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Breaking down the logjam for the No. 2 seed in the East

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo
Photo: Getty Images

With three games remaining for Boston, Philly, and Milwaukee, and the three teams all squared up at 49-30 for the two through four seeds, The Race Not to Finish Fourth in the East has massive implications on who plays Phoenix in the Finals, who wins the MVP, and who likely faces Toronto in round one and Miami in round two.

If you’ve seen the Heat or the Raptors this season, you know any series with them is going to be both prolonged and physically and mentally taxing. You know that kid who liked fighting in school not because he had anger issues but because he enjoyed pain? The kid who sees his own blood, tastes it, and smiles? Yeah, that’s Miami and Toronto.

I was at the Heat-Bulls game Saturday, and any hangover from the Jimmy Butler-Eric Spolestra blowup seems to have abated because they summarily dispatched the Bulls as if they were a bottom feeder. After losing four straight, the Heat have won five in a row, securing the No. 1 seed in the process with a 144-115 win over Charlotte on Tuesday.

The Raptors ended Atlanta’s five-game winning streak Tuesday night and did it via in their usual gritty, top-heavy fashion, with rookie Scottie Barnes sealing the game late on a lefty quasi-dunk. Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri have created a winning culture in T-Dot similar to Miami’s; they just don’t tell you about it all the time like an annoying friend who just joined CrossFit.

The Celtics, 76ers, and Bucks are a combined 9-12 against the Heat and Raptors, with Boston being the only team who won a season series (2-1 over Miami) against either. There are a lot of moving parts, tiebreakers, and what-have-yous involved, so I’m going to touch on each team individually so as not to create confusion.

Boston Celtics

The loss of defensive anchor Robert Williams really hurt this team’s already suspect depth, something I wrote about earlier this season. Coach Ime Udoka has competent backup bigs in Grant Williams and Daniel Theis to plug into the void left by Time Lord, and they’ll need those two to step up with road games at Chicago, Milwaukee, and Memphis remaining. It’s easily the toughest slate of the three teams in this race, and a loss to the Bucks could send them tumbling to fourth.

The good news is they control their destiny. They hold the tiebreaker over Philly, and lead the season series 2-1 against the Bucks with one game left — Thursday’s national televised showdown on TNT. If Boston runs the table, they’ll face a tough draw against probably Brooklyn or Atlanta, and that’s daunting because playing Kevin Durant or Trae Young in a playoff series is never ideal. That said, Boston has budding-if-not-already-a-superstar Jayson Tatum, and the Nets and Hawks are missing key guys, as well.

If they stumble and fall to fourth, they’ll battle a team who also only plays its best players, is well coached, and has the kind of versatile defenders to bother Tatum and Jaylen Brown. There’s a good chance that series goes six or seven games, and Miami certainly welcomes any and all bruises and injuries accrued from what would be a draining, physical first round.

Milwaukee Bucks

I know Giannis Antetokuonmpo doesn’t care who’s across from him so there’s that. I’d still be a little leery of facing a team they didn’t beat all season (Toronto), and then Miami, who knocked them out in the bubble a couple years back. Their remaining schedule is the aforementioned Celtics game, and then at Detroit and at Cleveland. They own the tiebreaker over the 76ers, so they need to win out if Philly also wins out to take the two seed. If the Sixers lose at Toronto on Thursday (or at home against Indiana or Detroit), the Bucks only have to go 2-1 to avoid ending up in fourth.

A win over Boston on Thursday would go a long way in securing a two seed and a rematch against teams who are debatably worse than the versions Milwaukee beat a year ago — or the Cavs or Hornets. If Antetokounmpo goes nuclear and ends the season with three straight wins, his argument for MVP will be as good as any made for Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokić. He’d be ahead in the standings even if Philly has the same record, and his crucial block of Embiid in a win late last week would run on a loop, possibly swaying voters searching for an edge between the two big men.

Honestly, whoever ends up in third will be content because of how badly Chicago played the second half of the year. It’s just… trying to jockey for that spot is complicated because of all the tiebreakers. The Bucks would tie the season series with a win over Boston, and I have no clue how far down the tiebreaker sheet we’d have to go if they finish with the same record. I don’t think that’d happen, though, because Milwaukee would have to lose to a vastly inferior opponent over the final two games for the records to align.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philly needs a lot of help to get the two seed. They don’t own the tiebreaker with Boston or Milwaukee, so they’d need to win out and have the winner of Thursday’s Celtics-Bucks matchup to drop a game to the Bulls, Grizzlies, Pacers, or Pistons. The issue with hoping Memphis beats Boston is it’s the last game of the season and the Grizzlies are locked into the two seed out West, so they could be sitting starters on top of already being without Ja Morant.

That also assumes the 76ers can beat the Raptors on Thursday. They’re 1-2 against their divisional brethren from north of the border, and if you’re hoping that record is pre-James Harden, it is not. They split the matchups prior to the trade, and lost 93-88 in mid March. In that defeat, Embiid and Harden combined for 38 points on 11-32 from the field.

The Sixers’ depth did a swan dive into the toilet after they traded most of it to Brooklyn, and that’s essentially a push against Toronto, a team with five players averaging 35 or more minutes a game. It’s a little more complicated against a Miami team who can seemingly pull a fish out of Biscayne Bay and make it look like a rotation player. (Pretty sure that’s how they got Max Strus.)

The biggest positive for Philly staying out of fourth is Boston and Milwaukee can’t both run the table, so if the 76ers take all three games left on their schedule, the worst they can finish is third. That would put them at 52-30, at least two games better than where the Nuggets can finish, and equal or better to where Antetokounmpo ends up. I know Jokic has the metrics going for him, but, like fellow former MVP Giannis, his storyline is stale.

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