NBA playoffs: Scouts prefer Bucks, Sixers to Heat, Celtics to East

By Eric Bucher
FOX Sports Writer NBA

The distinction NBA talent evaluators make between regular season and playoff ability is reflected in their view of how the current Eastern Conference standings predict playoff success.

In the opinion of the scouts, pay little attention to the ranking.

Going into Wednesday’s games, the Miami Heat have the best record in the conference, with the Boston Celtics ranked second, even though they are tied for record at 49-30 with the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.

According to three different scouts, neither the Heat nor the Celtics have the best chance of representing the conference in the NBA Finals. With the Heat, their perspective is actually a compliment, in that scouts believe coach Erik Spoelstra maxed out his roster’s abilities to put Miami at the top of the standings. Playing hard consistently, especially on defense, has allowed the Heat to win, and win often – in the regular season.

“They play a different brand of basketball than almost everyone else does,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “They are cunning and they don’t back down.”

But when it comes to the playoffs, every team plays hard. Each team executes its game plan. As a result, the advantage shifts to teams with players who have the skill and physical superiority to break through a tightly knit defense or thwart a finely tuned attack, especially in the final minutes with a win or loss hanging in the balance. .

In other words, the engines of teams in the playoffs run on star power.

“Successful playoff basketball requires offensively creative players who can create for themselves and others,” a Western Conference scout said. “Everybody likes high-performance cars. I like high-performance NBA players.”

And that’s where the Heat and the Celtics fail. The Heat attempted to fill that gap last summer by signing point guard Kyle Lowry from the Toronto Raptors to a three-year, $85 million deal, but he struggled to stay healthy, missing 17 of 79 Miami games to date. Unless he regains the form he had to help the Raptors to the 2019 championship, the Heat are left with swingman Jimmy Butler as their top threat with a game on the line.

How well it worked is reflected in the Heat’s record in games decided by three runs or less: 3-6. This is the second-worst record in this category of any team currently eligible for the playoffs, including those in play-in slots.

The worst? The Celtics at 3-9. That’s why, despite Boston’s breakneck pace since mid-January — 28-8 since Jan. 15 after a 21-22 start — all three scouts have expressed concerns about the team’s playoff viability. playoffs.

What separates the Celtics from the Heat is that scouts saw glimpses of the star power needed to make a deep playoff run — but not consistently. Forward Jayson Tatum has been the biggest driving force behind the 28-8 streak, scoring 15 or more points every month since December. In March, he averaged 32.8 points on 53.8 percent shooting, 44.7 percent on 3 and 90.5 percent from the free throw line.

But it’s the same Tatum who averaged 23.3 points in November while shooting 39.3%.

Then there’s Jaylen Brown, the Celtics’ second-best player to create his own shot, and Marcus Smart, their best point guard. Both have been solid at both ends of the court, especially Smart as the player candidate. defensive of the year, but they too have been inconsistent.

“I’m not completely sold on Jaylen Brown as No. 2,” a second Eastern Conference scout said. “If he has to step in and wear them for a game or two, it remains to be seen if that’s possible. Looking at his numbers, I may be wrong to be skeptical, but I am.”

Looking at Brown’s overall numbers, perhaps – but not his monthly splits, which go up and down like a seismic chart of San Andreas: 40.9% 3-point shooting in November, 28.3% 3-point shooting points in February; 40.9% of overall shootings in December, 49% of shootings in March.

Smart has been the Celtics’ wild card for several seasons now, as capable of making incredible game-winning plays as taking an ill-timed low-percentage shot.

“He seems to have held back some of his bad shot selection,” the Eastern Conference second scout said. “But I’m not sure it’s not showing up at the wrong time.”

If Tatum, Brown and Smart are all at their best, the Western Conference scout and the Eastern Conference first scout believe the Celtics could advance to the conference finals.

“There’s a way to get there,” the Eastern Conference scout said.

“Both wings are their engine,” the Western Conference scout said, “and Smart is the lubricant.”

A final factor for the Celtics entering the playoffs is the uncertain date of the return of center Robert Williams, a defensive kingpin. Williams underwent knee surgery last week and is expected to miss at least three more weeks.

“Their biggest advantage is their commitment to defense,” the Western Conference scout said. “But missing out on Robert Williams is problematic. If he comes back in full, they can still be legit.”

For now, the favorite among scouts to come out of the East is the defending champion Bucks, closely followed by the 76ers. One reason is that the two have a pair of bona fide, go-to scorers: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton for Milwaukee and Joel Embiid and James Harden for the 76ers.

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Unsurprisingly, the Bucks are 4-2 in games decided by three runs or less while the Sixers are 6-6.

“I know what I’m going to get from Milwaukee,” the Eastern Conference second scout said. “Obviously that applies to Giannis, but Middleton is playing better, just like [Jrue] Vacation. But Giannis can be too much for anyone to handle if they choose. And he has that mentality now.”

Asked about the best bets to cause the upset, the scouts named two teams: the Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets. The Raptors are currently the fifth seed, which would give them a first-round game with the 76ers. The Nets are currently 10th, which means they would need to win two qualifying games to get the eighth seed and then face the Heat.

Given the choice between Miami’s fifth-ranked defense or the clutch shooting ability of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry, the Eastern Conference’s top scout would lean towards Brooklyn.

“If I’m Miami, I don’t want to see Brooklyn in the first round,” he said. “I’m a big believer in how teams play on the road and how they end the season. Could Brooklyn do what Atlanta did and surprise everyone? I can’t count them.”

The Nets are one of two Eastern playoff teams with a better record on the road (23-17) than at home (18-20), no doubt in part due to the inability to Irving to play at home for most of the season due to New York’s vaccination mandate. The other team is the Raptors, who were one of the biggest surprises in the entire league. They’re also respectable in close games — tying Philly’s 6-6 record in games decided by three runs or less.

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The Eastern Conference’s first scout thinks the Sixers should cheer on the Chicago Bulls, currently sixth and one game behind the Raptors, to move up to fifth.

“I like Toronto more than Chicago,” he said. “The Raptors are just better as a team, and it would be a tough game for Philadelphia. Nick Nurse knows what he’s doing and they have a lot of playoff experience.”

With one week remaining in the regular season, not a single first-round game is close to being settled. The seeding isn’t a top-six team either, beyond the Heat likely being No. 1. But in the minds of scouts, the seeding is just a formality.

The most dangerous teams have already been identified.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and authored two books, “Rebound,” the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with Parkinson’s disease, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”, the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher”. Follow him on Twitter @ricbucher.

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