With just over 25 games left in the NBA regular season, the competitive post-All-Star Game playoff push is must-see TV. Here are five teams and their storylines that you should look out for before April 10.
After a heartbreaking game-seven loss to the Boston Celtics in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Bucks went into the offseason trying to find the best possible pieces to surround superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo with. Their acquisition of defensive-minded head coach Mike Budenholzer marked their third coaching change in under three seasons. However, Budenholzer probably won’t be going anywhere. With the stellar shooting of role players such as center Brook Lopez and the breakout play of first-time All-Star Khris Middleton, Budenholzer has created a system tailor-made to highlight Antetokounmpo’s strengths and mask his weaknesses. The Bucks now stand alone, boasting the best record in the NBA at 45-14. Furthermore, their acquisition of sharpshooting forward Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline improves their depth as they make a final playoff push. In a top-heavy conference enjoying its first year without Lebron James, the Bucks and MVP candidate Antetokounmpo are looking to claim their spot among the elite teams in the NBA.
Coming into this season, many thought the Sixers were the Eastern Conference team that would truly challenge the Boston Celtics. With their promising duo of point-forward Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid, it seemed the Sixers just needed time to develop. However, the team was thrust into win-now mode with the additions of All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris via trade. This new starting five gives the Sixers one of the most talented teams in the league as well as plenty of pressure to live up to its potential. Standing in the fourth spot in the East, just two games behind the Indiana Pacers, the Sixers will have to position themselves in a top seed if they want to make a run in the loaded East. Otherwise, it will be hard for the team’s front office to justify the acquisitions of Butler and Harris, who could leave this summer in free agency.
Los Angeles Lakers
If Lebron James wants to keep his streak of consecutive finals appearances — nine so far — alive, he must somehow carry the downtrodden Lakers to the eighth seed first. Having just recovered from the worst injury of his career, James has little to no room for error in trying to will the 29-30 Lakers past the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers. To make matters worse, he must somehow convince a roster of mismatched pieces that were all recently included in trade talks for Anthony Davis to fall in line. Essentially, the Lakers must win 16 of their last 20 or so games if they want to escape next year’s lottery. James certainly has his work cut out for him. But especially considering that the Lakers were slotted fourth in the ultra-competitive West before James went down with a groin injury on Christmas day, they should be able to sneak in if everything goes their way. Then again, this is Lebron James. Despite his odds, it’s very hard to bet against him.
If you haven’t been keeping up with the NBA, you might be surprised to find the Nuggets on this list. However, behind the stellar play of first-time All-Star center Nikola Jokic and one of the deepest rosters in the league, the Nuggets have managed to position themselves near the top of the superior Western Conference. With a record of 41-18, just one game behind the Golden State Warriors, the Nuggets have proven that their early season success was more than just a streak. They have significantly improved their defense and they continue to be one of the most efficient offensive teams in the NBA. They are still a long way from challenging the juggernaut Warriors, but their equal opportunity offense built around Jokic’s singular playing style will make them a threat for years to come.
Oklahoma City Thunder
It seems like the Thunder have finally figured out how to turn their elite defensive play into wins. After their embarrassing first-round playoff exit against the Utah Jazz last year, the star-studded duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George needed to rethink their strategy if they wanted to get over the hump. The Thunder have managed to acquire the necessary complimentary pieces to consistently win games, such as Dennis Schroeder, Terrance Ferguson and Nerlens Noel. This has allowed former MVP Russell Westbrook to take a step back and get his teammates more involved. Another key to the team’s recent success is the MVP-caliber play by George who has been scoring at will. Of the top teams in the West, the Thunder are the only one with the necessary star power to challenge the Warriors in a seven-game series.
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