It could come down to the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics vs. the 76ers for the No. 2 seed in the East, behind the top-seeded Bucks.
And it could come down to the final week of the regular season … or perhaps even the final game.
Entering Wednesday night, the Celtics sat at 50-23. The Sixers were at 48-23. The Bucks’ lead was ever so slight at 51-20. So only three games separated the first-place Bucks from the third-seed Sixers. The Bucks led the Celtics by two.
So guess what that means? That’s right the Celtics lead the Sixers by just one game.
Let’s start with the Celtics. The season started with instant change one year after reaching the Finals. They replaced suspended coach Ime Udoka with Joe Mazzulla. Udoka is no longer with the organization and Mazzulla got a multiyear contract.
But the Celtics haven’t really skipped much of a beat behind the likes of resident stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. That said, are they better than last season? Or maybe slightly worse? We don’t really seem to know yet.
Meanwhile, the Sixers still have league MVP candidate Joel Embiid, James Harden and others. But do they have enough depth to surpass the Celtics and come out of the East? Again, we don’t know. And if it doesn’t happen this year, it stands to reason that they could move on from coach Doc Rivers. That may not be fair, but that’s how things so often go in the NBA.
Right now, though, the Bucks seem to be the frontrunners in the East. But not by much. The Celtics and Sixers look pretty much even. So much of what they do could be determined by playoff matchups. One of them could end up facing the Heat in the first round — and the Heat could be the East’s biggest sleeper.
As Marc Stein of The Stein Line wrote:
“Beyond losing homecourt advantage in the second round, landing at No. 3 is likely to mean a first-round matchup with the Miami Heat, who I fully expect to pass Brooklyn for the No. 6 seed.
Man, the always insightful Stein is right about that one. (Sign up for his newsletter here.)
So … Boston. Or Philly. Who you got?