Time sure has flown by quickly, hasn’t it? It sure looks like it, especially now that we're on the final stretch of the 2016-17 NBA season. But that’s the nature of being a basketball fan of the greatest basketball league in the world. Get caught up in it and the days turn into hours, hours turn into minutes, and before you know it, three-fourths of the season have come and gone.
One good thing about being in this position is that as fans, we can now look forward to the playoffs and the potentially exciting match-ups that lie before us. But before we get there, there are still some questions surrounding a handful of contenders, answers of which we'll only see as the final legs of the season unfolds. In the meantime, let's take a gander at how these contenders are looking for the stretch run and the potential uncertainties that could derail their postseason before it even starts.
(Bonus question for the team we thought was going to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. FYI, we were wrong about that prediction. They suck.)
The Celts and the Cavs played each other recently and in what has become a nightly showcase of professional scoring, Isaiah Thomas erupted for 31 points against the defending champions, leading the Celtics to an impressive 103-99 win over LeBron James and company. We know, headlines, right? As impressive as the game was for Boston, it's hard to take anything seriously about the game other than the level of competition between the teams had an authentic atmosphere to it.
Make no mistake, Thomas has turned himself into one of the league's greatest scorers and he should be in line for some sick playoff performances come the postseason. But there are some things about this match-up that doesn't add up to the Celtics being the legitimate contenders that we think they are still something about this team that doesn’t add up to a convincing threat to the Cavaliers. It's hard to pinpoint it now, but come playoff time, the C's are going to find it much more difficult to rely on Thomas to create points for them. Add that to the fact that they couldn't get another go-to scorer at the trade deadline and there's something inherently flawed about this Boston team that will manifest itself when it starts playing the highest level of competitive basketball against teams that are just as good or, at least in the case of Cleveland, a little bit better. You have to love the Celtics though for their scrappiness, attitude, and unwillingness to back down from the competition. It's gotten them far enough to be 40-22 so far and only three games back of the Cavaliers for the top seed in the East.
But they missed a real opportunity to make James and the Cavs sweat by not cashing in on some of its assets alt the trade deadline. A team can't go all-in without pushing all of its chips in the middle of the table. Only time will tell if that decision comes back and haunts the Celts, but for now, they're at least good enough to hold on to the second seed and make a good run at Cleveland.
How does Kyle Lowry's wrist surgery affect the Toronto Raptors' hopes?
On the surface, it shouldn't matter because Lowry is scheduled to return in four to five weeks so he should still be able to get some regular season run with the team and its new players, namely Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker. That's going to be crucial to how the Raptors fare in the playoffs. If the team can't get acclimated with its new pieces in time for the playoffs, they could find themselves staring at a potential disadvantage. We wouldn't worry too much about it though because the Raptors are one of the few teams in the league that have grown up in the post season with largely the same group of players.
The addition of Ibaka and Tucker will be mitigated by how well-run this team is under Dwayne Casey. It's going to take some time though, that's for sure. But overall, Toronto's doing well since Lowry went down, even winning four of the five games their star point guard has missed so far. If he's healthy come playoff time, there's no reason why the Raptors can't give the Cavs more than they can handle.
Are the Washington Wizards really legitimate?
It appears that they are, which is even more remarkable considering how bad they looked back in December. But give credit where credit is due. The Wizards now sit third in the Eastern Conference (third!) and they've done on the shoulders of one of the best starting units in the NBA today. Otto Porter is leading the league in three-point percentage. Bradley Beal is finally coming into his own. Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris are playing the best basketball of their careers. And John Wall...what else can you say about the guy except that he's turning into one of the Top 5 point guards in the game today.
That said, the Wizards are the personification of a top-heavy team with the starters often getting undermined by one of the weakest bench units in the league. Bojan Bogdanovic has played well since being acquired from the Brooklyn Nets at the trade deadline and the addition of Brandon Jennings gives the team a legit backup point guard. But if the Wizards plan on going deep in the playoffs and making a serious run at the Cavs, they're going to need to get major contributions from guys like Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Ian Mahinmi. The jury is still out on that happening.
What happened to the New York Knicks?
Speaking of time passing by in a glimpse, it seems like it was only yesterday when we, rather foolishly, picked the New York Knicks to make the Eastern Conference Finals. It seemed like a good pick at that time, but boy, we're ready to admit that we were way off on that one. The Knicks have been an abomination, and that may even be putting things lightly.
They have no identity as a team. They have no synergy with their own front office. Worst of all, they've been a carnival of controversy with players going AWOL, an owner beefing with a team legend, a GM publicly throwing his best player under the bus, and a young stud that has regressed through no fault of his own. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2016-2017 New York Knicks!
Can the Cleveland Cavaliers make it three straight trips to the NBA Finals?
The recent trade deadline may been lacking in terms of wall-to-wall action, but many don't realize is that the deadline also served as the precursor to one of the most underrated ways of in-season team improvement: the waiver-wire pick-ups. On that note, the Cavaliers made out like bandits by signing both Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut to anchor a second unit that’s suddenly loaded with talent.
We're under no illusions that Williams or Bogut will be major difference makers when it comes to the seemingly inevitable Cavs-Dubs trilogy. But it certainly helps having them around, especially Bogut who immediately addresses a glaring hole in the Cavs lineup and who also happens to be a former Warrior himself. The two former stars add depth to a team that badly needed it. It also added a playmaker in Williams that can spot Kyrie Irving and LeBron some minutes away from point-guard duties. Don't forget too that at one point in time, there was a legitimate debate on who the best point guard in the NBA was, Chris Paul or Deron Williams. He's far from being vintage Deron Williams, but this older and wiser version of the same player is a huge backup playmaker upgrade from what the team had before he arrived.
There will obviously have to be some time to get Williams and Bogut acclimated with their new surroundings, but if the adjustment is as smooth as people expect it to be, then the Cavs just turned themselves into bigger favorites to come out of the East than they already were in the first place.