The schedule was lining up nicely for the Boston Celtics as we approached the end of 2015. They were coming off of a four-game win streak heading into their final game before the start of the New Year with a cupcake schedule ahead of them. The opportunity to extend that winning streak to at least seven games, with a double-digit streak within reason, was there for the taking.
Then they let their guard down. Boston came out flat in back-to-back losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, dropping a pair of games to two of the league's worst teams. It was unfathomable from a team that had been playing well leading into those games and unacceptable for a team fighting to remain relevant in a tightly contested Eastern Conference race.
Perhaps the media frenzy surrounding Kobe Bryant's last game in Boston diverted their focus against the Lakers, but contending teams don't allow themselves to be bothered by such distractions. Hey, at least the win helped the Lakers gain a game on the Nets, which could have played a factor in the stock of the draft pick Boston will receive from Brooklyn if they hadn't turned around and handed the Nets a win in their next game.
Both of those losses came at home, where the Celtics are now 9-9 this season. That can't happen. Up until then it rarely had happened, as the Celtics were 13-1 heading into those two games against teams that currently have a .500 record or worse.
At 19-15 the Celtics still sit in the No. 7 spot in the East, while tied in the loss column with the three teams ahead of them. Those two duds last week didn't send them plummeting down the standings, but this was a stretch where they should have been taking advantage of a soft schedule to leap up toward the top of the Conference. Instead all they are left with is a missed opportunity.
(Eastern Conference team building momentum)
Cleveland Cavaliers: 23-9, 1st in East
The Cavs are the clear favorite to claim the No. 1 seed and have been sitting at the top of the Conference for most of the season. So what makes them an even more dangerous team now?
That would be the return of Kyrie Irving, who missed the start of the season while recovering from a fractured left knee cap. The All-Star point guard started out with a minutes restriction and has been held out on of the second night of back-to-back sets, but his workload is beginning to ramp up as he begins to round back into form. A 25-point outburst in his last game is a good sign that he has sufficiently shaken off the rust, which is a troubling sign for the rest of the East considering how well Cleveland was playing without him.
Cleveland currently holds only a 2.5 game lead over the Chicago Bulls for the top spot, but they lead the Conference with a +5.8 point differential by a wide margin (Boston is second in the East at +4.0). With Irving back in the mix this Cavs team should have no problem retaining their perch at the top as long as they remain healthy.
(Eastern Conference team that is struggling)
Milwaukee Bucks: 14-23, 13th in the East
A year ago the Bucks were a Cinderella story as a collection of tantalizing young talent emerged to push this team to a surprising 41 wins and the No. 6 seed in the postseason. Another year of experience was supposed to take them to another level, but instead they have regressed.
Adding Greg Monroe was expected to give the Bucks a needed post presence to complement their athletic wings, but it hasn't helped. Monroe has essentially matched the same numbers he produced for Detroit last season, but his presence may be holding young players like Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo from taking their games to the next level.
Jabari Parker's offensive game is starting to get back on track after he missed most of his rookie year with a knee injury. Now that his minutes restriction has been lifted, he's scored in double figures in four straight. Unfortunately that has still only been an average of 12.7 points over that short span and he doesn't contribute much outside of his mediocre scoring. That's disappointing for a player expected to be the most NBA-ready prospect in a loaded 2014 draft.
The Bucks are the worst defensive team in the East with a 106.9 defensive rating, as a front court of Monroe and Parker has failed to stop anyone. The East is much more competitive this year, so even if the Bucks do manage to climb back to .500 it won't be enough to get back to the playoffs.
Draft Pick Watch
(Checking in on the status of teams that potentially owe a first-round draft pick to the Celtics)
Brooklyn Nets: 10-24, 14th in the East
Boston could have done themselves a great favor by sweeping the season series against the lowly Nets, but thanks to a pair of let downs against their division rival they ended up with a disappointing split. Those two games are the difference between where the Nets are and the league's second worst record that is owned by the Lakers.
The Philadelphia 76ers have the worst record practically locked up already, so the No. 2 spot in the lottery could come down to the Nets and Lakers (with the Phoenix Suns possibly in the mix now that Eric Bledsoe has been lost for the season, which could send them into full tank mode). If the Lakers finish two games behind Brooklyn in the standings and they end up winning the lottery, the Celtics will have no one to blame but themselves.