The top tier of the Eastern Conference has been clearly defined for months, as the Nets, Sixers, and Bucks separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the first half and have maintained that cushion for most of the 2020/21 season. With the postseason fast approaching, those three clubs look like the best bets to come out of the conference and represent the East in the 2021 NBA Finals.
Brooklyn is the odds-on favorite to win the East at this point. The Nets have had all three of their stars – Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving – healthy and available just seven times this season, but they still sit atop the conference standings with a 41-20 record. If they can play this well with just one or two of their stars on the court, it’s a reasonable assumption that the Nets will be an even tougher out in the playoffs once they have all three back.
Still, while Durant, Harden, and Irving are all expected to be ready to go for the postseason, that’s certainly not a lock. Durant has been limited to just 25 games as he has dealt with various injuries this season, Harden recently experienced a setback in his recovery from a hamstring strain, and Irving has a long history of health issues. Even if all three stars are available, their lack of minutes together to date could result in some growing pains when the stakes are highest. And Brooklyn’s 24th-ranked defense could be a concern in the postseason too.
The Sixers, at 39-21, currently hold the No. 2 seed in the East, and will also be counting on good health luck once the playoffs get underway. When he has been on the court, Joel Embiid has played like an MVP this season, but his injury history is a concern. While Ben Simmons is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Tobias Harris is having perhaps his best season as a pro, the Sixers’ ceiling hinges on Embiid’s availability.
The Bucks, meanwhile, have flown somewhat under the radar this season after leading the NBA in wins for two consecutive years. At 37-23, they appear to be focused less on piling up regular season victories and more about preparing for the postseason. With Jrue Holiday now in the mix, the Bucks – who are the only one of the East’s top three teams with both an offensive and defensive rating in the NBA’s top 10 – have a more versatile and more dangerous closing lineup than they’ve had in recent years.
According to the oddsmakers at BetOnline.ag, no other Eastern team is better than a 16-to-1 shot to come out of the conference. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on some of the dark horses, since we saw the fifth-seeded Heat knock off three higher seeds in last year’s playoffs to make the Finals.
This year’s Heat have a pretty similar roster, but they’re currently ranked just seventh in the East at 32-29, putting them in position for a play-in spot. They have the same record as the No. 6 Celtics, the team Miami beat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. The C’s have underachieved a little this season, but if Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker are all clicking at the same time, they can hold their own against just about any team.
While Miami and Boston are more battle-tested in the postseason, they’re currently trailing the upstart Knicks and Hawks, who rank fourth and fifth in the Eastern standings. The two 34-27 squads are among the hottest teams in the league — New York has won nine straight games while Atlanta has won 20 of its last 27. Neither club has a ton of playoff experience, but if they can hang onto their current spots in the standings, at least one of them will make the second round.
What do you think? Which team do you expect to represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s NBA Finals?
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