THE Milwaukee Bucks will clinch the overall No.1 seeding in the NBA Playoffs with a victory at the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.
With four games remaining, that should be a dead cert with top spot also falling their way with a solitary Toronto loss.
But the showdown in Philly is about more than merely one small reward. With the season series on the line, it’s a real barometer of whether the chips might fall in the weeks ahead as the Beasts of the East bid to be the last contender standing.
Because while Milwaukee is riding high – and Giannis Antetokounmpo thoroughly deserves to be this season’s MVP (he’s now the clear favourite at 1.42) – we’ll head into the post-season knowing any one of the Bucks, the Sixers, the Raptors or the Boston Celtics could emerge with the Conference crown.
— theScore (@theScore) April 3, 2019
A fascinating four-way duel. Great for the fans. Not so great for the quartet, each of whom has positive attributes and genuine question marks, all of whom would be worthy NBA Finalists and also feel severe pangs of disappointment should they fall short.
And yet, it is time to give the Bucks – who are 3.00 faves for the East – the benefit of the doubt for two reasons: great coaching, and arguably the greatest player now in the entire league, enough to offset a lack of experience in dealing with the unique demands placed once we’ve moved beyond an 83rd game.
The former first. Mike Budenholzer – whose own playing career may have peaked during a frenetic free-scoring spell in the Scottish League – has worked marvels both in Atlanta and in his present stop with a close adaption of the approach he witnessed in San Antonio as one of Gregg Popovich’s lieutenants.
Team, before individual, in mentality, but also with the good sense to lean on great soloists even when the symphony is entirely well-tuned. A big plus come playoff time when playcallers need to be more moves ahead than ever.
Yet history has taught us that there is no time when talent counts for more than in the post-season. And that even one transcendent giant can suffice. The Golden State Warriors, with stellar performers aplenty, remain the outstanding favourites to claim it all.
But there is a reason why only one team – the 2004 Detroit Pistons – have earned a title without a top five All-NBA talisman in the last 40 years. Giant prizes, giant characters, giant shadows. Blocking lesser lights out.
Which is where Antetokounmpo is more appetising than the likes of Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and the buffet of delicacies in Philadelphia. Because while all of them are superstars, none has sat this season in that ultra-rarefied strata of uber-stars where The Greek Freak is kept company by LeBron, Steph, KD, James Harden and perhaps none more.
These leviathans are worth every penny they earn. Even though the Bucks are hurting, with Antetokounmpo’s gammy ankle, Khris Middleton’s groin and assorted other ailments giving Budenholzer with a treatment list to monitor.
Proud of the Bucks today
– Frazier 20 pts / 15 ast / 7 reb
– Bonzie Colson 15 pts / 16 reb
– Sterling Brown 27 pts / 9 reb
— IKE Bucks (@IKE_Bucks) March 31, 2019
At this stage of the campaign, everyone is aching. And hence there is as much uncertainty among the East’s other trio. Toronto is still living a life less than extraordinary with Leonard’s frequent absences surely costing the Raps priceless slivers of momentum. Philadelphia remaining a sum less than their outstanding parts. And Boston likewise, all unfulfilled potential and frustration.
Any of them could win out. And the 76ers would feel emboldened if they triumph on Thursday, especially after a poor loss to Atlanta on Wednesday.
Yet the humble son of humble immigrants has averaged 42 points in his two prior meetings with Philly this term. And he has exceeded expectations and answered each question since arriving in the NBA.
If the ultimate query is whether he can deliver, should we really start betting against Giannis now?
Best bet: Take Milwaukee on a handicap of -5.5 over Philadelphia
The Lakers pick up a loss on the road to the Oklahoma City Thunder, 119-103.
Russell Westbrook drops 20 pts, 20 reb, and 21 ast. The first 20-20-20 game since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968.
— Lakers Fanclub UK (@lakersfanclubuk) April 3, 2019
With the Western Conference top eight locked inside the cut-off, albeit with some positional wrestling still unfinished, the Oklahoma City Thunder have one big target: climb out of eighth place and avoid a probably first-round duel with the Golden State Warriors.
They host the already-ousted Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday and while the visitors join the Lakers as this season’s Most Disappointing, they did sneak a narrow win over the Warriors earlier this month.
But the Thunder had won only two out of nine before their mid-week crushing of said Lakers so it’s worth a punt on the T-Wolves at +5.