Explaining the Bucks' dominance and the state of the East leading into NBA's Christmas Day slate
Everything you need to know about the Eastern Conference in advance of one of the NBA's biggest days of the year
When the NBA scheduled the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers for a 2:30 p.m. ET game on Christmas Day, they were widely considered to be the two top teams in the Eastern Conference. As of Monday, though, two teams with better records than the Sixers -- the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics -- will meet in the Dec. 25 matinee that precedes what we might call the Ersan Ilyasova Bowl.
If you haven't been paying close attention, you might be surprised that the league-best 27-4 Bucks appear to be in a tier by themselves in the East, and that a bunch of teams are jumbled up in the tier below them. Leading up to one of the, let's take a big-picture look at the state of the conference.
So, the Bucks lost Malcolm Brogdon and got better?
I wouldn't exactly say that, but it hasn't affected their ability to win regular-season games. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the front-runner for MVP again, and he has improved as a playmaker. He and Brook Lopez should both make All-Defense. Khris Middleton and George Hill never seem to miss. Milwaukee routinely blows teams out, and it had a statement win last week against the Los Angeles Lakers.?
No team in the league comes close to matching the Bucks' statistical profile. They are third in offensive rating and first in defensive rating. They protect the paint even better than they did last season, and they create more 3s, too. The crazy thing is?they haven't even shot that well?and it has hardly mattered.?
Brogdon's absence has made Milwaukee more reliant on Antetokounmpo when he's on the court -- his usage rate has jumped from 31.4 percent to 36.8 percent -- but it has outscored teams by four points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes with him off the court, per Cleaning The Glass. As remarkable as that is, there is still some skepticism that Milwaukee should be considered the championship favorite, based off the offensive problems that popped up in last season's Eastern Conference finals. Perhaps next time, though, the Bucks will get better shooting when they need it -- or Antetokounmpo will be so great that they win it all anyway.?
Antetokounmpo, by the way, is shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range this month on 5.4 attempts per game. Look for the 76ers to put Al Horford or Joel Embiid on him and dare him to shoot, and look for him to fire away.?
What's up with Philly? The giant starting five isn't clicking??
It's hard to say that about a unit with a plus-13 net rating, but it's true on the offensive end. Horford and Embiid are not a natural pairing: With them on the court, the Sixers have scored 101.7 points per 100 possessions (worse than the Golden State Warriors' league-worst offense) and Horford has been a bystander, with an 11.1 percent usage rate. In recent games, Philadelphia has looked lost against zone defense, and there is a ton of pressure on Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson to be playmakers, neither of whom has been all that efficient.?
The bigger problem is that the Sixers haven't found a consistent formula when they don't have all five of their best players on the court. They make frequent substitutions to try to balance their lineups, but they are feeling the absence of Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick in all the ways that were expected. Furkan Korkmaz has become a vital part of the rotation because of his shooting, and coach Brett Brown does not trust point guards Trey Burke and Raul Neto enough to give either of them a consistent role.?
Philadelphia has gone all-in on size, and perhaps the idea is that it will have an advantage in playoff slugfests. Defensively, it is extremely intimidating. The flip side of that, though, is that scoring appears way too hard for a team this talented in the regular season. With the Sixers' poor spacing, limited off-the-dribble playmaking and midrange heavy shot profile, they are vulnerable whenever they don't dominate teams defensively and on the glass. ?
The giant starting five has only played 13 games together, and there is time for the front office to address some of the team's broader issues through trades and the buyout market. In the meantime, though, Philadelphia is 15th in offense, and the Bucks' defense can stifle opponents that don't have all these issues. Brown said recently that his challenge is "to make sure that our very big team isn't clunky" and is able to "find space and flow." In that respect, Christmas will be quite the test.?
Everything has gone right for Toronto and Boston, then?
Uh, no. The defending champs lost Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to injury eight games into the season and proceeded to win 9 of 11 games. Last Thursday, just before Fred VanVleet returned from a five-game absence, the team announced that Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell would be out indefinitely.? Despite all this, they are 21-8, just one game worse than they were through 29 games with Kawhi Leonard on the roster last season.?
As for Boston, Gordon Hayward was playing like his old self before he broke his hand three weeks into the season. He came back two weeks ago and, after three games, had to sit again because of foot soreness.?Marcus Smart has missed the Celtics' last six games with an eye infection, Robert Williams is dealing with a hip injury and yet they are 20-7, with a plus-7.9 net rating, which ranks third in the league.?
Toronto and Boston are third and fourth, respectively, in defensive rating. The Celtics are also sixth in offensive rating. Siakam could conceivably win Most Improved Player again and appear fifth on plenty of MVP ballots. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have taken massive steps forward, as has Finals hero VanVleet, who is in line for a massive raise in the summer whether he stays with the Raptors or not. There are good stories up and down both rosters, from undrafted gem Terrence Davis to world-traveler Brad Wanamaker, no-stats-all-rookie Grant Williams and reigning G League MVP/DPOY Chris Boucher.?
Coming into the season, everybody thought Boston's lack of a proven starting center and Toronto's Leonard-size hole in the lineup would matter much more than they have so far. These remain the main reasons why they aren't often discussed as genuine contenders, but making the conference finals is absolutely not an outlandish goal for either team. Regardless of how many rotation players are missing for this matinee, you can expect something entertaining -- on Sunday, Lowry scored 20 points against the Mavericks in the fourth quarter to , and then Tatum dropped 22 of his career-high 39 in the fourth to put away the pesky Hornets.?
So, there's Milwaukee and those three teams. Is that it?
Actually, the Miami Heat have the same record as the Raptors and the Indiana Pacers are just half a game behind the Sixers. There might be six teams capable of making the conference finals, seven if you think that Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert can elevate the 16-13 Nets when they get healthy.?
I wish Miami-Indiana were on the Christmas slate instead of the crummy Western Conference matchups sandwiching the Battle of Los Angeles. The Heat have been something of a revelation, and it's not all because of Jimmy Butler. Beloved by everyone with a League Pass subscription, Bam Adebayo is already and . Tyler Herro believes he can do anything, and he's usually right. Fans of inept teams must go insane seeing dudes like Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn and Derrick Jones Jr. keep Miami afloat when Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow are sidelined.
The Pacers, meanwhile, have allowed Brogdon to be his best self at point guard, and there is an argument that both he and Domantas Sabonis should be All-Stars. Indiana has leaned on its heady playmaking and play-finishing without Victor Oladipo, and Doug McDermott's ridiculous shooting has helped, too. Just as important, the Pacers are once again an annoying team to play against. I had my doubts that they could retain their defensive identity after replacing Bojan Bogdanovic with T.J. Warren and putting Sabonis in Thaddeus Young's place, but there they are, seventh in defense. Indiana has benefited from a soft schedule, but it has upside if Oladipo comes back and finds his form before the playoffs.?
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