Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Where does Boston rank among the East’s top teams? Things didn’t look promising Tuesday. The Celtics were the preseason favorite to be the top seed in the East because they had depth, they were going to have versatility because of that depth, because their young players were going to keep improving, because they were going to have a star with the ball in his hands taking them to the next level, and because we knew their defense was going to be good.
Turns out that actually describes the Milwaukee Bucks. And the Toronto Raptors.
Those are two teams who have beaten the Celtics since the All-Star break — Toronto blew Boston out on Tuesday night, turning and 18-0 second-quarter run into a 118-95 victory.
It’s led to a lot of questions about where Boston really fits in the pecking order at the top of the East. And there are no easy answers.
In Boston’s wins against Toronto earlier in the season it was the Kyrie Irving show but he seemed passive Tuesday, which led Boston to a more balanced attack this time around — and it backfired. They shot 6-of-30 from three and could not find an offensive groove. It was ugly. That happens, there are bad games and the Raptors are an elite team. What was concerning was the way the Celtics seemed to just roll over and accept their fate Tuesday night.
What’s concerning is this team has still not gelled 61 games into the season.
Also concerning: The look on Irving’s face.
Most concerning, however, is through their past 10 games the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the league. This was supposed to be Boston’s calling card, and while Boston has the fifth best defense in the NBA for the season we have not seen that of late. Their strength isn’t there to bail them out on the nights the shots don’t fall.
Which leads to the questions: Just how good are the Celtics? Where do they rank in the East?
If the playoffs started today, they wouldn’t even have home court in the first round. On the season, Boston is 2-10 on the road against teams better than .500. Still, there seems to be an internal level of confidence in the Celtics’ locker room. After a recent loss Kyrie Irving said this was just the regular season and when it came time to focus, when they drilled down on matchups against one team in the playoffs, the Celtics would be fine. Essentially, a flip the switch moment.
Can they really? Right now, the signs are not promising as teams start to gear up for their playoff run.
2) Denver turns out to be a matchup nightmare for Oklahoma City. Remember above I wrote we thought Boston would have depth, be versatile, their young players were going to step up, their star was going to lift them to the next level, and their defense was going to be good? That also describes the Denver Nuggets this season. Oh, and they have Isaiah Thomas.
That Nikola Jokic has stepped up to an All-Star — and likely All-NBA — is not a surprise, he’s been on that trajectory for years. What is a surprise is just how good Denver’s defense has become — top 10 in the NBA on the season, and in the last five games they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7, best in the NBA in that stretch).
That includes handling the Thunder 121-112 Tuesday night. Jokic led the way with 36 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, and he heard MVP chants from the Denver faithful.
Paul George was putting up some highlight plays, but it wasn’t enough.
It is very possible these teams meet in the second round of the playoffs, and if that happens I’d be worried if I were a Thunder fan. Through three meetings this season, the Thunder have led for 12 minutes of game time, the Nuggets for 85. Ouch. Regular season games do not project postseason ones nearly as well as fans want them to, but when one team seems to have the other’s number that is a sign.
3) Break up the Knicks, they have won three of four. Tanking for Zion? There will be none of that in Madison Square Garden…
Well, there kind of is. The Knicks do have the second-worst record in the NBA, giving them as good a shot as anyone at landing the top pick in the draft and the rights to the Duke superstar (a 14 percent chance, but that’s as good as it gets with the new lottery odds).
New York, however, is not limping into the end of the season. Orlando came into Madison Square Garden having won 8-of-9 and is fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but New York got great play from their bench and got the win 108-103. Not one Knicks starter scored in double figures, but Emmanuel Mudiay had 19 points off the bench, Allonzo Trier added 18, and the biggest stud of the night was rookie Mitchell Robinson who had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks.
The Knicks are still going to have great lottery odds (they would need to make up three games on the Bulls — who have played well as of late also — to fall out of the bottom three and not have their 14 percent odds at the top slot). However, it’s good for the franchise to see the team’s young players show some grit down the stretch.