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Milwaukee's Road Ahead: Evaluating the East Playoff Picture

We've got reasons for fear and reasons for hope

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The ceremonial second half of the NBA regular season is set to officially begin, so what better time than now to take a look at the state of play in the Eastern Conference?

Things are as tight as could be from the three-seed down with a mere five games separating the Cavaliers from the Heat. A sustained winning streak by anyone in the midst of things could see them garner home-court advantage. The stakes couldn't be higher and potentialities more varied.

Given the chaos, we thought it useful to evaluate everyone in the playoff picture and to assign reasons for fear and reasons for hope in a potential postseason match-up against the Bucks.

Without further ado, we present to you: Brew Hoop's Early Eastern Conference Playoff Preview.

Toronto Raptors (41-16, 2-0 v. Bucks)

ORtg: 113.7 (4th) - DRtg: 105.1 (3rd) - Remaining Strength of Schedule: .491

Why They Should Be Feared

After another disappointing showing in the 2017 playoffs, coach Dwayne Casey went back to the drawing boards to impose a less iso-heavy offensive scheme. That, along with a resurgent season from DeMar DeRozan and a bench mob that is nearly second-to-none in the NBA, and the Raptors find themselves in the midst of the franchise's best regular season. In the past, opponents could force play through DeRozan and running mate Kyle Lowry and simply pray that they'd be so inefficient as to be net negatives to their team. That, so far, no longer seems to be as reliable a case as in the past.

Why They Won't Trouble the Bucks

It feels like a hollow argument, but the Raptors have yet to prove themselves as world-beaters in previous playoff appearances. The Bucks gave them a scare last season, and Toronto may be prone to falling back into their old self-harming ways if their backs are against the wall. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have each had wonderful seasons, but will that continue into the playoffs? How much will having a deep bench matter when rotations tighten in post-season play? The Raps have been impressive, but there is still an air of “show me” about them.

Boston Celtics (40-19, 2-1 v. Bucks)

ORtg: 106.8 (20th) - DRtg: 103.2 (1st) - Remaining Strength of Schedule: .485

Why They Should Be Feared

I'll give you three names: Kyrie, Al, and Brad. There's no question Kyrie Irving is a dangerous foe in any given playoff matchup given his ability to flip the creative switch for a furious 12 minutes at a go. Al Horford has proven himself more than capable in making life difficult for Giannis Antetokounmpo as a lead defender (not to mention everything he does for Boston on offense). Brad Stevens appears willing and able to make adjustments both in-game and during the course of a series, forcing his opponent to constantly come up with innovations to stave off his latest “check” move. That's a formidable trio to deal with.

Why They Won't Trouble the Bucks

One could argue that no team in the NBA needed the All-Star break more than the Boston Celtics. Their red hot start to the season has cooled and you begin to wonder just how safe the Celtics will be relying on a number of first- and second-year players for big minutes in the post-season. They've ridden Jayson Tatum's hot hand all year, but if he can't maintain his production beyond 82 games, where does that leave Boston?

Cleveland Cavaliers (34-22, 2-1 v. Bucks)

ORtg: 112.3 (5th) - DRtg: 112.1 (29th) - Remaining Strength of Schedule: .477

Why They Should Be Feared

Engaged. LeBron. James. Need I say more?

Yes, after a melodramatic first-half of the season, the Cavaliers decided to blow their roster up at the trade deadline, shipping out a cast of creaky veterans for unproven youth in Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and Rodney Hood. We've only seen glimpses of what the new-look Cavs are capable of, but it looks like the new blood has LeBron James intrigued at the very least. That's a guy I wouldn't want to deal with in the playoffs.

Why They Won't Trouble the Bucks

Much like the Celtics, the Cavs will be forced to contend with the vagaries of youth as the season winds down and the playoffs begin. Rodney Hood is always but steps away from a stint on the injury report, Jordan Clarkson is a streaky gunner in the most classical sense of the phrase, and Larry Nance could end up being an average rotation big. Add on top the 2018 corpse of J.R. Smith, a below-average Tristan Thompson, and the much-maligned Kevin Love, and it wouldn't be crazy to think that this is too much potential dead weight for even LeBron to overcome.

Washington Wizards (33-24, 1-2 v. Bucks)

ORtg: 109.7 (9th) - DRtg: 107.8 (12th) - Remaining Strength of Schedule: .547

Why They Should Be Feared

Could John Wall really been having that bad of a season? Since losing their lead man, the Wizards went 8-2 heading into All-Star weekend. Bradley Beal has proven himself capable of carrying the scoring load, Marcin Gortat no longer plays like a zombie, Kelly Oubre and Otto Porter Jr. have both had solid seasons, and Washington seems to be a relatively solid unit from top to bottom. Not the scariest groupings of talent out there, but certainly a group capable of stealing a series, especially if Wall returns from knee surgery willing to slowly integrate himself into a system that has worked relatively well recently.

Why They Won't Trouble the Bucks

They're sort of just... there? The Wizards can look deadly for two games, and then go two weeks where it seems their season is on the verge of collapsing. That they find themselves in the four spot at the break appears to be a miracle. A big equalizing factor for the Bucks in a playoff series? Washington takes ~26.6 three-point attempts a game (23rd in the league). If that holds in the playoffs, the Bucks should have enough sheer talent to overwhelm a Wizards team that is perennially good enough to “be there.”

Indiana Pacers (33-25, 1-1 v. Bucks)

ORtg: 110.5 (7th) - DRtg: 109.1 (18th) - Remaining Strength of Schedule: .517

Why They Should Be Feared

Rejuvenated Victor Oladipo! Evolving Myles Turner! Unpredictable Lance Stephenson! Seriously, what Oladipo has been able to do this season is quite impressive. He's got a giant usage rate at 30.5%, yet he's got the team's third-highest TS% with 58.9%. A guard who can do just about everything asked of him on either end of the floor? That's a dangerous guy to deal with! Alongside him stand useful vets like Thaddeus Young and Stephenson, and also a bunch of young players hitting their strides like Turner and Damontis Sabonis. They'll either implode come playoff time or be nigh-impossible to keep up with.

Why They Won't Trouble the Bucks

Their interior defense and rebounding metrics aren't really all that impressive which should help even out Milwaukee's struggles in those areas. They love taking shots inside the three-point line on offense, and while effective, it is a dangerous game to play if shots aren't falling. Neither Milwaukee nor Indiana light it up from distance, but at least Milwaukee can hold its own in the paint. Something tells me the Pacers will defer to Playoff Lance whenever Oladipo hits a wall, and Playoff Lance is reliable only for entertaining highlights (both positive, and more importantly, negative).

Philadelphia 76ers (30-25, 1-1 v. Bucks)

ORtg: 107.6 (25th) - DRtg: 105.6 (4th) - Remaining Strength of Schedule: .437

Why They Should Be Feared

You just don't want to be the first team to get a crack at Playoff Joel Embiid. The guy is already a physical monster, has insane productivity rates when he is able to play, and looks like he's becoming a reliable night-to-night player. Ben Simmons is one challenge (at least his shooting range is relatively limited), but a healthy and motivated Embiid would be quite the challenge for John Henson, Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller to keep contained.

Why They Won't Trouble the Bucks

They already have the league's highest turnover rate at 15.4%, and one can imagine that the increased intensity of the playoffs would give the Bucks chances to get out and run. Embiid and Simmons are wonderful talents, and the presence of JJ Redick and Trevor Booker give them veteran stability, but Milwaukee can match with Giannis and ride a better overall rotation towards victory (though, to be fair, if you replaced Matthew Dellavedova with TJ McConnell, would you really notice a difference?)

Miami Heat (30-28, 3-0 v. Bucks)

ORtg: 105.6 (25th) - DRtg: 106.5 (6th) - Remaining Strength of Schedule: .466

Why They Should Be Feared

I'd like to think that, with time, the Bucks would be able to eventually figure out the enigma that is the Miami Heat, but in three tries so far this season the Bucks have come up fumbling. James Johnson is Giannis Antetokounmpo's NBA-kryptonite and you just know Wayne Ellington is good for a 20-piece against Milwaukee just for the hell of it. Head coach Eric Spoelstra is as good as they come in the coaching ranks, and while Joe Prunty may potentially show a bit more flexibility in approaching a series against the Heat than Jason Kidd may have, count me as pessimistic that he'd find the key mismatch to swing a series in Milwaukee's favor.

Why They Won't Trouble the Bucks

Coach Spo feels obligated to give Dwyane Wade a ton of meaningful minutes and he successfully shoots his team out of the series? Goran Dragic forgets how a jumpshot works? Dion Waiters makes a miraculous return from season-ending surgery to destabilize team chemistry? I'll be honest, I don't see a reality where the Bucks don't have their hands full against the Heat. Weird, but true.

Detroit Pistons (28-29, 1-2 v. Bucks)

ORtg: 107.2 (18th) - DRtg: 107.3 (11th) - Remaining Strength of Schedule: .487

Why They Should Be Feared

Detroit currently holds a weird spot in the Eastern Conference. They went all in by trading for Blake Griffin, but now find themselves short of front-line players who can make a decisive difference in the post-season. Andre Drummond's presence alone is a huge challenge for Milwaukee (he's averaging 16.3 points and 16.9 rebounds per 36), and Blake offers a dynamic scoring threat from both inside and out. Combine that with a Milwaukee team that seems to loathe three-pointers and things could get hairy on the offensive end.

Why They Won't Trouble the Bucks

At this point the Pistons sit on the outside-looking-in on the playoff picture. It is difficult to imagine a below-average Detroit team as being a realistic threat, especially as they'd have to somehow survive a difficult first-round match-up before the Bucks faced them in the playoffs. They aren't particularly great at any one aspect of the game, and so would theoretically be an easy opponent for Milwaukee.

Now that the picture is set, how do you think the rest of the season will play out? Can Milwaukee somehow push their way to a top-four seed? If they can't, is there a preferred series of match-ups you'd like to see?

Making a deep playoff run isn't a must this season for the Milwaukee Bucks, but boy would it be a nice cherry on top of a hectic season. How do you envision Milwaukee's post-season shaking out?