NBA All-Star Weekend has come and gone, which means it’s time to focus on the stretch run as teams jockey for playoff seeding.
In the Eastern Conference, five clubs remain in the mix to earn the coveted top seed, which guarantees home-court advantage all the way to the NBA Finals. The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers all have a shot at the East crown, and the next eight weeks should be a white-knuckle ride to the finish line.
Which of the five contenders is best-positioned to top the conference come April 10? Here’s a breakdown of each team’s remaining schedule:
|Milwaukee Bucks||Toronto Raptors||Indiana Pacers||Boston Celtics||Philadelphia 76ers|
|Games back of first place||—||1||5.5||6.5||6.5|
|Home games remaining||13||12||11||10||11|
|Road games remaining||12||11||13||14||13|
|Games remaining vs. current playoff teams||12||11||15||13||10|
|Western Conference road games remaining||6||3||6||4||5|
|Combined win percentage of remaining opponents||0.472||0.450||0.522||0.526||0.485|
The Bucks have been a model of consistency this season. Led by MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee is in pole position heading down the stretch. Milwaukee also made a savvy move at the trade deadline to acquire three-point threat Nikola Mirotić from the New Orleans Pelicans, which makes Mike Budenholzer’s offence even more potent. Already holding a one-game lead for conference supremacy with two games in hand on the Raptors, Milwaukee looks poised to keep its grip on the No. 1 seed.
Toronto roared out of the gates in 2018-19 and has been in either first or second place in the East the entire season. With Kawhi Leonard an impending free agent, the Raptors’ focus is very much on competing for a championship this year. Since the future is murky, Masai Ujiri continued to push his chips into the centre of the table by landing three-time all-star Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies at the trade deadline. The Raptors have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, and don’t have any high-mileage road trips left to worry about. The Raptors also only have two back-to-back sets in front of them, so Leonard and Co. should be plenty rested for what could be a make-or-break post-season for the franchise.
After losing Victor Oladipo to a season-ending quad injury in January, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the Pacers tumble down the standings. That hasn’t been the case as Indiana has adjusted to losing its biggest star and leaned on its outstanding defence to weather the storm. The Pacers have a gruelling schedule the rest of the way, having to play 15 of their 24 remaining games against teams currently in a playoff position. Already facing a 5.5-game deficit, the top seed is likely unattainable.
Prior to the season, the Celtics were believed to be the top dogs in the East. It’s been a trying year for the storied franchise, with Brad Stevens’ club showing flashes of dominance but ultimately being mired in inconsistency. The Celtics have 24 games left to make their run, and they’ll be hoping Gordon Hayward can continue showing signs of progress after missing all of last year with an ugly injury. They’ll be put through the ringer as they have the most challenging remaining schedule of any team on this list, and will have to play 14 games away from TD Garden. Even if they can’t close the gap on their rivals, they should be battle-tested come spring.
The 76ers have made some big splashes on the trade market this season to surround homegrown talents Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Philadelphia acquired disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler in November, and added Los Angeles Clippers standout Tobias Harris at the trade deadline. On paper, the 76ers boast one of the most imposing starting lineups league-wide, but will all the pieces gel together? Philadelphia has two games left against both Milwaukee and Golden State — the top teams in each conference — that will serve as good measuring sticks. Even if the 76ers sweep the two games against the Bucks, a 6.5-game hole is probably too deep to climb out of.