooklyn (both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo rested). Not a single team in the NBA had played as many as 11 roadies and only three (Boston, Dallas and Sacramento) had played 10.
🗣 SKY HOOK! pic.twitter.com/f4Jk0Th9B2
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) November 21, 2023
Nine of Miami’s next 11 scheduled games (independent of the next phase of the In-Season Tournament) are at home. They should get Tyler Herro back during that stretch and if no other major physical issues pop up they’ll hit a nice groove again.
5. Orlando Magic (+6500)
The Magic have just one winning season in their last 11 (all since Stan Van Gundyleft, which should be a nice line on his resume). The hottest team in the East should put an end to that trend in 2023-24 and could be a factor deep into the spring behind a dominant defense and Paolo Banchero’s rising star.
Included in Orlando’s seven-game winning streak are victories over Denver and Boston (by 17 points). Doesn’t get much better than that, and the streak should continue for a couple more games with two straight home dates against Washington on Wednesday and Friday.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Magic will be sitting atop the East standings at the end of the week, and a spot in the In-Season Knockout Round looks probable. If you want in on a longshot future pick, check out the NBA odds to win the title and see where Orlando sits. As it is, the Magic are a league-best 14-3 against the spread.
Questions of the Day
What is the most important factor that will impact the NBA East Top 5?
It’s obviously health. Nobody has been hit with a truly damaging injury as of yet, but a break, tear or sprain can alter the landscape in a hurry.
Which NBA Team from the top 5 has the best odds to win the championship?
The Celtics at +350.
The odds and predictions in the article are based on the time of writing and publication. They may differ as to when the actual event takes place.