Back again, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has been dealing with a knee injury, and with the reigning MVP sidelined, Milwaukee has fallen on tough times. After spending most of the season on a 70-win pace, the Bucks will enter Thursday’s showdown against the Celtics on a three-game losing streak. It is worth noting that Milwaukee seems to be embracing the strategy of resting its stars with Antetokounmpo ailing, as Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and others sat out Monday night’s game against Denver. The Bucks are locked in as the top seed in the East, but Milwaukee’s grasp on the NBA’s best record is tenuous. Home-court advantage in the NBA Finals has to remain at the top of Milwaukee’s to-do list, even with Antetokounmpo potentially limited during the coming days or weeks.
As Antetokounmpo recovers and the Bucks fall off from their historic pace, LeBron James has suddenly surged into the MVP discussion. The Lakers remain atop the Western Conference, and James’s resurgent season following a disappointing debut with the Lakers has been quite a sight. At 35-years old, James is averaging a career-best 10.6 dimes-per-game while returning to being a capable on-ball defender following last year’s borderline effortless defensive campaign. There is an argument to be made that the Lakers are the best team in basketball, and suddenly, there’s an argument to be made that James is once again the most valuable player in it, too.
Though he’s operating mainly off the bench for the playoff-bound Thunder, guard Dennis Schroder has been an integral part of the team’s unexpected success. Easy to dismiss thanks to his inconsistent tenure with the Hawks to begin his career, Schroder has reinvented himself as a member of Oklahoma City’s three-headed backcourt attack. On Sunday, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sidelined (hip), Schroder put up 27 points in 34 minutes. Schroder is averaging over 19 points and four dimes a game, a benchmark only met by one other reserve over the last four decades. He’s an obvious contender to win the NBA’s Sixth-Man Award.
With a win over the Jazz, the Raptors ran its winning streak to four games. This was impressive for many reasons, but Toronto’s ability to overcome an early exit from Norman Powell showed tremendous poise. Powell was averaging over 30 points-per-game during the first three games of the winning streak, emerging as not only a complementary scorer but on many possessions, Toronto’s go-to option on offense. There’s no update regarding Powell’s status, though he will have the benefit of Toronto’s next game not coming until Saturday—a cupcake match-up against the rapidly sinking Detroit Pistons.
Bradley Beal’s individual heroics continued on Tuesday night as the Wizards guard put up 40 points and seven assists in a win over the Knicks. Washington continues to operate like a team desperate to make the playoffs—and be embarrassed in the first round by Milwaukee—but the climb to catch the Magic may prove to be insurmountable. Despite Beal’s one-man heroics, the Wizards remain five games behind the Magic in the loss column, and Orlando has been surging of late, winning three straight. Playoffs or no playoffs, however, Beal’s performance this season is impressive. He’s now averaging 30.4 points-per-game, trailing only James Harden (34.4.) on the league-leaderboard.
Speaking of Harden, the prolific scorer emerged from a multi-game shooting slump to lift Houston to a much-needed win on Tuesday night. Harden scored 37 points on 11-of-19 shooting, finally showing some efficiency from the field following a rough stretch. Harden’s struggles coincided with a Houston losing streak, so his return to form was the catalyst for the Rockets keeping pace in the crowded Western Conference playoff field. Paired with Dallas’s loss to the Spurs, Houston now sits a full two games over the Mavericks in the standings. Good vibes aside, the Rockets will face a difficult path to an actual winning streak as up next on the schedule is a Thursday night date with the aforementioned Western Conference-leading Lakers.