Can Any Eastern Conference Team Challenge the Bucks?

The Milwaukee Bucks are a league-leading 51-8 and are on-pace to win 70 games. The Bucks are the odds-on favorites to win the Eastern Conference and play for the NBA title come June. They’re looking to be the third team in league history to win at least 70 games, joining the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.

The Bucks have created a significant cushion for themselves atop the Eastern Conference standings. They score the most points per game in the NBA this season (120.0) and sport the league’s best point differential (+12.8). They’re 32-4 versus other Eastern Conference teams this season, but only 14-7 versus all teams above a .500 winning percentage.

With Milwaukee cruising toward the postseason, the question becomes: can any Eastern Conference team challenge the Bucks?

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors currently hold the No. 2 seed in the East, but they’re coming off a 108-97 loss to Milwaukee in Toronto this week. They followed up that loss with a 99-96 defeat at the hands of the sub-.500 Charlotte Hornets. The Raptors are 9.0 games behind Milwaukee in the standings, and it’s unlikely they’ll catch them.

Toronto features one of the NBA’s most talented players in first-time All-Star Pascal Siakam. They’re getting All-Star play from veteran Kyle Lowry and the emergence of Fred VanVleet should see the young guard land a hefty payday this summer as a free agent. The Raptors have several bodies to throw at Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, but the team is 0-2 versus the Bucks this season. They’re 10-13 versus teams above .500, so it’s unlikely they’ll defeat the Bucks in the playoffs without finding some of the magic mix from last season.

Boston Celtics

Of all the Eastern Conference playoff teams, Boston is the most likely to upset the Bucks in the playoffs. The Celtics are 1-1 versus Milwaukee, with two games remaining with them on the schedule. Jayson Tatum is making the leap this season. The first-time All-Star averaged 30.7 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting in February. And the Celtics are the only other Eastern Conference team, beside Milwaukee, that posts a top-five offensive and defensive rating.

Boston features quality offensive threats all over the floor, with Tatum, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown, but the team’s weakness is inside. The Celtics don’t have a traditional rim-protector and could be vulnerable there. The team also lacks quality depth beyond Marcus Smart.

Miami Heat

At 38-22, the Miami Heat are clinging to the No. 4 seed in the East, ahead of Philadelphia by one game and Indiana by two. The Heat have struggled of late, going 4-6 in their last 10 and have losses to the lowly Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Minnesota Timberwolves since the All-Star break. That said, the Heat are 13-10 versus above .500 teams this season and are the only Eastern Conference team to win in Milwaukee.

The emergence of Bam Adebayo and the surprise play of rookie Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson have buoyed the team beside Jimmy Butler. But Miami is only 1-4 in “clutch” games in February, after a 13-7 stretch in clutch games in December and January. Miami faces off against the Bucks twice more this season. The acquisitions of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder could help the Heat versus Milwaukee, but it’s unlikely the team, which is 13-18 on the road this season, wins a seven-game series over the Bucks.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers were the trendy pick at the start of the season to upset Milwaukee, but this season has been a mess for Philadelphia. Once thought to be a Finals contender, the Sixers are dealing with major injury issues at the moment. All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are both out for the next week or so. While the Simmons, Embiid, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Al Horford lineup was a monster defensively, they were suspect on the offensive end.

Philadelphia is currently 14.5 games behind Milwaukee, but only one game behind the Heat for the four-seed. If they can right their sinking ship in time to snag home-court from Miami, the Sixers will be in good shape to challenge Milwaukee in the second round, considering Philly is a league-best 28-2 at home. They’re 1-2 versus the Bucks and have one more game remaining with them this season.

Of the East’s other playoff teams, only Indiana is above .500 (36-24). The Pacers are still working Victor Oladipo back into the fold after his extended injury absence. They’re 5-4 since Oladipo’s return and could make a run at the 4-seed. However, they’re 10-13 versus above .500 teams this season and face the NBA’s tenth-toughest schedule down the stretch.

Orlando (27-33) and Brooklyn (26-33) are the other two playoff teams and either of them will just be first-round fodder for the Bucks. The Magic are a 4-25 versus above .500 teams this season and Nets are 4-6 over their last 10 and have won just seven of their 26 games versus winning teams.

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