The Stretch Run.
With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.
As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.
But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.
At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.
On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.
Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.
With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.
And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.
At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.
After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.
And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.
Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.
But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.
Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.
On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.
The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.
But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.
You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.
This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.
If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.
Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.
And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.
Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.
But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.
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