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5 NBA X-factors who will decide the Eastern Conference

The Milwaukee Bucks lost a basketball game.

For the other 29 teams in the NBA, that’s not news, but when the Bucks fell to the Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday night, it felt like a big deal — mostly because it snapped Milwaukee’s 16-game win streak.

It also felt like a statement win for the Sixers, who got a vintage performance from James Harden during Philly’s 48-point fourth quarter. And that came a week after the Sixers were downed by the super deep Boston Celtics on a cold-blooded Jayson Tatum three with 2.2 seconds remaining.

The suddenly reeling Celtics fell in double overtime to the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday thanks to another 40-point performance from Donovan Mitchell. The Cavs have taken three of four from Boston this season.

And with the Bucks finally losing, the New York Knicks became the hottest team in the NBA, winning nine in a row before losing Tuesday night.

All of this to say, the NBA’s Eastern Conference is looking mighty competitive. As the top five teams in the East gear up for the stretch run, let’s look at the X-factors for each.

Milwaukee Bucks — Brook Lopez

Milwaukee got right back into the win column Sunday with a win over the Wizards. They sit at 47-18, 2.5 games ahead of the second-seeded Celtics. Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing up to his usual freakish standard (despite justifiably losing his most recent triple-double). Jrue Holiday has been his usual steady, underrated self and the team’s depth looks as strong as ever with the addition of Jae Crowder. The only real cause for concern is Khris Middleton still not quite looking like himself.

But Brook Lopez is in the middle of a career renaissance. You could argue that Lopez is enjoying his best NBA season at 34. The big man was starting to look like a dinosaur as a traditional back-to-the-basket big that wasn’t a particularly great rebounder or defender. Since arriving in Milwaukee, he’s fit perfectly into head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system on both ends.

He’s added the three ball to his game and is shooting a career-high 38.2 percent on 4.8 attempts this season, helping space the floor for Giannis and others. He’s also attacking aggressive closeouts effectively, averaging 15.1 points a game (his highest mark since 2016-17) and making good decisions when not scoring. He’s filled the offensive void left by Middleton’s absence for most of the season. (Certainly, Middleton’s health is an X-factor as well.)

More impressively, he’s gone from a liability to a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Budenholzer’s teams pack the paint and dare you to beat them from the three-point line and the midrange. That’s played perfectly to Lopez’s strengths. He’s averaged 2.4 blocks per game and helped protect the rim for the second-highest rated defense in the NBA. His presence in the paint also allows Antetokounmpo to play as a roamer and wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

Admittedly, Lopez has been rock solid, so it depends on your definition “X-factor” here. But Milwaukee doesn’t have a ton of holes. So far, Lopez feels like the X-factor to the Bucks’ regular-season success.

Boston Celtics — Derrick White/Malcolm Brogdon

The Celtics have stumbled out of the break, but have been one of the best teams in the NBA this season fresh off a Finals appearance. While All-Star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown lead the way, it’s Boston’s continuity and depth that make them a championship contender yet again.

Two big parts of that depth were acquired via two shrewd trades: Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon. In that victory over the Sixers, that was the clear separator between the two teams. White and Brogdon are the perfect blend of efficiency and selflessness for Boston. White is in the 81st percentile in turnover percentage and 78th in points per shot attempt among combo guards, per Cleaning the Glass. Brogdon is in the 94th percentile in points per shot attempt and 77th in assist percentage among combo guards.

Both players fit perfectly into the way the Celtics play. They can dribble, pass and shoot at a high level. While neither is a defensive maven — though White’s rim protection numbers for a guard are insane — they’re both strong team defenders, helping Boston’s fourth-rated defense. Other teams might overplay their stars, but White and Brogdon allow head coach Joe Mazzulla to give players like Tatum and Brown rest without significant drop off.

Similarly, Boston doesn’t have real holes, either. Like Lopez, White and Brogdon have been X-factors to the Celtics’ strong season.

Philadelphia 76ers — Tyrese Maxey

The Sixers continue to be one of the more difficult teams to figure out. They have plenty of star power with Joel Embiid and James Harden crushing opponents in their minutes together. The Sixers have a 8.43 net rating and 122.97 offensive rating when Embiid and Harden are on the floor together, per PBP Stats. With both players off, that net rating dips to -3.77 and offensive rating to 113.59.

While we likely won’t see lineups without either of the team’s superstars during the postseason, Tyrese Maxey plays a crucial role in being the Sixers’ third option. The 22-year-old has had a funky season, missing 18 games with a broken bone in his foot then losing his starting spot to De’Anthony Melton. In the five games since being re-inserted into the starting lineup, Maxey is averaging 26.6 points a game on outrageous shooting splits (59.5/57.6/100).

Maxey’s speed adds an element to the Sixers’ offense that it sorely lacks with the plodding Embiid and Harden. While Doc Rivers liked the idea of using Melton with the starting group for defense, the advanced numbers show that unit has actually been better defensively with Maxey (110.53 defensive rating with Maxey vs. 114.88 with Melton).

Maxey has star potential. When he plays up to it, Philly is difficult to beat.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Isaac Okoro

There’s likely only one thing holding people back from believing the Cavs are a true title contender: youth. The average age of Cleveland’s regular starting five is 23.2, with Donovan Mitchell being the elder statesman at 26. Otherwise, they’re a complete team with an elite backcourt and frontcourt. What could make or break the Cavs is the production from their fifth starter and the wing position in general.

Okoro has been that fifth starter for the bulk of the games this season. The 22-year-old was the fifth overall pick in 2020 and has seen his role and production decrease each season. That’s not entirely Okoro’s fault with addition of Mitchell and as players like Darius Garland and Evan Mobley have assumed bigger offensive roles.

But Okoro’s calling card at Auburn — and for his first three seasons in the NBA — is his defense. He’s proven to be an impactful, versatile defender at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds. When it gets to the postseason, he’ll get the tough perimeter assignments — Holiday, Tatum and Brown, Harden, Brunson, Jimmy Butler, etc. His ability to stymie those players could make or break Cleveland’s playoff run.

Offensively, he’s been volatile. You see stretches where he uses that size, strength and athleticism to get to his spots and score. Making open threes is likely the key to Okoro staving off veterans Danny Green or Caris LeVert for minutes. Okoro is a 32.2 percent three-point shooter on low volume for his career. Similar to Maxey, he’s seen an uptick in production while given runway with the starters. Over his last 29 games as a starter, he’s hit over 41 percent of his threes on 2.8 attempts a game.

Can Okoro lockdown elite perimeter players while knocking down open looks in the postseason? We’ll see.

New York Knicks — RJ Barrett

Led by Brunson and Julius Randle, the Knicks are red hot and playing great basketball. What stands out most is how ridiculously efficient Brunson has been. When New York doled out big money for the guard, people wondered if he was that type of player. No one should be wondering that right now. Brunson is in the 90th percentile for threes and the 86th percentile in midrange while being in the 100th percentile for turnover percentage among point guards.

Then there’s RJ Barrett who’s been … less efficient. Barrett is in the 39th percentile or worse in every shooting category among wings. He’s also not a disruptive defender, sitting in the 15 percentile in blocks and fifth in steals. Barrett’s tough season coincides with 2019 No. 3 overall pick signing a four-year, $120 million extension while the team was unable to swing a deal for Mitchell.

Barrett is going to have to figure out where he fits in the Knicks’ ecosystem — and fast. The newly-acquired Josh Hart could easily slot into New York’s starting unit and take away postseason minutes. But Barrett is still just 22. He’s flashed potential. He had a 44-point game back in December and dropped 46 in a game last season.

Can he flash that potential as a third option behind Brunson and Randle when it matters most?

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