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As the Cleveland Cavaliers climbed 20 games over .500 for the first time on Sunday, one couldn’t help but notice that 11 of the Eastern Conference’s 15 teams entered the week with 20 or fewer wins. The only other East team with a record better than 10 games over .500 were the Raptors, which means that portion of this postseason is going to be a drag unless multiple teams improve over the next few months.
While the Warriors will be tested as they look to get to their third straight NBA Finals, Cleveland’s road looks lined with rose pedals by comparison. Literally. Derrick Rose’s Knicks could be their first opponent and have looked anything but a super team he predicted they would be. Given the drama surrounding New York, landing the No. 8 seed would seem like a win at this point.
Despite the star power of Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Rose, the results haven’t come. Fortunately for the sake of our entertainment value come April and May, other teams are beginning to step up.
Behind Houston’s nine-game run of victories, the three longest winning streaks in the league entering the week belonged to Atlanta, Boston and Indiana. While they’re not necessarily the three teams most likely to emerge as the Cavs’ top adversary, they are worth watching to see whether their early success in 2017 is a sign of things to come.
If these teams come through to join the Raptors and others worth watching like Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and John Wall’s Wizards, the Eastern Conference playoffs may indeed be salvageable.
Despite "Greek Freak" being ill, Milwaukee beat the Spurs in San Antonio on Tuesday behind Jabari Parker, Michael Beasley and rookie Malcolm Brogdon. Washington survived depleted Chicago 101-99 to climb over .500 for the first time. The Wizards have won 10 straight home games. In this week's 3-pointer, we'll look at three other surging Eastern Conference teams worth watching.
Soaring in Atlanta
The Hawks last lost on Dec. 26 and own victories over the Spurs, Pelicans and Mavs during their surge. Despite ownership appearing to be rebuilding on the run by moving Kyle Korver and shopping All-Star Paul Millsap, the team has pressed forward and actually thrived on the road. Thanks to a blowout win in Brooklyn on Tuesday, the Hawks completed a sweep of a four-game trip. Considering Atlanta lost eight straight road games from Nov. 18-Dec. 3, that's a major accomplishment.
Since head coach Mike Budenholzer also has final say in all transactions as team president, the fact he’s been able to keep the team focused is a testament to veterans like Millsap, who hasn’t allowed the rumors to affect his on-court performance. On Monday, the news came down from Yahoo! Sports that GM Wes Wilcox had informed teams that Millsap was no longer available. We’ll see whether that remains the case over the next month, but for now, it renews hope.
Less than two years removed from a 60-win season and a trip to the conference finals, the acquisition of Dwight Howard to replace Al Horford helped produce a 9-2 start, but losses in 10 of 11 quickly drowned out heightened expectations. It will be interesting to see what direction they go in after. Despite moving Korver, convincing Mike Dunleavy, Jr. to come on board when he wanted to be bought out suggests they’re still interested in competing for a division title and ultimately, a ring, but the fact so many contenders are sniffing around Millsap means things could change at any moment.
The Hawks returned home and have a few days off before settling in for weekend home games against the Celtics and Bucks, teams that also harbor postseason expectations.
Boston is Back
Boston had won four straight before falling to Toronto on Tuesday, riding an amazing run from point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is now averaging 28.0 points per game. Thomas closed out 2016 with a 52-point game on Dec. 30 and scored 38 points to secure a 117-108 win against New Orleans to close out a perfect 4-0 homestand. He went for 27 points and seven assists in the loss to the Raptors.
The diminutive Celtics guard was outplayed by Kyle Lowry and the Raptors and failed to even up the Atlantic Division, but has little time to stress over it. Thomas returns home to square off against John Wall-led Washington on Wednesday. Next week features home games against Kemba Walker’s Hornets, Rose’s Knicks and Damian Lillard’s Trail Blazers, so he can really make an impression as he seeks a second consecutive All-Star berth. Thomas was fourth in the first returns of fan voting behind Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade and DeMar DeRozan, so people have really taken notice of his exploits.
The Celtics have fared well since getting Horford back in the lineup to provide the defensive presence they hoped he’d bring to the table when he agreed to leave Atlanta for Boston as a free agent, but it’s been Thomas’ big nights on offense that has helped put away games of late. He’ll have to do even more of the heavy lifting this week since backcourt partner Avery Bradley is suffering through an Achilles injury. Marcus Smart has stepped his game up of late and should take on an increased role.
Boston has seen the over prevail in 11 consecutive games after the 114-106 loss to the Raptors, averaging 114 points while surrendering 111.
Faster pace lifts Indiana
Indiana has gotten its act together to open 2017 and hasn’t lost since Dec. 28. The over has come in six straight times in Pacers games, prevailing in nine of the last 10.
All but one of the wins have come at home, but they’ll be a long way from Indianapolis for their next encounter, a date with the Nuggets at 02 Arena in London on Thursday. The Pacers will try to move their winning streak to six games, rallying after dropping a season-high four straight games from Dec. 20-28. They’ve averaged 118.6 points in the victories, finally executing at the tempo team president Larry Bird wanted employed when he let Frank Vogel go and hired Nate McMillan.
The Pacers won’t play again after the London game until they’re back home to host the Pelicans on Jan. 16, so they should have fresh legs once they overcome any jet lag. McMillan’s first season as head coach didn’t start as Bird had hoped, but this current run suggests that the pieces are finally coming together.
Although no one will line up the Bulls, Magic, Pistons, Nets and Knicks as a murderer’s row, the fact the Pacers handled business against teams that they were favored to win against bodes well for their continued improvement since they’ll face New Orleans, Sacramento and the L.A. Lakers after they return from England. All are sub-.500 teams. If Indiana takes care of business, they could be hunting a 10-game winning streak when they take the court at Utah on Jan. 21.
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