- Will Giannis's poor shooting recover in time for the playoffs? Can the Raptors really rely on their young bench to help them reach the Finals? Those questions and more haunt the Eastern Conference contenders.
With LeBron James now in Los Angeles, the path to the Finals in the Eastern Conference is clear for the first time in nearly a decade. A quartet of teams have separated themselves as the premier contenders for the conference crown through 30 games, with the Raptors, Bucks, 76ers and Celtics snagging four of the top five seeds in the East as of Thursday night. With apologies to Indiana—and the continued brilliance of Victor Oladipo—each of the four aforementioned squads could very well find themselves in a June battle with Golden State, aiming to dismantle the Warriors quest for a three-peat.
But before we can size up the East champion against Golden State, we need to assess how the four Eastern foes stack up within their own conference. Each of the four contenders are laden with All-Star talent, from phenoms in Milwaukee and Philadelphia to Finals-tested stars in Toronto and Boston. Peer past the impressive headliners, though, and you can find the holes in each roster, as well as the potential pitfalls on the road to a Finals berth. So what could cause each of the four Eastern Conference contenders to fall before the NBA Finals? We break down the most glaring flaw for the East’s top four teams.
Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis’ Jump Shot
The Greek Freak has fueled Milwaukee’s rise to the second spot of the East this season, leading the MVP race behind a historic tally of dunks. Antetokounmpo is a physical marvel unlike even early-career LeBron, covering a greater share of the court than anyone in the league with his freakish strides. There’s no true historical comparison for Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo’s extreme efficiency near the tin has hid just how poor he’s been as a shooter this season. Giannis is shooting just 14.3% from three, but that’s actually not as much of an issue as his other splits. Antetokounmpo has made just 6.1% of shots from 10-16 feet, and 6.3% of attempts from 16-22 feet. It’s not just Antetokounmpo’s three that’s broken, it’s his entire jumper.
The frightening metrics won’t hurt Antetokounmpo in the regular season. He’s a freight train the likes of which the league has seldom seen, and should be considered the MVP through 30 games. That doesn’t mean he won’t be vulnerable come playoff time, though. Expect teams to sag as much as possible and pack the paint for Antetokounmpo sprints to the tin. Made jumpers from Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton will help lighten the pressure. But regardless of his supporting cast, Antetokounmpo will face the same challenge LeBron did early in his career. Giannis will have to make teams give a shred of respect to his jumper in order to reach the Finals.
Toronto Raptors – Youth Reliance
This year’s Kawhi-led squad feels like a more legitimate title contender than last year’s group, especially after Wednesday’s demolition of Golden State. Leonard should be able to shoulder the offensive load more effectively than DeMar DeRozan in the postseason, and the Danny Green addition shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s the knockdown shooter Toronto lacked last season.
There’s the temptation to name Kyle Lowry as Toronto’s chief concern come playoff time given his postseason history. He disappeared from last season’s Game 4 blowout against the Cavaliers, scoring just five points on 2-7 shooting. Will Lowry rise to the occasion this season? He hasn’t done much to provide confidence in past playoffs. The Lowry concerns are valid, though with Leonard leading the way, a lessened scoring burden should bring out the best in the bowling ball point guard. It’s the rest of the supporting cast that leads to concern.
Toronto’s secondary pieces are an impressive group. Pascal Siakam is a lanky whirling dervish with a now-famous spin move, Fred VanVleet is a heady floor general and OG Anunoby has established himself as a leading defensive wing. Yet for all their collective talent, their readiness for prime time is in question. Siakam and Anunoby disappeared against Cleveland last year, overwhelmed by the stage. VanVleet was largely clamped by George Hill. Delon Wright wasn’t respected as an outside threat, nor was C.J. Miles in Games 3 and 4. The Cavs sagged inside and dared DeRozan to hit twos and shaky threes to beat them. Toronto was summarily swept.
Green should help siphon off some responsibility from Toronto’s young wings, but the pressure will still be on in the later rounds of the playoffs. The baby Raptors will need to make a major leap compared to last April for Toronto to win the East for the first time in franchise history.
Philadelphia 76ers – Ben Simmons’ Fit
Simmons acquainted himself well in last year’s playoffs, controlling Philadelphia's offensive flow through the first two rounds. It was the 76ers' other young star who cratered their Finals chances, failing to corral Al Horford and Boston’s guards in space. Joel Embiid was gassed by the end of the East semis, and the 76ers season went up in smoke.
Embiid has proved lighter on his feet this year, and offensively, he’s an absolute menace. Jimmy Butler has poured in the points despite a questionable fit next to Embiid, and should acclimate himself just fine in the postseason. Simmons’s role, though, has yet to be defined.
The youngest piece of Philadelphia’s Big 3 has often looked like a man without a purpose when paired next to a secondary ball handler in Butler. The 76ers' offense hummed with Simmons last season, stationing an array of shooters around Simmons and Embiid. When Simmons and Butler are on the floor, Simmons’ effectiveness dwindles. Butler is a high-usage, high-dribble All-Star. If Simmons can’t shoot outside of the foul line, what can he do other than screen and cut along the baseline? He becomes a non-threat. Philly would be wise to stagger the Simmons and Butler as much as possible, taking a blueprint from Chris Paul and James Harden’s splits in Houston.
The trio will still have to be on the floor at the end of games. And this year’s roster doesn’t have quite the same stretch. Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala don’t provide as great of spacing as Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. Philadelphia will miss Robert Covington. So with a compacted interior and another ball-dominant star, what is Simmons supposed to do in the final minutes? The question may define Philadelphia’s season.
Boston Celtics – Questionable Shot Selection
Boston’s current eight-game winning streak has quelled the early-season panic, and Boston has an argument to be the conference favorite come playoff time. The Celtics are tough and battle-tested, led by an elite coach and a Finals hero for a point guard. They nearly knocked off LeBron’s Cavs last season, and that was without their best two players. So what could derail this collection of talent? A string of misfires similar to Game 7 against Cleveland.
The Celtics went a putrid 7-39 from three in the 87-79 defeat, including an 0-10 effort from Terry Rozier. The performance wasn’t a case of collective bad luck like Houston suffered in its own Game 7 loss. Boston looked jittery and panicked in the second half, a slate of quick triggers that too often settled away from the tin. There was no Rudy Gobert manning the paint. Jaylen Brown was often marked by J.R. Smith. Yet as the game slipped away, the threes kept coming.
Boston has no lack of shy shooters. Marcus Morris is a black hole (albeit an effective one), and Rozier won’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Kyrie Irving shouldn’t hesitate to get his buckets, yet that does come with a price. Jayson Tatum seems to embody Boston’s shot selection issues. Perhaps he spent a little too much time working on his Mamba mentality this offseason, and he will happily pull up from 19 feet instead of barreling his way to the tin. Tatum has an army of turnarounds, spins and fadeaways. They’re impressive moves, precocious for such a young player, but often the simple play is the smartest. He’s settling too much early in the season.
Boston is a balanced scoring team, with eight players averaging over 10 points per game. They won’t have to rely on a single superhero like Milwaukee and Toronto. But there could be too many cooks in the kitchen. Boston is the widely considered the most complete team in the East. If they can manufacture good looks in crunch time, they’ll represent the East for the first time since 2010.