What matters most in one of the NBA’s tightest Eastern Conference playoff races ever

The top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference couldn’t be much more compact.

Going into the action Tuesday, the four teams – the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers – just lost to each other.

And, in random time, all four are set to go head to head, with the Bucks playing in Philadelphia on Tuesday, followed by the Heat and Celtics playing against each other in Boston on Wednesday – a 24-hour period could carry back a pair of East Preview semi-final conference.

Let’s take a look at a key question surrounding each of the top four of the conference as they prepare for the knockout stages and how each storyline plays out in the two high-profile matches.

The result – a close match, with Milwaukee and Miami both winning on the road – only whetted appetite for what should have been a glorious springtime filled with playoff action in the East.

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Does Lowry Miami’s playoff X have an X factor?

When Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked if Kyle Lowry’s do-it-yourself performance in Miami’s win over the Celtics on Wednesday night was a sign of the performance the Heat expected when they signed him. him last summer or not, Spoelstra was smiling.

“Look, we were on the other side of it,” Spoelstra said. “For many years I just really didn’t like Kyle Lowry, because he was a thorn in our side. “

Spoelstra pointed to a seven-game series between the Toronto Raptors and Miami in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, which the Lowry’s Raptors won.

“The deeper that series goes, the better he plays in the clutch moments,” said Spoelstra. “You can’t define it by an analysis or a number or a game… he just knows how to make winning plays.”



Kyle Lowry used his hand to throw 3 pointers at Grant Williams’ face

Lowry performed all sorts on Wednesday. He finished with 23 points (6-for-12 from a 3-point range) and eight assists in 36 minutes. He plays his familiar brand of direct defense despite fouling four times in the long run.

“It’s just a great luxury to have a Hall of Fame point guard who can choreograph your offense but can also take on big challenges defensively,” Spoelstra said. at the other end,” said Spoelstra.

It’s been a season of ups and downs in Lowry’s first season in Miami in nine seasons with the Raptors, especially since he’s missed a lot of time dealing with personal issues. After a rough week that saw Miami give up three top spots in the fourth quarter and be beaten at home by the Brooklyn Nets, this performance is a classic Lowry.

Come to Boston, the hottest team in the league for more than two months, and winning the nip-and-tuck game is the perfect antidote to washing away the ugly moments of last week.

In a failed comeback in the first round last year against Milwaukee, the Heat were exposed as a team that needed another player. Adding Lowry gave them a defender who could command their attack, remained part of the Heat’s defensive identity and provided them with the offensive style he gave Miami Wednesday inside TD Garden.

“I think there’s a real live point guard it’s a guy who passes first it’s late, ‘Screw pass first, I’ll score first.’ … That’s good,” said Jimmy Butler. “I miss Goran [Dragic] like hell, I love handling the ball, Tyler [Herro] likes to handle the ball.

“But having a man like Kyle tells everyone where to go, knows how to get the ball for everyone. … Yes, we need Kyle Lowry.”

How would Boston adapt to life without their anchor?

In the first Boston trial without Robert Williams III, who will be sidelined for at least four weeks after meniscus surgery, the result was a mixed bag.

Bad: Center-back Bam Adebayo controlled the game. To reiterate what Adebayo did against Boston in the 2020 Eastern Finals, he finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists. It is no coincidence that he was a plus 12 in 33 minutes, and Al Horford, who managed to pick up six points in a two-to-six shootout, had 14 points deducted in 34 minutes. Grant Williams, meanwhile, was 2-7, and missed all three 3-pointers in his first game in place of Williams along with the rest of Boston’s regular starting lineup of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Horford.

Meanwhile, Daniel Theis finished with 15 points shooting a perfect 6 in 17 minutes.

It’s a reminder of the different skill sets Boston must now use to match Williams’ impact at both ends of the field.

“We feel confident with the big three, [and] “The flexibility they have,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “Unlike Rob from a blocking angle, but a lot of the same things he did on and off the ball, they’re very capable.”



Smart passes it on the back to Tatum for easy placement

Williams could certainly have helped in trying to contain Adebayo Wednesday, even as an assist defender. And, perhaps more clearly, he can give Boston a boost on attack with his ability to both create vertical distance as a tire menace and create easy shots when it matters most – Boston has shot 6-for-22 in the fourth round.

“It’s definitely an adjustment without Rob here,” Horford said. “We have to find ways to be efficient and we have to find other ways to score.”

Even when completely healthy, the red-hot Celtics are bound to lose a game or two. Their 24-4 run through Sunday’s win over Minnesota – a match in which Williams injured his knee – is unlikely to continue at that stretch. Wednesday’s game, however, was a reminder of the difficulties this team will face when it comes to the Eastern knockouts with their defensive anchor off the field.

Splash Mountain is back: Can Lopez unlock the best version of the Bucks?

The Bucks spent almost the entire season with Brook Lopez, their starting center, watching in streetwear. He’s only played in eight games – seven coming in the past three weeks – after undergoing back surgery on December 2.

Tuesday night is an important test. How will Lopez, up against arguably the biggest and toughest center of the league, Philadelphia MVP contender Joel Embiid, hold out throughout the game?

The answer, it turns out, is pretty good.

Lopez played 29 minutes and scored 17 points for Milwaukee – 11 of which in a row opened the second half for the Bucks. More importantly: Lopez scored 4 to 9 from three points, helping to create some space on the field for Giannis Antetokounmpo – he finished with 40 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, one steal ball and three saves, including one. won Bucks in the game – to operate.



Giannis’ clutch block during Embiid Bucks’ win in Philadelphia

Milwaukee is 14th in the league in terms of defense this season with Lopez, one of the best (and biggest) domestic defenders in the league almost watching as a spectator, not a shock. Part of Lopez’s game being forgotten, however, was how he was able to break open court for Giannis & Co.

It’s rare that a guy the size of Lopez (7 feet, 282 pounds) can shape the game on both ends. And while he’s not Milwaukee’s most important piece – or even their third – the Bucks look like a team that is ready for Tuesday’s playoffs with him on the field.

And for a team that has spent most of the season playing a combination of Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis in the center, having another 30 minutes of top-flight, one big man puts everything else back in place. where they were so effective for the Bucks in last year’s championship run.

On a night where there are plenty of reasons to smile at the Bucks, Lopez’s return and his effectiveness, perhaps, are the biggest.

Will MVP-level Harden make more appearances for Philly?

After Tuesday night’s loss, 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he and Harden talked a lot that morning about needing a guard to get back into the scorer position he was with Houston. Rockets, instead of acting as a distributor he had with the Brooklyn Nets.

And, after playing his arguably best game with a 76er – 32 points, 5 rebounds and 9 assists in 37 minutes in a loss to Milwaukee – Harden feels it’s a step in the right direction.

“I’m trying to do the right thing,” Harden said. “I’m trying to be the best James Harden I can be. And I’m trying to make sure I’m doing what’s necessary to help my team win.

“[Rivers] just tell me, to sum it all up, to just get out there with you. And that’s my thinking today and it’s great to have that trust from Doc. “

The 76ers need the best James Harden he can – because that’s the version they’re hoping they’ll get from the Nets by the trade deadline. And, while Harden has had his moments of brilliance — he averaged 23.0 points, 9.8 assists and 7.4 rebounds in 15 games as a Sixer — he hasn’t been able to play. continuity with the kind of MVP that Philadelphia expects.

Example: Of the 133 players who have attempted at least 200 saves or clutters this season, only three have shot under 50%: Cole Anthony of Orlando Magic, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Harden of Utah Jazz.



Chiney Ogwumike details the challenges the 76ers may face that could derail their playoff aspirations.

But Tuesday night was a classic for Harden. He made 5 to 7 words in the arc, had an active back step (he went 4 to 10 from 3) and reached the free throw line 12 times. More importantly, he succinctly made Milwaukee’s test of letting Wesley Matthews start the game protecting him. In the final minutes of the game, defender Jrue Holiday – not Matthews – checked on Harden.

If Philadelphia could get it that Harden’s version on a nightly basis over the next few months, he’ll establish the partnership with Embiid that the 76ers need to make a deep playoff.

https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/33632052/what-matters-most-one-nba-tightest-eastern-conference-races-ever What matters most in one of the NBA’s tightest Eastern Conference playoff races ever

Luke Plunkett

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