The East crown is within reach
Will any of the six teams in play make a move to grab it?
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Road in a Forest, Claude Monet, 1864
The NBA’s Eastern Conference has a bunch of really good teams. From the surprises in the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers to the mainstays in the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat to the Whatever You’d Call The Philadelphia 76ers, there’s a relatively stable collection of squads soaking up the top six spots in the conference. There’s a tiny gap after them, then another five good teams, then a big gap, then the rest of the conference. One of those teams in the “rest of the conference” was in the conference finals last year and has designs on surging into the top of the East starting like right now. We talked about them last week.
As of Tuesday morning, only 2.5 games separate the top six teams in the East. The Bulls and Heat are essentially tied for the No. 1 seed, with the Nets a half-game back. The Cavaliers, who have won five straight, are another game back from Brooklyn. The Bucks are a half-game behind them, the Sixers are a half-game behind them. Six teams, 2.5 games separate them.
The Nets and Bucks were the preseason favorites to represent the East in the Finals, and that might hold right now. Except Kevin Durant is out for a while and Kyrie Irving is only available every other night at maximum. Brooklyn has little depth and defense is, as expected, an issue. The Bucks always seem fine — Giannis Antetokounmpo is probably now the MVP favorite, he’s been incredible — but they’ve missed a bunch of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday time, and the loss of Brook Lopez looms. Also, there are No. 5 in the East — they have struggled to take what many view as their rightful place atop the conference when it’s sitting right there for the taking. The season is halfway over and the Bucks are No. 5. Should we read anything into that?
Chicago has won a bunch of close games. They are tied for 1st in W-L, but No. 5 in the East in net rating (a shiver ahead of Philadelphia). I’d believe that Chicago can make the NBA Finals, absolutely. But I’d also believe that they could slide to the No. 3 or 4 seed and get taken out in the first round. Miami has survived missing half of Bam Adebayo’s season and a bunch of Jimmy Butler, and they are No. 2 in the conference in net rating. Yet we saw Milwaukee punk the Heat right out of the postseason last spring (albeit without Kyle Lowry around).
Cleveland, beset by season-ending injuries, has the best net rating in the conference and the East’s best defense by a serious margin. Do you trust a team built around a young point guard, a young center, a young wing defender, a rookie big man, Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo?
And then there’s Philadelphia. One MVP-caliber player, one enormous roster hole, no apparent movement to resolve it.
This is all to say that this is WIDE OPEN and the right trade could create a real advantage for a team or two here. This time every year we hear how rare it is for a team to trade for a starting caliber player at the deadline and then make a deep run into the playoffs. But most years, there isn’t this much uncertainty at the top of the conference. Legitimately, the No. 1 seed in the conference is up for grabs with six teams having real chances to go get it. The furthest team back in the standings has a healthy All-NBA player on the shelf, not playing, begging for a trade. The second furthest team back is the defending champion. The third furthest team back has the best net rating in the whole conference. This is not a normal year in any sense. The conference is there for the taking, and the right deadline move could really swing this.
Will any of the six teams involved be willing to take the swing? Will the right deal manifest? Three weeks to find out.
I just want to warn you that there were some incredible dunks on Monday. If you’re unable to fully enjoy dunks in the morning, please delay your viewing of these dunks until later.
Bad day for the ol’ Sixers.
Nets 107, Cavaliers 114 — Steve Nash had one of James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the floor at all times. Cleveland kept making runs when Kyrie was off and Brooklyn kept making runs when Kyrie was on. Just noise, but with Kevin Durant’s absence plus Kyrie’s inability to play at home, it’s a little concerning for Brooklyn. Kyrie made it clear that he’s not getting the shot just because Durant is injured. I honestly don’t see why anyone thought that would change his mind?
Anyway, Kevin Love baseball pass to Darius Garland with the no-look backwards bounce pass to Isaac Okoro. A thing of beauty.
The Grizzlies know how to have fun in garbage time.
Four straight losses for Chicago. Concerning.
Bucks 114, Hawks 121 — Rousing comeback for Atlanta and a much-needed win. (They need about 10 more now.) The Hawks trailed by 11 with 9:01 left. Interestingly, Nate McMillan left John Collins on the bench for the comeback, turning instead to Danilo Gallinari and Onyeka Okongwu.
Raptors 99, Heat 104 — Welcome back, Bam Adebayo! That the Heat were a game out of No. 1 in the East with with Adebayo missing more than half the season and Jimmy Butler missing a quarter of it … it’s a testament to the team’s depth, to Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro’s performance, and to Erik Spoelstra’s coaching chops.
This is a potential playoff match-up. I’d watch it.
Jazz 95, Lakers 101 — Alright, the dunk of the night. Bigger than Kuzma or Konchar. Better than the full-speed Scottie Barnes jam deep in the Heat-Raps highlights I included. It’s a perfect dunk for the modern Basketball Internet.
It’s a double espresso in video form. It’s a superhero movie climax, with all of the pathos and payoff you need. It’s the computing power of the NBA trade machine compressed into a single atom, which is then split live on NBA TV.
It’s Russell Westbrook on Rudy Gobert.
Westbrook was so hyped he immediately picked up a taunting tech. Worth it, 100%, no question. The extended cut of Westbrook’s reaction is glorious.
Stanley Johnson and LeBron James carried the Lakers home for the win in the fourth. Good night at the office for the Lake Show. The Jazz fall back to fourth in the West.
Light schedule after the holiday. Both times Eastern.
Timberwolves at Knicks, 7:30, NBA TV
Pistons at Warriors, 10, NBA TV
Speaking of Embiid, here’s David Thorpe on the best version of Joel.
Kelly Dwyer with an interesting take on Rudy Gobert’s comments about the Jazz’s “winning habits” during his absence. I’m not a Mitchell-Gobert fatalist, but it does seem pretty clear that their work relationship is a struggle. ($)
Curtis Harris on the unsung Kenny Sailors, one of the pioneers of the jumper.
Takeaways from the WNBA’s qualifying offer period. Free agency rumors have been quiet. Maybe there won’t be much movement? Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones are two of the biggest stars in the league, and both are unrestricted.
And finally: Kareem talks MLK.
Be excellent to each other.