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NBA East Top 5: Celtics Inching Towards Promised Land

We are moments away from having our first playoff seed locked up, as the Boston Celtics will secure the No. 1 spot in the East any day now. Of course, that’s not the only item on the NBA news front, as everyone else continues to jockey for position. Here’s a glance at the events of the past week or so at the top of the Eastern Conference.


NBA East Top 5: Celtics Inching Towards Promised Land
Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics/Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/AFP

1. Boston Celtics

We attempted to find a few pitfalls that could derail the Celtics’ season late last week. It was not an easy exercise. We probably had many of the same emotions most opponents do each night. How do you beat these guys? What hurts them? Where are their weaknesses?

The Celtics aren’t perfect by any means, but it’s not easy to identify ways to defeat them (or to write about ways to defeat them). Their current winning streak stands at nine, which comes on the heels of an 11-game run. It all makes for a 20-2 surge that has left the rest of the league in the dust and has made Boston the runaway favorite in our NBA title odds.

Perhaps most importantly, their magic number to clinch the East is down to just one entering Monday’s action. Then it’s a matter of staying sharp and healthy over the final few weeks.

For now, none of that seems to be an issue. Playing for the fifth time in seven nights, they rolled past the Bulls in Chicago on Saturday. Sam Hauser, who made 7 of 8 3-pointers while filling in for Jaylen Brown, summed it up well.

We’re just hungry for more,” Hauser said. “It’s not in our character to just, like, mail it in for the rest of the season.

It’s championship or bust at this point.


2. Milwaukee Bucks

They’re getting there, it seems. Giannis Antetokounmpo is over his recent injury concern and the wins are trickling in at a greater rate. Heck, even without Giannis they nearly pulled off a comeback win in Boston last week.

After starting the Doc Rivers era at 3-7, Milwaukee has gone 11-4. The four losses all came on the road to the Celtics, Kings, Lakers, and Warriors. That’s a pretty solid stretch and the vibe after an easy win over Oklahoma City on Sunday was great.

With a full team out there, we realize what we can do as a team,” Khris Middleton said after recording his second career triple-double in a 118-93 rout. “We have so many guys, so many weapons that can carry us, or guys that can make a play or just attract a crowd.

This game marked the first in nearly two months in which Giannis, Middleton, and Damian Lillard were all active. It was the first time since Jan. 31 – the team’s second game under Rivers – that it had its optimal starting five out there.

It’s been a choppy season in Milwaukee and it hasn’t seemed very fun for the players. Some have even reflected on that. But winning can do wonders in that regard. Perhaps they’ve finally got something cookin’ in Brew City.


3. New York Knicks

It’s sort of the same thing each week with these guys. You look out for updates on the NBA news and rumors pages on Julius Randle, OG Anunoby, and Mitchell Robinson and wonder how good they can be if all three are healthy in April.

Meanwhile, the wins are beginning to pile up, a few in the short time that Anunoby returned from elbow surgery before he needed to take a seat to manage the pain. But they’ve also won two of three since he went back on the shelf and are 5-1 in the last six overall.

Injuries are never a good thing, but there are occasions when a team is forced to learn a little more about itself. Players need to step up and sometimes they gain confidence. The head coach finds new combinations that work. In a weird way, these injuries can sometimes make a team much stronger.

We may get an example of this with the Knicks, who have shown how dominant they can be with Anunoby (15-2 when he’s in the lineup) and should have a much more confident supporting cast if/when all three injured starters make a full comeback.


4. Cleveland Cavaliers

Just to counter what we just said about the Knicks (see above), injuries can be a real drag. They seem to be taking too much of a toll with the Cavaliers, who are just 8-12 over their last 20 games.

In four games since Donovan Mitchell began his latest spell on the sidelines, here are Cleveland’s four scoring totals in order: 108 points … 104 points … 91 points … 84 points.

That’s not a great trend and the team’s best player won’t be back for a little bit. They did get Evan Mobley into the lineup for the first time in a while in Sunday’s game at Miami, but he didn’t make much of a difference – Cleveland trailed by 45 points in the fourth quarter.

The Cavaliers still have a five-game road trip that begins in Denver and ends with two in Los Angeles. That will be another test for a squad that is getting tested left and right, and not passing too many of those exams. They’ll be out of third place in the East in no time if something doesn’t change.


5. Orlando Magic

The Magic were a game above .500 going into the last day of January. They won a road game that night, kicking off what is now an 18-6 stretch, even with a loss to Sacramento on Saturday.

There have been a lot of home games in that span and several contests against the lower half of the league, so we’ve been hesitant to drag Orlando into the top five. But they have managed to open up a 2½-game lead over sixth-place Indiana and could stun everyone (at least as it relates to preseason NBA predictions) with a third-place finish in the East.

If you really want to get nuts, imagine the Magic finishing second. They’re four games behind Milwaukee as Monday begins and they play the Bucks twice in the final three games of the regular season.



Questions Of The Day

What’s the best NBA matchup on Monday, March 25?

It’s a loaded slate. We’re going to see if Houston can stretch its winning streak to nine games and keep the heat on Golden State, and we love the Pacers-Clippers matchup in LA.

Which NBA team outside the Top 5 should we keep an eye on?

The Heat have had an up-and-down month as their usual glut of injuries prevents them from putting together a prolonged run. However, they’re just a half-game behind Indiana for a coveted top-six spot.

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