THE NBA resumes after All-Star break on Thursday. Which signifies one thing: the race to both the top and the bottom is now firmly on.
With the last-minute pre-deadline trade pieces ready to suit up elsewhere, the shift focuses firmly onto that last push towards the playoffs and, of vital importance, the seedings which might be the determining factor in success or failure.
Despite the persuasive persistence of the Denver Nuggets, and the intriguing potential brought by Paul George’s emergence as the primary option in Oklahoma City, the Western Conference – and the title – still remains the Golden State Warriors to lose. No wonder they remain an unbackable 1.45 to retain their championship.
The real intrigue on the Pacific coast surrounds the angst over whether the Los Angeles Lakers will leave LeBron James outside the playoffs. All else is just noise.
It is the East, however, where the real drama will be played out. A top five, currently separated by just 6.5 games, of which four (apologies, Pacers fans) possess the capacity to end up in the Finals.
— katelawrence (@katelaw71494275) February 18, 2019
State of play
Milwaukee Bucks – Record: 43-14 (1st in East) East Odds: 3.25
It is the Bucks, rather than the Warriors, who hold the NBA’s best record. And while the spotlight burns, rightly, on Giannis Antetokoumpo, the All-Star performance of Khris Middleton underlined there is not a single top-tier contributor in Milwaukee.
Adding Nikola Mirotic pre-deadline at little expense also provides a huge boost. The Spain international averaged 16.7 points and a career-high 8.3 rebounds in his part-year in New Orleans and his contribution makes the Bucks case ever more credible.
Toronto Raptors – Record: 43-16 (2nd in East) East Odds: 3.00
There is a nervousness in Toronto that not even the excellence of Kawhi Leonard may be enough to propel the Raps to the finals for the first time. It was underlined by the trade that shipped out Jonas Valenciunas and brought in Marc Gasol. The Lithuanian, much improved, was deemed expendable. A gamble when the now ex-Grizzlies centre is on the downslide.
Canada’s finest are in win-now mode. Consistency – occasionally elusive – will need to become their friend.
— Raptors FastBreak (@RapsFastBreak) February 18, 2019
Boston Celtics – Record: 37-21 (4th in East) East Odds: 3.75
Can the Celtics live up to pre-season forecasts and come good? Front office clearly are keeping the faith with no deadline moves although they will need to improve a poor 11-13 record against .500 opponents. Their upside? Gordon Hayward averaged 21 points and 4.7 assists on 63% showing in the week before All-Star break, a massive if belated lift, for a team capable of more.
Philadelphia 76ers – Record: 37-21 (5th in East) East Odds: 3.75
The trade that brought Tobias Harris into the same line-up posted in neon that the Sixers want a run to the Finals, and maybe more. The (very) early signs are very promising although the real test will come with five tough contests coming up which start with Miami on Friday.
It’s improbable that the 76ers retaining both Jimmy Butler and Harris next season but there is pressure on both to earn max deals and chase championships, a scenario that could make Philly genuine dark horses for the title at 13.00.
A benchmark to tip it all off comes when the Celtics visit Milwaukee on Friday with the head-to-head on the line, with the two match-ups so far this term yielding an average of 228.5 points.
The Bucks will trust no momentum has been lost in the mid-term with the Celtics 2.75 to make up lost ground.
Best bet: Take Boston at +4.5 against Milwaukee.