Boston is good. Really good. They’ve quietly gone 21-7 and have the fourth best point differential in the league. They probably aren’t championship good yet, but are one piece away. While Walker, Tatum, and Brown are looking better every day, the question remains whether or not they can consistently defend Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo over a seven game series. Boston’s core trio has a ton of talent and should only get better together as their chemistry develops. Brown seems to have taken that next step and let’s not forget the Brad Stevens factor. Their bigs (Theis, Williams, Kanter) looked good against the Raptors, but they were also competing against Serge Ibaka and Chris Boucher. You have to wonder what this team would’ve been like with Horford back. There is still plenty of time to grow and Boston will be a tough out in the playoffs as they always are. While I still wouldn’t grant Boston championship contender status, they are more them capable of knocking off a contender and making a deep run in the playoffs.
Nick Nurse deserves more credit for last year’s championship than he got. The Raptors won’t be as good as their record (21-10) suggests come playoff time, but after losing Kahwi Leonard and Danny Green to Los Angeles, the Raptors are much significantly better than most people expected. That is largely due to the incredible job Nurse has done, as well as increased production from VanVleet and Siakam. The Raptors will be a tough out in the playoffs and the seeding for the 2 through 6 seeds in the East could be a big factor in the playoffs.
The 76ers at their best are a real championship threat. Even with their lack of depth (still a concern despite a strong bench showing against the Bucks), the 76ers might just have what it takes to win it all. Their starting lineup, while only ranked 10th in lineups that have played at least 10 games and have averaged at least 10 minutes a game, might be the best in the league and is only getting better as they get more comfortable. An angry Joel Embiid is a productive Joel Embiid and he looked like a man on a mission against the Bucks. If he brings that same intensity in the spring, the NBA better watch out. Their offense still looks awkward with Ben Simmons and Embiid on the floor (Philly needs to figure that out-it’s been a problem for three years now). Some may credit this win against the Bucks to the 76ers superb shooting, but that overlooks their strong defensive game and truthfully, their offense as a whole. Will they make 48% of their shots from behind the arc on the season like they did in this game? Of course not, but their offense hummed in all facets of the game, not just shooting. They had 29 assists on 44 made shots, pulled down 14 offensive boards, and only had seven turnovers. The playoffs often come down to talent and which team has more of it. Philly’s top five is talented and give them another few months to develop chemistry and they can seriously challenge for the Eastern Conference title.
Even with everything I said about the 76ers, the Bucks are still the favorites in the East, and it really isn’t close. They went into Philly, where the 76ers shot 48% from behind the arc, Giannis went 0-7 from 3 and 8-27 overall, and they still only lost by 12. Watching the game, it really felt like the Bucks were going to come back in the fourth. There’s something different about this Bucks team and it reminds me of the Warriors’ teams from their dynasty. The Bucks look joyful playing together, something that often is important when playing an 82 game schedule. Their bench is deep, and they have the best player on the planet. While Giannis won’t regularly make five threes a game, he also likely won’t go 0-7 regularly either. Even with this loss against Philly, the Bucks are still the favorites in the East and just need to focus on being healthy come April, May, and hopefully June.
Golden State 116
Houston, we have a problem. A real problem. Mainly, what the Rockets are doing when the ball is not in James Harden’s hands. Harden was relatively efficient on Christmas, posting 24 points on 18 shots. He added 11 assists and 6 boards, not a great day by Harden’s standards, but an efficient day. And yet, the Rockets lost by 12 to a Warriors team that had D’Angelo Russell shoot 1-10 from 3. Golden State exposed a real problem that the Rockets will have to figure out in the postseason and that’s the question of can the non-Harden Rockets produce enough to win a championship. Harden will be more reluctant to give the ball up in the postseason, but good defenses in the West will force him too. Houston’s success in the playoffs will rely heavily on the performances of Westbrook, House, and Tucker. If they consistently go a combined 6-24 from behind the arc, Houston’s playoff run will be short lived. It’s as simple as that. Mike D’Antoni and company need to figure out a way to put the Rocket’s role players in a better position to succeed come the playoffs. If that means losing a few extra regular season games to get those players more comfortable in pressure situations, then so be it. But if Houston is going to take flight in the playoffs, they have got to solve this problem.
The Warriors are bad, but that’s okay. Injuries have caused them to drastically decline this year, but the important thing for the Warriors is they continue to build their culture. Despite all of the losses, it appears that they are doing just that. The Warriors’ Christmas Day game against Houston illustrated it more than ever. In a game that many, including myself, expected Golden State to get blown out, they brought back a classic Warriors’ performance. The ball movement and defensive intensity was reminiscent of their dynasty. Will the Warriors make the playoffs? No. But this season is still incredibly important in continuing to build their culture for future seasons.
Los Angeles Clippers 111
Los Angeles Lakers 106
The Clippers are the best team in LA, and in the West. They might not end up with the best regular season record, but they’re the best team. The Clippers play in your grill defense the whole game and it wears opponents down. They’re extremely well coached, are extremely deep, and everyone understands their role. The lineup that closed out the game against the Lakers (Williams, Beverly, George, Leonard, and Harrell) has a 20.8 net rating (across 46 minutes). That’s their death lineup and on Christmas, the Lakers didn’t have an answer at all for it. The Clippers looked like they just wanted it more and that’s been a consistent theme throughout the season for them. Whenever Williams, George, or Leonard would miss a shot, Beverly and Harrell were quick to get the rebound and put it back. The Clippers aren’t just good, they’re the best team in the West, maybe the NBA.
The Lakers loss to the Clippers exposed their biggest weakness-an inability to shoot the ball. Their starters were a combined 5-27 from three (the bench was actually 7-18). They’re fourth quarter (and third quarter) offense was abysmal and seemed to be entirely composed of giving James or Davis the ball and letting them play isolation. There were some nice actions out of timeouts, but overall, the offense was stagnant. As good as the Lakers are, the Clippers showed that against an elite defense, they’ll have some difficulty scoring. The Lakers will be fine against most teams but come the playoffs, they’ll need more from players not named LeBron James and Anthony Davis if they want to win a title.
New Orleans 112
The Pelicans are better than their record suggests. Coming into this season, I thought (with a healthy Zion) the Pelicans had an outside shot of competing for the 8 seed in the West. Obviously, my prediction (along with many others) was not to close to what has come to pass so far on the court, but the Pelicans are better than what their 9-23 record might suggest. Although they have a -5.6 point differential per game, their talent suggests they should have a better record. Their record has largely been a result of their abysmal defense, one of the league’s worst (def. rating of 112.5-26th in the league). During the first quarter, I was originally going to write my commentary about the Pelicans on their lack of consistent defensive effort. With roughly 4:30 left in the first quarter, the Nuggets were on a fast break and the ball flung to the corner, where the Jerami Grant knocked down a three. What stuck out to me most from that sequence was Brandon Ingram, who made no effort to close out at all on Grant. While that seems like something that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things (Grant probably will make the shot either way), Ingram’s lack of defensive effort is representative of the Pelicans team. Just over two minutes later, Jamal Murray came around a screen and walked into an elbow jumper (which he made) without any semblance of a contest from a Pelican. ESPN ran a graphic later in the game that showed that the Pelicans were among the tops in the league in some of the hustle defensive stats. Even with that, they have one of the worst defenses in the league, and I have to wonder if that’s largely due to them simply taking plays off like the two mentioned above. I will say that for the rest of the game, the Pelicans looked locked in on defense and played like a playoff caliber team. Their record doesn’t reflect it but when they put consistently put in the defensive effort, the Pelicans are a sneaky good team.
Even with the loss, Denver is a serious threat. The Nuggets, when playing well, have one of the best offenses and defenses in the league. They have a strong bench and the best starting lineup (by net rating) in the league. The way they move the ball and play defense reminds me somewhat of the Spurs teams from earlier this decade (minus the Hall of Famers the Spurs had). What was incredible about those Spurs teams though was their consistency night in and night out. Even on a bad shooting night, their identity and style of play never wavered. The same can’t necessarily be said about these Nuggets, and a lot of that has to do with Nikola Jokic. I love Jokic, don’t get me wrong. He’s quite possibly the best passing big man of all time. He sees things that few players of any position see. And yet, he simply looks bored on the court. I get it, if I saw the things that he sees and my teammates didn’t, I would be bored too. But Jokic’s disinterest has affected his production far too much this season, this game included. If Denver is going to be a serious threat in the playoffs, he has to play at an MVP level every single possession, not just the fourth quarter or when he feels like it. I would bet that he’s fine in the playoffs and that he won’t be the cause to blame if the Nuggets don’t make it out of the West. But Jokic needs to start building these habits now. It’s what separates the All-Stars from the superstars. It’s time for the Joker to stop joking around and help take the Nuggets to further heights.