Home NBA Making the NBA Finals Case for Each Eastern Conference Contender – Sports Illustrated

Making the NBA Finals Case for Each Eastern Conference Contender – Sports Illustrated

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Which team will come out on top in the Eastern Conference? The Crossover examines the case for each of the East’s top contenders.

The Bucks are the favorites for the Eastern Conference crown in May, but Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. are by no means locks to square off against the West champion in the Finals. The Eastern Conference runs five teams deep in contenders this season (sorry, Indiana) with all five squads capable of making a legitimate run at the Larry O’Brien trophy. Below one regular-season juggernaut lies four ferocious contenders, one of whom could pull off an upset over a potential 70-win team.

As we roll into March, we at The Crossover examined the case for each of the Eastern Conference’s Finals contenders.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Case For

Not only are the Bucks the best team in basketball this season, they’re also racing to one of the most impressive regular seasons in recent history. Milwaukee is on pace to become the third 70-win team in NBA history. Its net rating is 4.5 points per 100 possessions better than the Lakers for the league’s top spot. This isn’t the Bucks exhausting themselves for the No. 1 seed. They’ve been absolutely cruising thus far. Antetokounmpo is the lone Milwaukee player averaging over 30 minutes per game. Mike Budenholzer’s squad will be plenty rested in April.

Milwaukee has looked every bit like the NBA’s best team this season. Antetokounmpo remains a lethal force, and he appears to have more trust in his jump shot compared to 2018-19. Khris Middleton is living up to his contract. The Lopez Brothers have emerged as an elite tandem defending the rim. The Bucks are long and athletic. They rank No. 4 in made threes per game. Armed with the likely two-time MVP, Milwaukee should be considered the favorite to advance to its first Finals since 1971.

The Case Against

Deja Vu could very well strike the Bucks in the final two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs, with a clear blueprint ready to slow Antetokounmpo. Three pointers are still more of a mystery than a weapon for Antetokounmpo, and he’ll have to prove he can punish sagging defenders unlike 2019. And it’s not even Antetokounmpo’s production from three that could derail the Bucks. It’s their entire roster. Milwaukee relies on the three more than any other Eastern Conference team, and the results have thus far been terrific. Milwaukee could die by the three in the playoffs, though, especially if Antetokounmpo is slowed by the right defense. In a make or miss league, a few rough nights could derail the Bucks’ run to the Finals.

Toronto Raptors

The Case For

No team in the Eastern Conference–let alone the NBA–is more battle tested. The Raptors survived three heart-stopping series in a row last playoffs, and they’ve proved they’re much more than Kawhi and a cast of misfits in 2019-20. Pascal Siakam is handling lead playmaking duties with aplomb, while Finals hero Fred VanVleet is hurtling toward a lucrative contract. This is a roster deep with quality contributors who are perfectly deployed by Nick Nurse.

Toronto may not have the late-game shot-making of last season, but the Raptors remain one of the league’s stoutest defensive units. They should be able to outgun Miami, and they could pose problems for Boston and Philadelphia. Nurse already shut down Antetokounmpo in one series. Maybe he’ll draw up a similar scheme to stop the reigning MVP in 2020.

The Case Against

Well, Kawhi Leonard is gone, so that doesn’t exactly help Toronto’s case. The two-time Finals MVP carried the Raptors to a Game 7 win over the Sixers, and Leonard then brought his team back from a 2–0 deficit to best the Bucks. Toronto has been so solid through the first 70% of the season. Will they be able to raise their game to another level in April and May?

All eyes will be on Pascal Siakam as he looks to rise from second fiddle to bankable superstar. Siakam has aced every test thus far this season, up to 23.7 points per game on 37.3% from three entering Friday. Siakam is a serious problem in transition. He evolving into a more conscientious playmaker. Yet the postseason is a different animal. Defenses will pack the paint against Siakam and dare him to shoot. If Toronto isn’t connecting from outside, it may begin to look like a rerun of the Lowry and DeRozan show north of the border. Siakam is one of the game’s brightest young stars. He may be a year or two ahead of schedule. Regardless, Toronto is set up for a strong next decade of Finals contention.

Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Celtics

The Case For

Have you seen Jayson Tatum recently? The 21-year-old is ascending to superstardom before our very eyes, averaging 29.7 points on 51.3% shooting over his last 12 games. And these aren’t empty stats on a middling team. Boston is 10–2 since Jan. 31, beating Utah, Portland, Oklahoma City and the Clippers in that span. Tatum couldn’t defeat the Lakers in Los Angeles on Feb. 23, but his 41-point performance spawned a gushing Instagram post from LeBron James. Antetokounmpo remains the best player in the conference, but Tatum has certainly shown he can rise to an MVP level on a given night.

Boston isn’t a one-man band, either. They can put five offensive threats on the floor to close games, with each player able to carry the offensive load on a given night. Jaylen Brown continues to progress as an elite three-and-D wing after a nightmare year with Kyrie Irving. Kemba Walker can be a reliable scorer (though his small stature could prove problematic), and Gordon Hayward shows flashes of brilliance between bouts of inconsistency. The Celtics crumbled against the Bucks last season. Perhaps Brad Stevens can flip the script vs. Milwaukee in the conference finals.

The Case Against

I don’t doubt Boston’s ability to score late in games. Tatum’s ascension feels more permanent than a blip, and both Hayward and Brown appear more comfortable making plays in space. Still, Boston may fail to generate enough stops to make a run at the Finals. The Celtics are still either too small inside with Theis or too slow with Kanter. Grant Williams stepping up could change the equation. There’s a little too much riding on Brad Wanamaker and Romeo Langford. The Celtics have found their groove over the last month, and this roster will certainly be a challenge for the Bucks in a potential series. But Boston is a body or two short of being declared the favorites.

Miami Heat

The Case For

The Heat may be the most prepared team for a long series, armed for a protracted, grinding fight. Miami remains one of the league’s toughest teams under Erik Spoelstra, and its personnel is beginning to match its mentality. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo anchor a lanky defensive unit, one that recently added Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. Miami’s lone chance against a juggernaut like Milwaukee is the turn the game into a slugfest. As the pace slows, the Heat can take advantage.

The Case Against

Miami probably has the weakest case to make the Finals of all five teams. This is no disrespect to Erik Spoelstra’s squad, who has emerged as one of the league’s toughest opponents on a night-to-night basis. Still, the Heat’s lack of experience and elite talent makes the path to the Finals increasingly difficult.

Let’s start at the top. Jimmy Butler has willed his way into a winning situation, and even better for Butler, one in which he is the go-to scorer. But is that enough? Butler is an All-Star player with crunch-time chops. Yet his playoff efficiency falls short of championship level. Butler isn’t an overpowering athlete. His three-point shot remains shaky. He couldn’t overtake Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in a Game 7 rock fight last season, scoring 16 points in a 5-14 effort from the field. Miami is in far better shape after making the Butler trade, and he is among the league’s top 15 or so players. That may not be enough to win three playoff series.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Case For

There’s still a version of this Sixers team that could be the best team in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia can be a defensive juggernaut when healthy and engaged, fielding a trio of potential All-Defense players. Ben Simmons is in the midst of his best defensive campaign by far, and he remains a force barreling into a tin.

Joel Embiid isn’t the best player in basketball as he claimed, but in most series, he’s still the best player on the floor. His postseason chops are much clearer than his co-star. The Sixers have a championship ceiling somewhere in their core. If only they could get healthy and begin to play with a shred of cohesion. At their peak, Embiid and Co. are the greatest challenger to Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

The Case Against

The obvious obstacle is the current state of Philadelphia’s two stars. Both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could miss extended time before the playoffs, relegating the Sixers to the No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. Plus, is there any guarantee both Simmons and Embiid can withstand 20-plus playoff games? Not in the slightest. Injury concerns aside, Philadelphia’s malaise in the halfcourt remains a serious issue, one that has been exacerbated by the Al Horford addition. A round one exit would be a catastrophe. A Finals berth feels less likely at the moment.

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