<
>

NBA debate: How many real title contenders are in the East?

play
Stephen A. is worried about the Bucks in the playoffs (1:51)

Stephen A. Smith explains why the Heat are the team in the Eastern Conference most likely to stop the Bucks in the playoffs. (1:51)

Can anyone top the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference?

The Bucks are once again on a historic pace, with a real chance to top 70 wins. Should they be the favorites over the rest of the East field to make the NBA Finals? What are the biggest things to watch before the end of the regular season? And what potential first-round playoff matchup would be the most exciting?

Our NBA experts answer the big questions about the likely East playoff teams.

MORE: Latest NBA Power Rankings


1. What will you be paying the most attention to among the East playoff teams during the rest of the regular season?

Jorge Sedano: Did the Miami Heat give the league a blueprint on how best to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo this season? How many teams will try a similar strategy, and how many can actually be successful? What will the Heat become as they develop more chemistry with their new additions and get healthier? Lastly, how do the Philadelphia 76ers finish the season? Due to a mismatched roster and injuries, they seem to be a ship that has lost its rudder.

Bobby Marks: Which teams get to the finish line in one piece? For the 76ers, getting Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid healthy is the priority, even over favorable seeding. But all of the top teams have lost key players to injuries at some point this season.

Tim Bontemps: Can the Bucks become the third team to win 70 games? Can Victor Oladipo show signs of returning to his old self? Can the 76ers get healthy? And who will win the race for No. 2 between the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics? Whichever team does will be the favorite to face Milwaukee in the conference finals.

André Snellings: The 5/6 battle between the Indiana Pacers and the 76ers. In this instance, the sixth seed might be preferred because it keeps a team outside of the Bucks' bracket until the East finals. And for a wildly talented but unpredictable team like the 76ers, a romp from the sixth seed to the Finals is possible.

Kevin Pelton: Who finishes second, a competitive race with huge stakes. Not only will it determine home-court advantage if Boston and Toronto meet in the second round, it also entails a much easier opening-round matchup against either the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic, rather than Indiana or Philadelphia. Don't tell the Celtics or Raptors that the rest of the regular season is meaningless.


2. What East first-round playoff matchup would you most want to see?

Snellings: I'd be eager to see Celtics vs. 76ers at some point. These are two young, talented teams with history between them. Al Horford moving to the other side of the matchup is intriguing. The Sixers have some of the best young size in the NBA, while the Celtics are chock full of young, talented wings. This would be an uber-exciting matchup.

Bontemps: Not the first round, but Toronto vs. Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals -- a matchup that somehow hasn't happened yet in the playoffs. It would be a really fun series to watch play out, with two deep, smart, well-coached teams capable of playing in a variety of different ways.

Pelton: Miami-Philadelphia. Since the Sixers won the first head-to-head matchup in November by 27 points, the Heat's zone defense has given Philadelphia fits. How that evolves over the course of a seven-game series would be fascinating to watch.

Sedano: Miami vs. Philadelphia. Jimmy Butler clearly is enjoying trying to purchase property in the Sixers' heads, especially after the social media exchange with Embiid recently. Butler seems intent on making them regret he's no longer there. These fan bases don't like each other, either, which always adds a layer of intrigue.

Marks: Philadelphia vs. anybody. We can likely pencil in the Sixers for the 4, 5 or 6 seed. That means the 76ers could be looking at starting Round 1 on the road vs. Boston, Toronto or Miami. Despite a starting five that ranks among the league's best (at least on paper), the 76ers have struggled away from home (9-22) and could be out of the playoffs before we even enter May.

play
2:02

Jayson Tatum's sensational mixtape: How the Celtics star has emerged

Jayson Tatum's recent hot streak is proving that he is finding his game and ascending to superstar status.

3. What East finals matchup do you expect to see?

Bontemps: Milwaukee vs. whichever of Toronto or Boston finishes in second place. That potential Eastern Conference semifinal will likely hinge on whichever team can secure home court. And you have to expect the Bucks will make it there without much difficulty -- especially if Philadelphia isn't at full strength.

Marks: Milwaukee vs. the No. 2 seed. Getting the second seed is the equivalent to receiving a bye in the first round -- no offense to Orlando or Brooklyn, but Milwaukee and either Toronto or Boston will be looking at a potential sweep in Round 1. Meanwhile, the other two series could be steel-cage matches. So if the Raptors find themselves at No. 2, we could be looking at a repeat of last year's Eastern Conference finals.

Sedano: Milwaukee vs. Boston. Jayson Tatum's ascension has been extraordinary to watch. Jaylen Brown is also a tantalizing young talent. Kemba Walker seems to be giving the Celtics everything they wanted from Kyrie Irving but with fewer frustrations. As much as I think the Bucks may have some flaws that teams can expose, Antetokounmpo's incredible talent and their depth will be hard to overcome.

Pelton: Milwaukee vs. whoever gets the second seed, which at this point would slightly favor the Celtics, according to projections from FiveThirtyEight and ESPN's Basketball Power Index.

Snellings: Bucks vs. Raptors. If healthy, the Raptors still have the same combination of size, defense, shooting and talent that won them a championship last season. Yes, Kawhi Leonard is gone, but the Raptors have shown they had a lot besides him. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet in particular have made major strides to keep the team at a contending level.


4. Bucks vs. the East field: Who are you taking to make the NBA Finals?

Marks: The field. It is hard to bet against a Milwaukee team that is on pace to win 65-plus games and have potentially the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in Antetokounmpo. However, as we learned last season, a seven-game playoff series is much different than the marathon of 82 games. The playoffs are all about having a closer, and I am not ready to anoint Antetokounmpo as that. Plus, this field of teams is the deepest in the East in years. Of course, Milwaukee might just run through the East (the Bucks do have a plus-12.3 point differential), making the question of late-game execution moot.

Sedano: It's with some trepidation I'll go with the Bucks. Not a lot of teams in the East can employ Miami's strategy to guard Antetokounmpo, mostly because they don't have a guy like Bam Adebayo, who can stay in front of him and make his life difficult.

Bontemps: Milwaukee. I still have doubts about the Bucks. Mike Budenholzer needs to get it done in the playoffs, as does Eric Bledsoe. But the sheer dominance with which the Bucks have played this season has to tip the scales in their favor until something changes the equation.

Pelton: Milwaukee. Even if you have reservations about whether the Bucks' regular-season dominance will translate entirely to the playoffs, the Bucks will have the best player in every series and won't face any team that looks as formidable as last year's Raptors. They should be -- and are -- heavy, heavy favorites to win the East.

Snellings: Milwaukee. There is a gap between the Bucks and everyone else in terms of quality. They can be defeated if a team shoots lights out from the arc, walls off Giannis from the paint and finds the Bucks' shooters on a cold streak -- but that's a hard combination to achieve.


5. How many serious NBA title contenders are in the East?

Bontemps: It's hard to say anyone besides Milwaukee, given how far ahead of the field the Bucks appear at the moment. But I'll add in the Celtics. Tatum is playing the way people assumed he could since his breakout performance as a rookie, and Boston has been winning in bunches lately with Walker mostly watching from the sidelines.

Sedano: Two: Milwaukee and Boston. Philly could get into the mix if everything came together, but I'm not holding my breath. The Heat are one player away from being a legitimate title contender. Toronto deserves a ton of credit for its title defense. The Raptors play so hard and smart, and are well coached, but I don't believe they are in the class of Milwaukee and Boston.

Marks: Five. Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Miami and -- yes -- Philadelphia have the right stuff to win the championship. I hate to leave Indiana off the list, but the injury to Jeremy Lamb with Oladipo still finding his way after returning from his knee injury has the Pacers missing the cut.

Snellings: The Bucks are the only Eastern team I'd expect to win the title. If the Raptors, Celtics or Heat represent the East, I'd expect an entertaining Finals but would likely favor the West. The wild card is the 76ers, who are talented but inconsistent -- if they represent the East, that indicates they've gotten their act together.

Pelton: I guess that depends on how you define serious, but I would say 3.5: Milwaukee, Boston and Toronto, and I would still give Philadelphia that kind of upside in a best-case scenario if Simmons is healthy for the playoffs.