The Eastern Conference is in a weird place. Despite the Cavaliers’ trade deadline additions, LeBron James’s team is still more vulnerable than it has been this decade. And yet, with only nine days to go in the regular season, no team has solidified itself as the front-runner to take down LeBron. The Raptors are slipping. Kyrie Irving is out. So is Joel Embiid. John Wall just came back. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks don’t look ready. Neither do the Pacers. Meanwhile, Hassan Whiteside is more interested in complaining about his role than hustling for the Heat.
The basketball gods are practically begging for another team to represent the East in the NBA Finals after seven straight appearances by James-led teams, but the favorite, as of now, should still be James’s Cavs. Still, it’s a wide-open race, which gives the final stretch of the regular season a heavy dose of intrigue. Here’s one thing I’ll be watching for from each of the other seven likely East playoffs teams to see if they can peak at the right time to pause LeBron’s reign.
55-21, first in the East
This is arguably the most important week of the regular season in Raptors history. The no. 1 seed is at stake, and their two-game cushion over the Celtics could evaporate. Toronto has a back-to-back against the Cavs and Celtics on Tuesday and Wednesday, then it hosts the Pacers on Friday. The game against Boston will determine the tiebreaker for the 1-seed. The scary part is that the Raptors have struggled of late, dropping four of their past seven games; they just squeezed out wins against the Nets and Mavs toward the end of their recent 11-game win streak.
Toronto has occasionally fallen into old bad habits and gone stagnant offensively for at least one extended stretch of the game—a worrisome trend considering its past playoff blunders. But the problem isn’t the offense. They’re not jacking up midrange jumpers (in fact, they’re attempting more layups and 3s) and they’re still hitting shots (they’ve drilled over 40 percent of their 3s). They torched the Cavs in the first half of their loss on March 21, and played good basketball for about three quarters against the Celtics on Saturday. DeMar DeRozan’s shooting has fallen off a cliff, but the team, as a whole, is still racking up points.
Defense is the primary concern. Toronto is forcing fewer turnovers, which means it’s not getting into its transition offense as often. And its perimeter defenders have been turnstiles, allowing constant penetration that has put its bigs in tough positions, which leads to layups, drawn fouls, or kickouts for open 3s for the opposition.
Jonas Valanciunas has turned himself into a competent defender by improving his footwork and positioning, and Jakob Poeltl is one of the more competent young defenders in the NBA. But neither is an elite rim protector who deters defenders from penetrating. Nor is Serge Ibaka, who is a total shell of his former self on defense. Opponents are attempting 36.8 percent of their shots in the restricted area against the Raptors over the full season, which ranks as the second-most frequent rate, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Raptors post a 115.7 defensive rating against offenses ranked in the top 10, according to data from NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, compared to approximately 99.6 against all other teams. In other words, they’ve gotten beaten up by great offenses, and returned the favor against the average and bad ones. DeRozan in particular leaves his teammates out to dry with either poor effort or plain bad positioning.
Jayson Tatum blew this dunk, but the fact it was wide open is what matters. DeRozan too often doesn’t display an understanding of the situation on the floor. Al Horford runs the dribble-handoff with Tatum, which means his defender, Pascal Siakam, can’t help into the paint. DeRozan needs to fight harder to get back into position, otherwise it results in those open cuts.
This is just one extreme example, and it’s probably unfair to pick on the guy who carries their offense. But the Raptors haven’t taken care of the little things on defense like they did earlier in the season. It could be that they’re fatigued. But it also could just be, as the data suggest, good teams are simply able to pick on them by exposing tendencies or weaknesses.
Dwane Casey has strong defensive lineups he can use. Siakam is a gritty, versatile defender. Poeltl is a better rim protector than Valanciunas. OG Anunoby is a versatile forward. Fred VanVleet has been a revelation with his hard-nosed play at point guard. But if Casey prioritizes defense in his lineup, then the offense becomes an issue. The Celtics were able to go zone against the Raptors because Poeltl doesn’t need to be guarded on the perimeter when Toronto runs handoff sets out of its motion offense, and you’re begging Siakam, a career 21.1 percent 3-point shooter, to shoot. VanVleet is solid, but he’s not a guy who will manufacture offense against set defenses. Though Anunoby has been hitting 3s since returning from injury in mid-March, opponents still don’t respect his shot (36 percent on 2.6 attempts per game over the full season). And here’s the major issue facing Toronto if it ends up facing Cleveland in the playoffs: either Siakam or Anunoby needs to defend LeBron, because no one else on the roster is physically equipped to do so.
Casey needs to figure out the right combinations before it’s too late. He’s been experimenting as of late, mixing in Norman Powell a bit more despite his struggles. It’ll be interesting to see if he finds a new group that works, or quickly reverts to the lineups that have been most effective throughout the season. But it’s hard not to be worried that the Raptors peaked too early—or that maybe they aren’t what we thought they were.
53-23, second in the East
Jayson Tatum’s role has evolved during Irving’s recent nine-game absence. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has put the ball in Tatum’s hands, and Tatum’s usage rate has jumped from 18.7 to 24.7 in that span as a result. The no. 3 overall pick has been the go-to option on more out-of-bounds plays, and he is running more of handoffs, isolations, and pick-and-rolls. Tatum’s scoring efficiency hasn’t declined, either; he’s scoring 1.01 points per possession in the half court over this Kyrie-less stretch, per Synergy, after averaging 1.01 before it.
The Celtics are getting what they need from Tatum. And the rest of their roster has risen to the occasion, too. Marcus Morris is healthy and has stepped his game up as an isolation scorer and 3-point shooter. Terry Rozier is playing smart two-way basketball and providing a scoring kick. Boston’s next-man-up mentality is working up and down the line.
What I’ll be watching for from here are the little things, like Aron Baynes’s shooting. The Celtics will utilize Al Horford at the 5 frequently in the playoffs, much like they did in Saturday’s win over the Raptors. But with Daniel Theis out for the season, they don’t have another big who can space the floor. Greg Monroe has been better, but he’s still not a shooter. But Baynes could be. He floated around the perimeter quite often on Saturday, brought the ball up once, and even made a pair of 3s.
Baynes is hitting 48 percent of his jumpers between 16 feet and the 3-point line this season, a terrific number from that zone. But defenders are reluctant to close out on him from downtown, because he made more 3s (two) in that one game than he did the rest of his career (one, in 2014-15). But Baynes has a smooth stroke, and if he’s able to effectively extend his range, the Celtics will be able to play a five-out offense for 48 minutes. Few teams can say that.
46-30, fourth in the East
The Sixers were playing some of their best basketball until Markelle Fultz’s shoulder busted Joel Embiid’s face, but maybe Embiid’s orbital fracture will be a blessing in disguise. Brett Brown tends to stagger Embiid’s and Ben Simmons’s minutes so that one of them is on the floor at all times, but what if one of them gets into foul trouble in the playoffs? Now Brown can experiment with lineups that don’t feature either of his dominant forces to find out which combinations and roles work best.
Fultz has helped the Sixers with his defensive effort and playmaking, but he’s still hesitant to shoot. The Sixers will need another player to elevate his play. Look no further than the Homie, Dario Saric. The Croatian forward has made remarkable progress this season as a scorer, shooter, and defender, but there’s still untapped upside as a passer. Saric was never used as a “point forward” while playing overseas, but he did handle the ball more frequently than he does now in transition and the pick-and-roll.
Sixers fans already know how good Saric is passing in the half court, but I hope we find out how effective he can be in the open floor and as the primary playmaker surrounded by shooters. Once Saric returns from his right elbow injury—which kept him out of Sunday’s win over the Hornets—I hope Brown resists turning to T.J. McConnell (since we already know what the point guard can do), and instead investigates Saric’s viability in playmaking situations. Let’s find out how great Saric can be.
46-31, fifth in the East
It’ll be a crime if Victor Oladipo isn’t voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the year. But for the Pacers to shock the league in the postseason, in the same way they have in the regular season, they need Oladipo to start shooting the ball like he did when he first exploded in October. Oladipo shot the lights out until the new year, when The Ringer Curse regression kicked in and his jumper fell apart.
Victor Oladipo 2017-18 Shooting Splits
|3-Point Shot Type||2017 (33 Games)||2018 (36 Games)|
|3-Point Shot Type||2017 (33 Games)||2018 (36 Games)|
Oladipo is still having an awesome season. He has come up big in countless clutch moments for Indiana, and he plays hard-nosed defense. He could easily end up on both the All-NBA and All-Defense teams. But he needs to get his shot back on track for the Pacers to exceed expectations.
There’s nothing wrong mechanically with Oladipo’s jumper. The 3s just haven’t fallen like they did when he was scorching-hot early in the season. Oladipo has been a streaky shooter in the past, and he probably always will be. Oladipo also posts one of the league’s highest usage rates (30.2), and as Indiana’s best player, his workload will only increase in the playoffs. Darren Collison is nice, and Lance Stephenson can do Lance Stephenson things, but the player they’ll turn to when they need a bucket is Oladipo. If he starts catching fire at the right time, the Pacers can be a legitimate threat.
42-35, sixth in the East
After John Wall underwent left knee surgery in January, the Wizards started moving their bodies and the ball. “Everybody eats” became the slogan for their new style of play: They averaged 5.3 more assists, and 3.5 more potential assists per game, and logged 28.1 more touches and 31.4 more passes, per NBA.com/Stats. But the production eventually fizzled, and Wall’s value became obvious to anyone who didn’t see it already.
But that doesn’t change the fact Wall can still be better. He still takes too many midrange jumpers, and he’s still an inefficient half-court scorer who turns the ball over too much. It’s a lot to ask Wall to flip the switch late in the season, after his second stint on the shelf because of his knee. But in the meantime, it’d be nice to see him buy into the “Everybody eats” mentality by moving without the ball, at least a little bit.
In February, ESPN’s Zach Lowe published a wonderful statistic, courtesy of Second Spectrum, that shows Wall stands still or walks 76.6 percent of the time he’s on the floor, which leads the NBA. As Lowe pointed out, it’s not uncommon for ball-dominant players to conserve energy. But Wall too often stands flat-footed, and once he receives the ball, he goes into a triple-threat position rather than attacking a rotating defense.
In the above clip, Wall gives the ball up and stands in place until he gets back. And when he does, the Bulls defense is all out of sorts. His defender, David Nwaba, looks like he’s opening the floodgates to the basket, where guard Jerian Grant—not a rim protector—is waiting. These moments are infuriating because Wall is one of the fastest and most explosive athletes in the league. When the paint is that open, the defense is begging to get dunked on. And if the opposition helps, then there will be an open 3-point shooter for him to kick it to.
Tomas Satoransky, Wall’s replacement at starting point guard while he was away, kept the rock moving, and attacked defenders upon receiving the ball. Wall can do that, too. It’s a simple change that should come from film study and commitment. If Wall is healthy, the Wizards will be a threat just like they were in past postseasons. But to make a leap, they need Wall to take the positives from his team’s mini-surge during his absence and start applying the little things.
41-36, seventh in the East
Aside from a brand-new defensive scheme being installed, or Giannis Antetokounmpo developing a knockdown 3-pointer overnight, there aren’t many solutions for the Bucks. Sporadic defense and streaky shooting is the identity of this team. Giannis must carry them in the postseason, much like LeBron did with the Cavaliers during his first era with the team in the early 2000s.
The changes that need to happen can’t until the offseason, when a roster shake-up will be necessary. But in the meantime, I’ll be watching Milwaukee’s lineup choices. The Bucks need to maximize spacing around Giannis, while also maintaining (theoretical) defensive versatility. It’ll be interesting to see if they turn to smaller lineups to do so as the regular season closes and we head into the playoffs.
Giannis has logged only 288 of his 5,184 possessions this season at the 5, per Cleaning the Glass. Leaning on those lineups any more during the regular season would be tough, considering how much they demand of Antetokounmpo already, but the playoffs are a different story. The Bucks need to get creative, and utilizing Giannis as a rim-protecting, playmaking center could give them the help they need.
Now that Jabari Parker is back from injury, and Malcolm Brogdon isn’t far behind, the Bucks will be better equipped to pull off such a move. Tony Snell and Khris Middleton will need to produce at the wing spots, and Eric Bledsoe needs to find some consistency. But they theoretically have the type of lengthy players necessary to play this style, and the depth to do it for extended minutes. Bucks interim head coach Joe Prunty should give it a go before the season ends.
41-36, eighth in the East
Hassan Whiteside wasn’t happy after being benched in the fourth quarter and overtime of Saturday night’s 110-109 loss to the Nets. “Man, it’s annoying, you know. Why we matching up? We got one of the best centers in the league,” Whiteside told reporters. “It’s bullshit. It’s really bullshit, man. There’s a lot of teams that could use a center.”
Whiteside earned his contract, but the harsh truth is there aren’t a lot of teams that need a center who gets paid $25 million but tanks the offense with his poor passing, forces contested shots, can’t space the floor, and plays lazy, inconsistent defense. Whiteside couldn’t keep up with Jarrett Allen in the first quarter and asked to be subbed out because he was fatigued. And when the Nets went small late in the game, the Heat were forced to adapt by going small with James Johnson and Justise Winslow. It’s not like Whiteside is a player who forces teams to adjust to him, though he fancies himself as one. If Whiteside is unplayable against Brooklyn’s small lineups, then he’ll play even less often once the playoffs roll around.
Whiteside can help his cause by picking his spots better on offense and playing with effort and intensity. The Heat need his rim protection and rebounding to raise their postseason ceiling. If he doesn’t, they’re going to get spanked by the Raptors or Celtics in the first round. Whiteside isn’t a perfect player, and that’s OK. He just needs to be the best at what he’s good at it. If he doesn’t come through, the Bam Adebayo era will begin before April is over.