Eight teams to watch as NBA starts fast break to playoffs
With the calendar flipping to March, the NBA regular season is rapidly approaching its conclusion and the playoffs are near.
It’s been a wild season with a trade deadline that saw one of the greatest players of all-time switch conferences, shaking up the NBA power rankings with just over 25 games remaining in the regular season.
As one MVP candidate noted, the NBA is wide open.
“Obviously, every year, it’s probably like four teams [that can win],” Giannis Antetokounmpo said during All-Star Weekend. “This year, it’s probably four to six teams that have a chance to win a championship. I believe we are one of them. But nothing is guaranteed.
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“I have never seen anybody that just showed up, and they gave you a championship. You have to earn it. But it’s definitely open.”
Let’s take a look at eight teams to watch as the NBA Playoffs rapidly approach.
Sixteen consecutive wins, arguably the most dominant force in the league and depth every team in the NBA craves means Milwaukee has to be the betting favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2023 NBA Finals.
Three-time All-Star Khris Middleton has played in just 20 games, and Jrue Holiday has missed 11 games. Yet, the Bucks now sit atop the East, a half-game up on the Boston Celtics and with the best record in the league.
Once again, it’s all due to Antetokounmpo, who has been on a rampage after failing to reach the conference finals last season.
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Antetokounmpo is averaging a career-high 31.3 points per game, adding 12.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Oh, and the guy is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Holiday may be the most underappreciated guard in the league, getting hot before the All-Star break while being a ferocious defender on the perimeter.
Add in Joe Ingles, who just returned in December after tearing an ACL last season, and Jae Crowder, who was acquired at the trade deadline, and the Bucks are scary deep.
Milwaukee is on a collision course with Boston — we’ll get to them next — after losing to the Celtics in a tough seven-game series in 2022 without the services of Middleton.
The Bucks are scary good and will only get better as long as they continue to get healthy.
Despite having the second-best record in the NBA, the Celtics now find themselves without home-court advantage in the NBA Playoffs.
Boston had a quiet trade deadline, staying put with a roster that is looking to return to the NBA Finals in back-to-back years.
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The Celtics have the league’s third-best offensive rating and the fourth-best defensive rating.
Ultimately, it will come down to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown playing at an All-NBA level in the playoffs while depending on role players knocking down threes at a high clip.
Boston is attempting 42.1 3-pointers per game — second-most in the NBA — and making 15.9 per game also second-most in the league.
There may not be a team facing more pressure than the Denver Nuggets.
With the best record in the Western Conference and a home record of 28-4, the Nuggets will almost certainly be the No. 1 seed in the West with home-court advantage throughout.
Unlike in past seasons, the built-in excuses for Denver are no more.
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Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are healthy, and Nikola Jokic is the favorite to win his third consecutive MVP award.
But now it’s time to deliver in the postseason.
Denver has been one of the top regular-season teams since 2018 but has only advanced to the Western Conference Finals once, losing to the LA Lakers in the Orlando bubble in 2020.
Jokic has been unbelievable again, attempting to become the first center to average a triple-double for the season with the best supporting cast he’s had.
The addition of Reggie Jackson adds depth to Denver’s backcourt and scoring off the bench.
But if the Nuggets fall flat once again in the playoffs, the murmurs will only grow louder that this is simply a regular-season team with a star player that can’t get it done when it matters, regardless of the stats he puts up.
The championship window in Phoenix had closed as of three weeks ago.
Chris Paul was aging, and the Suns looked like they had failed to recover from last year’s embarrassing Game 7 performance against the Dallas Mavericks.
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And then Kevin Durant suddenly became available.
With one move, Phoenix instantly became a team with an extended — yet relatively short — championship window.
Durant made his debut against the Charlotte Hornets Wednesday night, scoring 23 points in 27 minutes.
Devin Booker was almost in awe playing alongside Durant for the first time.
“This is one of those moments that doesn’t really feel real,” Booker said after the game. “I mean, it’s just every time he shoots the ball, it’s just so effortless. You can see defenders trying their hardest to contest or fight over a screen, and he just looks unbothered, unfazed.”
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While Phoenix sacrificed depth in acquiring Durant, his addition makes the Suns as lethal as any team in the league.
When you have the most dominant big man since Shaquille O’Neal and one of the best one-on-one players in the history of the game, you have a shot.
The Sixers are 4½ games behind the Bucks in the East and appear poised to finally break through to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the 2000-2001 season.
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Joel Embiid is second in the NBA in points (33.0), adding 10.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.6 blocks per game. If not for Jokic, Embiid would be the obvious choice to take home his first MVP award.
James Harden leads the NBA in assists per game (10.6) as he’s orchestrated the Sixers’ offense, putting Philadelphia in the top 10 in both defensive and offensive rating.
But playoff failures loom heavy for the organization and on Harden as the regular season comes down the stretch.
Golden State Warriors
No one wants to play the Warriors in the NBA playoffs.
The defending champions have had a bizarre year, starting with Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole in the face in training camp.
Entering Thursday night’s matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors were 32-30 and in fifth place in the West.
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With Steph Curry missing 24 games, the Warriors have managed to keep their heads above water.
Klay Thompson has come alive in recent weeks, including a 12-17 shooting performance from beyond the three-point line against the Houston Rockets before the All-Star break.
Normally, a team sitting just above .500 is not considered a contender, but when the Warriors have their starting five healthy, no one counts them out.
Los Angeles Clippers
Not dissimilar from the Warriors, a healthy Clippers team is no fun for the Western Conference.
In 37 games, Kawhi Leonard is averaging 23.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. He’s started to look like his old self as a dominant two-way player.
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The best news for LA is that Leonard is back to playing normal minutes, playing 124 minutes combined in the first three games after the All-Star break.
But the Clips have lost three games in a row after the break as they prepare for Golden State Thursday night.
If Leonard and Paul George are healthy in the postseason, this Clippers team can play with anybody.
But that’s one massive question mark.
Ja Morant put the target on his team’s back when he said he wasn’t worried about any team in the Western Conference, and it will certainly be a talking point in the offseason if the Griz bow out early.
Memphis is second in the NBA in defensive rating but 16th in offensive rating with a record of 38-23.
It just doesn’t appear that the Grizzlies are ready for a deep run in the playoffs with a young locker room that has dealt with drama throughout the season.
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Players got into a war of words with Fox Sports commentator Shannon Sharpe during a game against the Lakers, and problems continue to find Morant off the court.
But this team did push the Warriors to six games in the Western Conference semifinals last year, and any team facing Memphis is in for a physical matchup
Fun teams to keep an eye on: