What matters most in one of the NBA’s tightest Eastern Conference playoff races

The top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference couldn’t be much more compact.

Going into Tuesday’s action, four teams — the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — were just one loss apart.

And, at the right time, all four were set to face off, with the Bucks playing in Philadelphia on Tuesday, followed by the Heat and Celtics facing off in Boston on Wednesday – a 24-hour span that could have delivered a pair of Eastern Halfback previews. -conference finals.

Let’s examine a key question surrounding each of the conference’s top four teams as they prepare for the playoffs, and how each storyline unfolded in two high-profile matchups.

The results — a pair of close, competitive games with Milwaukee and Miami both winning on the road — only whet the appetite for what should be a scintillating spring full of playoff action in the East.

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Is the Lowry Miami playoff X factor?

When Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was asked if Kyle Lowry’s do-it-all performance in Miami’s win over the Celtics on Wednesday night was indicative of the kind of performance the Heat expected when they signed him last summer, Spoelstra smiled.

“Listen, we’ve been on the other side,” Spoelstra said. “There have been many years that I have just really didn’t like Kyle Lowry, because he was such a thorn in our side.”

Spoelstra pointed to the seven-game series between the Toronto Raptors and Miami in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, won by the Lowry Raptors.

“The deeper that streak got, the better he played in the clutch moments,” Spoelstra said. “You can’t define him by an analysis or a number or a playcall…he just knows how to make winning plays.”



Kyle Lowry drains 3 points with Grant Williams’ hand in his face

Lowry did all kinds of them on Wednesday. He finished with 23 points (6 for 12 from 3-point range) and eight assists in 36 minutes. He played his usual brand of one-on-one defense despite four fouls in the streak.

“It’s just a big luxury to have a Hall of Fame point guard who can choreograph your offense but also take on big challenges defensively on the other end,” Spoelstra said.

It’s been a turbulent season when Lowry first arrives in Miami after nine seasons with the Raptors, particularly because he missed a lot of time to deal with personal issues. After a turbulent week that saw Miami give up three leads in the fourth quarter and get beaten at home by the Brooklyn Nets, this performance was vintage Lowry.

Coming to Boston, which had been the hottest team in the league for the past two months, and winning a home and away game was a perfect elixir to wash away the ugly moments of the past week.

In last year’s lopsided first round against Milwaukee, the Heat were exposed as a team that needed another playmaker. The addition of Lowry gave them a guard who could lead their offense, be part of of the Heat’s defensive identity and provide the kind of offensive shock he gave Miami on Wednesday inside the TD Garden.

“I think having a real live playmaker who’s a pass-first guy who recently has ‘Pass first, I’m going to score first. … It’s good,” Jimmy Butler said. “I miss Goran [Dragic] like hell, I like to handle the ball, Tyler [Herro] likes to handle the ball.

“But having a guy like Kyle who tells everybody where to go, knows how to get everybody the ball. … Yeah, we needed Kyle Lowry.”

How will Boston adjust to life without its anchor?

In Boston’s first test without Robert Williams III, which will be ruled out at least four weeks after meniscus surgery, the results were mixed.

Heat center Bam Adebayo controlled the game. Going back to what Adebayo did in Boston in the 2020 Eastern Finals, he finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. It was no coincidence that he was plus-12 in 33 minutes, and Al Horford, who struggled to 6 points on 2-for-6 shooting, was minus-14 in 34 minutes. Grant Williams, meanwhile, was 2 for 7 from the field and missed all three of his 3-pointers on his first start in place of Robert Williams alongside the rest of Boston’s usual starting lineup of Jayson Tatum , Jaylen Brown, Marcus. Smart and Horford.

Meanwhile, Daniel Theis finished with 15 points on a perfect 6-on-6 shot in 17 minutes.

It’s a reminder of the different skill sets Boston must now use to match Robert Williams’ impact at both ends of the court.

“We feel confident with the big three, [and] the versatility they have,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “It’s not the same as Rob from a shot-blocking perspective, but a lot of similar things he was doing on and off. ball, they are very capable of.”



Smart passes behind his back to Tatum for an easy lay-up

Robert Williams certainly could have helped contain Adebayo on Wednesday, even as an assist defender. And, perhaps most egregiously, he could have given Boston an offensive boost with his ability to both create vertical spacing as a lob threat and create easy shots when it mattered most (Boston shot 6 for 22 in the fourth).

“It’s definitely an adjustment not having Rob here,” Horford said. “We have to find ways to be efficient and we have to find other ways to score.”

Even though they were completely healthy, the scorching Celtics were expected to lose a game or two. Their 24-4 streak in Sunday’s win over Minnesota — the game in which Williams suffered a knee injury — was not likely to continue at this clip. Still, Wednesday’s game showed the struggles this team will face navigating the Eastern playoffs with its defensive anchor off the field.

Splash Mountain is back: Could Lopez unlock the best version of the Bucks?

The Bucks have spent virtually the entire season with Brook Lopez, their starting center, watching in street clothes. He has only played eight games – seven in the past three weeks – after undergoing back surgery on December 2.

Tuesday night was an important test. How would Lopez, facing arguably the biggest and hardest-to-guard center in the league, Philadelphia MVP candidate Joel Embiid, hold up over the course of the game?

The response, it turned out, was pretty good.

Lopez played 29 minutes and scored 17 points for Milwaukee – including 11 in a row to open the second half for the Bucks. More importantly, Lopez went 4 for 9 from 3-point range, helping create some of the court space for Giannis Antetokounmpo — he finished with 40 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, one steal and three blocks , including the one that won the Bucks game – to run.



Giannis clutch block on Embiid seals Bucks win in Philadelphia

That Milwaukee is 14th in the league in defense this season with Lopez, one of the best (and greatest) inside defensemen in the league who mostly watches as a spectator, is no shock. The part of Lopez’s game that gets overlooked, however, is how he can open up the field wide for Antetokounmpo & Co.

It’s rare that a guy the size of Lopez (7-foot, 282 pounds) can shape the game on both sides. And while he’s not Milwaukee’s most important player — or even their third — the Bucks looked like a playoff-ready team on Tuesday with him on the court.

And for a side that has spent much of the season playing a combination of Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis in the middle, getting an extra 30 minutes of top-flight play with a big man has caused everything else to fall back into places where they were so effective for the Bucks. at last year’s championship.

On a night when there were plenty of reasons to smile for the Bucks, Lopez’s comeback and efficiency might have been the biggest of them all.

Will MVP-level Harden make more appearances for Philly?

After Tuesday night’s loss, 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he and James Harden spoke at length that morning about the need for the guard to get back to being the scorer he was with the Houston Rockets, rather than operating as a distributor he was with the Brooklyn Nets. .

And, after playing arguably his best game as a 76er — 32 points, five rebounds and nine assists in 37 minutes in the loss to Milwaukee — Harden said he thought it was a step in the right direction. direction.

“I try to do it right,” Harden said. “I try to be the best James Harden I can be. And I try to make sure that I do the things necessary to help my team win.

“[Rivers] just told me, to sum it all up, go over there, be you. And that was kind of my mindset today, and it feels good to have that confidence from Doc.”

The 76ers need the best James Harden possible — because that’s the version they were hoping to acquire from the Nets at the trade deadline. And, though Harden had some shining moments – he averaged 23.0 points, 9.8 assists and 7.4 rebounds in 15 games as a Sixer – he failed to play consistently at the type of MVP level hoped for by Philadelphia.

For example: of the 133 players who have attempted at least 200 layups or dunks this season, only three are shooting less than 50% from the field: Cole Anthony of the Orlando Magic, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Harden of the Utah Jazz.



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But Tuesday night was a vintage performance for Harden. He went 5 for 7 from inside the arc, made the step back work (he went 4 for 10 from 3) and made it to the free throw line 12 times. More importantly, he made short work of Milwaukee’s experience of getting Wesley Matthews to start the game by guarding him. In the final minutes, it was defensive scorer Jrue Holiday – not Matthews – who was checking Harden.

If Philadelphia can get this version of Harden every night for the next few months, he’ll form the partnership with Embiid the 76ers need to make a deep playoff run.