Following a lackadaisical NBA All-Star game that was possibly the worst one of all time, the home stretch of the regular season is about to begin and promises to be much more entertaining than last weekend’s festivities.
All eyes will be on the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks who are in a dead heat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference with roughly a quarter of the schedule left. Both teams are currently separated by just a half game, with Boston slightly ahead with a 42-17 record while Milwaukee is right behind them at 41-17.
Jayson Tatum will be returning to the Celtics fresh off his record-breaking 55-point performance at the All-Star game that earned him his first ever NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant Most Valuable Player Award.
Furthermore, Boston is finally healthy with starting point guard Marcus Smart returning from a three-week absence caused by an ankle sprain.
The Celtics closed out last year’s regular season by winning 17 of their last 22 games, but they might have to outdo themselves this year as the Bucks are hot on their heels.
Milwaukee is back at full strength as well with three-time All-Star Khris Middleton rounding into form after sporadically playing during the first few months of this campaign. The 31-year-old forward has scored in double figures in eight of his last nine appearances and should only get better as he regains his rhythm.
The Bucks are currently on a 12-game winning streak and it will be interesting to see how long they can keep their run going. Their first two games coming out of the break will not be easy as they are set to face the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns.
This battle for first place between Boston and Milwaukee is crucial given that they have set themselves apart from the rest of the field as the top two contenders in the East. Earning home court advantage for a potential Conference Finals match-up is at stake here and could ultimately determine who makes it to the NBA Finals.
Over in the West, the Denver Nuggets have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack and currently lead the second place Memphis Grizzlies by five games. However, the rest of the standings offer much more excitement as the Sacramento Kings, currently the third seed, only have six games between them and the 13th place Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers, who have much ground to make up, were retooled prior to the trade deadline earlier this month in their latest attempt to spark their flailing season. On the bright side, the Lakers are only two games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the last play-in spot in the West. Unfortunately, they will not have much room for error as they only have 23 games left on their regular season schedule.
With Russell Westbrook gone from their roster, there are no more easy scapegoats in Los Angeles and they will have to act with urgency if they are not to waste another year of the 38-year-old LeBron James’ career.
Further up the West playoff chase, the race for the sixth seed will be another pivotal one to monitor. The new-look Dallas Mavericks are currently in sixth place with a 31-29 slate, yet they are only 1.5 games ahead of the 10th place Thunder.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, and reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors are all wedged in between the Mavericks and Oklahoma City in the standings. Their chase for the last guaranteed playoff spot (Sixth place) is likely to go down the wire and it will be fascinating to see which of these teams ultimately grabs that much coveted berth.
The best months of the NBA season are now underway and the action of these next few weeks will more than make up for the disappointing All-Star weekend that was.