Three teams in the Eastern Conference are expected to compete for a spot in the NBA Finals. The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks are clearly head-and-shoulders above the next tier of teams in the East. Still, those organizations are not going to just lay down and concede defeat.
Last year the Miami HEAT entered the playoffs as the fifth-seeded team in the conference. That was just a number to Miami. They defeated three higher-seeded teams on their way to the Finals, including a 4-1 series beat down of the top-seeded Bucks. This may have been an outlier but it is proof that anything can happen in the postseason.
The last time the number one seed made it to the NBA Finals was 2016 when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors in an epic seven-game series. There are several second-tier teams in the East this season that could do some serious damage in the playoffs.
There are four teams in the East right now that opposing teams do not want to face when the playoffs begin. These teams may not have the firepower to make it to the Conference Finals but they will certainly make it tough on the competition to earn their way to the next round.
No team has turned their season around more than the Hawks have. After a dreadful start to the season, the team battled through injuries and eventually fired their head coach. Atlanta is 20-7 under Nate McMillan and they have won 11 of their last 14 games. They have the best record in the league since March 1. One major reason why they are winning now is the return of their two biggest free agent acquisitions.
Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari have spearheaded the turnaround in Atlanta. Bogdanovic, in particular, is having a career year now in his fourth season. McMillan has been using the shooting guard as either the primary or secondary ball-handler, instead of just a floor spacer. After averaging 11.2 points per game on 34 percent shooting from behind the arc in March, Bogdanovic is scoring 22.3 points per game in April and shooting 50 percent from the three-point range.
Bogdan Bogdanovic on Nate McMillan:
“He has unbelievable speeches before the game. Honestly. You should get in and hear it.” pic.twitter.com/XEa4VHqYoZ
— Kevin Chouinard (@KLChouinard) April 26, 2021
The Hawks are still far from healthy as they prepare for their final ten games of the regular season. Trae Young and Tony Snell continue to miss time as they nurse ankle injuries. The two young talented wings in De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish are both likely to remain out until the playoffs start and Kris Dunn has yet to play a game at all this season.
John Collins has bought in and Clint Capela has produced like one of the best big men in the league on a nightly basis. Capela leads the league in rebounding and is second in Defensive RPM behind Rudy Gobert. With role players finding their niche and a deep bench that includes Lou Williams, Atlanta could be a first-round matchup nightmare should they finally reach full strength.
Charlotte is another team that is desperately trying to get healthy. Despite being without their two top players in Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball, the Hornets continue to find ways to win games. One of the key cogs for this team has been Terry Rozier, who has been putting up career numbers across the board. The talented guard is averaging 20.6 points per game on highly efficient shooting. His scoring has also been timely, as he has been one of the most clutch players in the league this season.
As a team, the Hornets have thrived in crunch time. They have a 35.9 net rating in the clutch, per NBA.com stats. That easily ranks them at the top of the league, with the next-closest team having a 26.4 rating. Charlotte is 16-8 in games decided by five points or less, which bodes well for them in the postseason. They have had several players that have stepped up in the absence of Hayward and Ball.
Miles Bridges and PJ Washington have led the charge for this young and exciting team. Devonte’ Graham has also elevated his game in the last few weeks after a slow start to the season and ranks 12th in the league in terms of Real Plus-Minus. Jalen McDaniels has been a pleasant surprise in his second season after being drafted late in the second round. The energy of this group is infectious and they all complement each other very well.
The Hornets are currently in the mix for the Play-In Tournament with 12 games remaining on their schedule. If they can reintegrate a healthy Hayward and Ball back into the rotation, this is a team that could take a contender to the brink. James Borrego does not get enough credit for the job he has done in Charlotte, but rest assured that other coaches around the league have taken notice.
The biggest mystery of the 2020-21 season has been the Celtics. There are a million reasons as to why, but they seemingly have a different team show up every night. Jayson Tatum had a lengthy battle with COVID and both Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker have missed more than 20 games. Most of the guys on their roster have missed multiple games due to injury or health and safety protocols, but Brad Stevens refuses to use that as an excuse.
Jaylen Brown started this season on a tear, dominating on both ends of the floor. His numbers were through the roof as he was considered to be one of the early candidates for the most improved player award. While he has somewhat tapered off, he and Tatum continue to lead the way for this talented, yet confusing team.
The front office was perplexed as to why this incredible amount of talent on paper was not producing on the floor. They made some moves before the trade deadline to address some of their concerns, which included the addition of veteran guard Evan Fournier. It has been a slow transition for Fournier, who averaged 19.7 points in 26 games with the Orlando Magic this season. He has scored a total of 48 points in six games with Boston while shooting just 33 percent from beyond the arc.
The loss of Daniel Theis has hurt their defense but Robert Williams has greatly improved and Tristan Thompson appears to be getting comfortable in the lineup now with Williams out. The signing of Jabari Parker is worth the risk if he can squeeze guys like Carsen Edwards and Romeo Langford out of the rotation.
The future for this team looked promising before the season began. Boston has enough talent and playoff experience to get the train back on the tracks. They have won nine of their last 13 games and have a fairly easy remaining schedule. That should allow them to avoid the Play-In Tournament and potentially have a favorable first-round matchup.
The Wizards were left for dead in December and the basketball world waited for the franchise to trade Bradley Beal. Fast forward nearly five months and Washington finds themselves currently in the Play-In Tournament. Despite devastating injuries to Thomas Bryant and Deni Avdija, this team has forged on behind the play of their All-Star backcourt.
Russell Westbrook is often criticized for his play, but he gives it everything he has every single night. Sometimes he may try to do too much, but that is because he wants it so badly. The 32-year old guard is averaging a triple-double yet again this season. He needs just seven more to pass Oscar Robertson for the most in league history. Over the last five seasons, Westbrook is averaging 26.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 10.1 assists.
Russell Westbrook this month:
✅ 303 PTS
✅ 183 REB
✅ 165 AST
Westbrook is the first NBA player to record at least 300 points, 150 rebounds, and 150 assists in consecutive calendar months since Wilt Chamberlain in Feb. & March 1968. pic.twitter.com/yLWFuk6La1
— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) April 26, 2021
Beal is leading the league in scoring, which is no real surprise. The nine-year veteran has always been able to score, but he has taken it to a new level with his efficiency. His play has been paramount to their winning ways. Entering last night’s wild overtime game against the San Antonio Spurs, Washington had won their last 11 games with Beal in the lineup. The overtime loss ended their eight-game winning streak but they have still won ten of their last 12 games.
Washington leads the league in pace with a 104.1 rating, which is one of the reasons why nobody wants to face this team. They are sizzling right now and if they can keep it together, they will be a tough out for anyone. Westbrook and Beal will make sure of that.