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With less than 20 games remaining in what’s been a dramatic NBA season, here’s what you can expect for what should be a crucial, competitive stretch of games as the regular season winds down.
Though the Warriors dynasty looks scarier than ever with center DeMarcus Cousins comfortably getting acclimated to the system, the rest of the Western Conference still looks promising enough to at least put up a strong fight against the reigning champs.
Aside from Russell Westbrook’s lightning-fast all-around play style, it’s Paul George’s thunderous performances that’s been making the most noise for the Thunder, as they stand tall at the third seed.
George’s MVP-caliber season has led to effectiveness on both ends of the court, as he currently leads the NBA in steals at 2.22 per game and has averaged 35.1 points per game since Jan. 24.
The Nuggets have also been a bright spot this year as they are second in the West and rank fourth in team offensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. Led by All-Star center Nikola Jokić, Denver has the potential to offensively match-up against anyone with their scoring depth.
Speaking of offensive productivity, reigning-MVP James Harden has pretty much single-handedly lifted the Rockets back to contention.
Harden, who averaged 41.1 points, 7.4 assists and 2.2 steals per game during his historic 32 -game stretch of 30+ points, and the Rockets might be hungrier than ever as they know their window for a championship run is limited.
Then, there’s the Lakers. According to ESPN, the Lakers currently have just a 3.1% chance to make the playoffs. But even though their season has been plagued with injuries, there’s still a royal spark that gives LA hope for a playoff spot: LeBron James. Currently sitting just outside the playoff picture at the 11th seed, James, who’s still nursing a groin injury, has proven he’s capable of carrying a team to deep playoff runs, even at 34 years of age.
Though it won’t be easy with a relatively challenging stretch of games to close the season, I wouldn’t bet against James to somehow claw his way into the playoffs; He’s been to eight straight Finals. He’ll find a way to win and show this summer’s free-agents that he is determined for title contention. At least that’s his goal, as the Lakers continue to make negative headlines with their team’s lack of defensive effort and locker room chemistry.
With James’ transition to the West, the Eastern Conference is now wide open. Out East, there is a four-team race for legitimate title contention between the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics and 76ers.
The leading MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is leading the Bucks to the best record in the NBA at 46-14. Antetokounmpo’s sheer dominance exceeds his 27.2 ppg and 12.7 rpg stat line as Milwaukee is on pace to 60+ games — the franchise’s best record since 1980-81. In fact, Antetokounmpo is currently leading the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists (six) and steals (1.4) per night, making him the clear-cut engine of a team that is to be taken very seriously at this point.
Meanwhile, silent superstar Kawhi Leonard is making a bold statement with the Raptors, the second seed Eastern team that has depth and is among the top in both scoring and defense. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 Finals MVP is familiar with what it takes to win a championship. Also, the Raptors will most likely try their absolute hardest to get far in the postseason as it could potentially persuade Leonard to re-sign with franchise considering he is highly regarded as one of the top free agents this summer.
The 76ers, arguably the biggest winners of the trade deadline through their acquisition of forward Tobias Harris, now have the most talented starting five in the East. On paper, Philadelphia seems to have finally completed “The Process”, as they are swinging big on a championship run with an elite starting-five that consists of Ben Simmons, JJ Reddick, Jimmy Butler, Harris and Joel Embiid.
Finally, comes the Celtics. For a team as talented and deep as they are, their chemistry is clearly the biggest obstacle from them being the best in the East. If Kyrie and the C’s can figure out a way to play with enthusiasm, focus and teamwork, I think they are the closest team to legitimately match-up against the Warriors should the two teams meet in the Finals.
The first round of the NBA Playoffs begins Apr. 14.