During the All-Star break, consider which games from the first half of the season gave shape and texture to the Atlantic Division.
BOSTON CELTICS: Wednesday, February 10 vs. L.A. Clippers — W, 139-134 (OT)
What Brad Stevens is doing in Boston is nothing less than remarkable. Then again, Stevens has always done remarkable things over the past several years. Nevertheless, the fact that this roster could legitimately snag the third seed in the East is a testament to the Celtics’ coach and his ability to maximize the resources at his disposal.
Yes, the Celtics won at Cleveland not too long ago, but that result was made possible in part by a disputed call which should have gone the other way. This win over the Clippers, just before the break, showed the full(er) measure of the overachieving Celtics. The Clippers have been playing extremely well over the past month, and the Celtics refused to back down against them. The fact that this win occurred on the back end of a back-to-back, one night after a brutal one-point loss in Milwaukee on a dumb last-second foul, only magnifies the Celtics’ emergence under Stevens. Good teams shrug off horrible losses, especially on back ends of back-to-backs.
BROOKLYN NETS: Friday, November 6 vs. L.A. Lakers — L, 104-98
Wait a minute — a game just a week and a half into the season defined the first half for an NBA team? As is the case with the Philadelphia 76ers, you knew the season was over at a relatively early point in the proceedings. When the Nets fell to the abysmal Lakers at home to slide to 0-6, was there really any doubt that Brooklyn was toast?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course.
NEW YORK KNICKS: Saturday, January 23 at Charlotte — L, 97-84
The Knicks’ loss to Denver just before the break prompted the firing of Derek Fisher, but the season — which had blossomed in the first half of January — truly turned south on January 23. The Knicks were non-competitive the night before against the Los Angeles Clippers. That’s no sin — the Clippers can make a lot of teams look very bad. However, the “nolo contendere” nature of that game meant the Knicks should have been able to rest their starters late in that game and have adequate time to regroup against the struggling Hornets.
Instead, they got drummed out of North Carolina by 13 points, offering nothing (again) at the offensive end of the floor. As much as Kristaps Porzingis has given to this organization, filling the future with hope, the present moment is still a very limited one in the Big Apple. This game underscored the reality as much as any other from the first half of the season.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Friday, October 30 vs. Utah — L, 99-71
The season was over before November even began… and that’s not hyperbole, at least in light of subsequent results.
TORONTO RAPTORS — Sunday, January 24 vs. L.A. Clippers — W, 112-94
The Raptors have been the best story in the East, but their upward trajectory didn’t take shape until January, when they stacked together 11 straight wins and 14 out of 15. In that salad-day stretch, the Raptors beat a lot of mediocre teams; the NBA community wanted to see a high-end win against a legitimately good team.
Is an 18-point punking of the Clippers good enough for ya?
Toronto was just one of many slightly-better-than-mediocre East teams at the start of January. One and a half months later, it has achieved genuine separation from the East — it is closer to Cleveland than the chasing pack and is almost certain to tuck away a top-two playoff seed. The Raptors are in very good position to make the first Eastern Conference Finals series in franchise history. Beating Cleveland would be a great bonus, but merely winning two playoff series would suffice in 2016. Such an achievement (a considerable one) would set up the Raptors for bigger prizes in future years.