The Eastern Conference playoff landscape was shaken up Sunday night with the Boston Celtics being eliminated and the Miami Heat vaulting into a tie for first place in their hyper-competitive battle. The Indiana Pacers, who have been without star Victor Oladipo all year because of injury, now look like they will make it to the postseason after losing four straight games.
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12:07 AM EST ET
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps
The top of the Eastern Conference in the NBA couldn’t be more crowded.
The Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers were all within a single defeat of each other before Tuesday’s play.
And, by coincidence, all four were scheduled to play on the same day, with the Bucks in Philadelphia on Tuesday and the Heat and Celtics in Boston on Wednesday — a 24-hour window that might have produced two Eastern Conference semifinal previews.
Let’s take a look at one critical topic that each of the conference’s top four teams is grappling with as they prepare for the playoffs, as well as how each narrative played out in two high-profile meetings.
The outcomes, which included a pair of tight, competitive games in which Milwaukee and Miami both won on the road, further whetted the appetite for what could be an exciting spring full of Eastern Conference playoff activity.
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Is Lowry the X-factor for Miami in the playoffs?
When asked whether Kyle Lowry’s all-around performance in Miami’s victory against the Celtics on Wednesday night was indicative of the kind of play the Heat envisioned when they signed him last summer, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra grinned.
Spoelstra remarked, “Look, we’ve been on the opposite side of it.” “I didn’t like Kyle Lowry for a long time since he was such a thorn in our side for so many years.”
Lowry’s Raptors won a seven-game series against the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, according to Spoelstra.
“As the series progressed, he grew better in crucial situations,” Spoelstra said. “You can’t put a number on it or a playcall on it… he simply understands how to produce winning plays.”
Lowry created a variety of them on Wednesday. In 36 minutes, he had 23 points (6-for-12 from 3-point range) and eight assists. Despite picking up four fouls down the stretch, he continued to play his normal aggressive defense.
“Having a Hall of Fame point guard who can orchestrate your offense while also taking on enormous defensive tasks on the other end is simply a fantastic privilege,” Spoelstra said.
Lowry’s first season in Miami after nine seasons with the Raptors has been a roller coaster, especially since he has lost time due to personal issues. After a rough week in which Miami surrendered three fourth-quarter leads and was thrashed by the Brooklyn Nets at home, this was Lowry at his best.
Winning a back-and-forth game against Boston, who had been the hottest team in the league for the prior two months, was the ideal elixir to wash away the ugliness of the previous week.
The Heat were exposed as a club in need of another playmaker after losing a lopsided first-round series to Milwaukee last season. Lowry’s addition provided them with a guard who could run their offense while still being a part of the Heat’s defensive identity and provide the offensive spark he did for Miami on Wednesday at TD Garden.
“I believe having a real live point guard who is a pass-first person who has just said, ‘Screw pass-first, I’m going to score first,’ is a huge plus.” Jimmy Butler remarked, “That’s excellent.” “I miss Goran [Dragic] terribly; I like handling the ball, and Tyler [Herro] enjoys it as well.
“But having a player like Kyle instructing everyone where to go and understanding how to get everyone the ball… Yes, Kyle Lowry was important.”
What will it take for Boston to adapt to life without its pillar?
The results were uneven in Boston’s first game without Robert Williams III, who will be out for at least four weeks after meniscus surgery.
Bam Adebayo, the Heat’s center, dominated the contest. Adebayo ended with 17 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists, reminding us of what he did against Boston in the 2020 East finals. It’s no surprise that he was a plus-12 in 33 minutes while Al Horford battled to 6 points on 2-for-6 shooting and finished with a minus-14 in 34 minutes. In his first start in lieu of Robert Williams, Grant Williams went 2-for-7 from the field and missed all three of his 3-point attempts. He was joined by the remainder of Boston’s customary starting lineup of Jayson Tatum, Jayson Brown, Marcus Smart, and Al Horford.
Daniel Theis, on the other hand, scored 15 points in 17 minutes on a flawless 6-for-6 shooting performance.
It’s a reminder of the many skill sets Boston will have to use in order to match Robert Williams’ impact on both ends of the floor.
Ime Udoka, the Celtics’ coach, stated, “We feel confidence with the three bigs, [and] the variety that they have.” “From a shot-blocking standpoint, it’s not the same as Rob, but they’re extremely capable of a lot of the same things he was doing on and off the ball.”
Even as a backup defender, Robert Williams may have aided in containing Adebayo on Wednesday. And, perhaps more importantly, his ability to both create vertical space as a lob threat and produce easy baskets when it counted most may have given Boston an offensive lift (Boston shot 6-for-22 in the fourth).
“Not having Rob here is really an adjustment,” Horford said. “We need to figure out how to be more effective and score in other ways.”
Even if they were 100% healthy, the Celtics were sure to drop a game or two. Their winning streak of 24 games, which ended with a victory against Minnesota on Sunday (the game in which Williams hurt his knee), wasn’t expected to continue. Nonetheless, the problems this club will have navigating the East playoffs without its defensive anchor off the floor were evident in Wednesday’s game.
Splash Mountain is back: Can Lopez help the Bucks reach their full potential?
Brook Lopez, the Bucks’ starting center, has spent almost the entire season watching from the stands in street clothes. After having back surgery on Dec. 2, he has only participated in eight games, seven of which have come in the last three weeks.
Tuesday night was a crucial proving ground. How would Lopez fare against perhaps the league’s largest and most difficult-to-guard center, Philadelphia’s MVP contender Joel Embiid, throughout the game?
The response was, as it turned out, pretty satisfactory.
Lopez played 29 minutes for Milwaukee and scored 17 points, 11 of which came in a row to start the second half. More crucially, Lopez went 4-for-9 from 3-point range, allowing Giannis Antetokounmpo — who ended with 40 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, a steal, and three blocks, including the game-winning block — to move about the floor.
That Milwaukee is 14th in the league in defense this season with Lopez, one of the league’s best (and biggest) interior defenders mostly watching as a spectator, is not a shock. The part of Lopez’s game that is forgotten, however, is how he can break the court wide open for Antetokounmpo & Co.
Lopez’s stature (7 feet, 282 pounds) makes him an unique player who can influence the game on both ends. And although he isn’t Milwaukee’s most essential player — or even their third — with him on the floor, the Bucks looked like a playoff-ready team on Tuesday.
Heat at Celtics, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 30 At 10 p.m., the Suns will face the Warriors.
Nuggets at Lakers, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, April 3 Mavs at Bucks, 1 p.m. (ABC) (ABC)
All timings are in Eastern Standard Time.
And for a club that has spent most of the season relying on a mix of Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis at center, receiving another 30 minutes of high-level big-man performance put everything else back in place where it belonged during the Bucks’ championship run last year.
Lopez’s comeback and efficiency may have been the greatest cause to grin for the Bucks on a night when there were many of them.
Will Harden, the league’s MVP, make additional appearances with the 76ers?
After the 76ers’ defeat on Tuesday night, coach Doc Rivers said he and James Harden had spoken about how the guard needed to go back to being the scorer he was with the Houston Rockets rather than the distributor he was with the Brooklyn Nets that morning.
And, after perhaps his greatest game as a 76er in the defeat to Milwaukee — 32 points, five rebounds, and nine assists in 37 minutes — Harden said he believed it was a step in the right direction.
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Harden said, “I’m trying to get it perfect.” “I’m trying to be the greatest James Harden I possibly can.” And I’m attempting to ensure that I’m doing all I can to assist my squad in winning.
“To sum it up, [Rivers] basically urged me to get out there and be myself. And that was my state of mind today, and it felt nice to receive Doc’s assurance.”
The 76ers need the best James Harden he can be, since that’s what they were hoping to get from the Nets at the trade deadline. And, although Harden has shown flashes of brilliance in his 15 games with the Sixers (he’s averaging 23.0 points, 9.8 assists, and 7.4 rebounds), he hasn’t consistently played at the MVP level that Philadelphia had hoped for.
Only three players (Cole Anthony of the Orlando Magic, Nickeil Alexander-Walker of the Utah Jazz, and Harden of the Houston Rockets) are shooting below 50% from the field among the 133 players who have tried at least 200 layups or dunks this season.
Harden, on the other hand, put on a classic performance on Tuesday night. He shot 5-for-7 from inside the arc, used the step-back well (going 4-for-10 from three), and went to the free throw line 12 times. More significantly, he dispatched Milwaukee’s experiment of starting the game with Wesley Matthews defending him. It was defensive stopper Jrue Holiday, not Matthews, who checked Harden in the final minutes.
If the 76ers can have that version of Harden on a nightly basis over the next several months, he’ll establish the chemistry with Embiid that the team needs to go far into the playoffs.
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