The NBA Eastern Conference postseason begins on Wednesday night with the play-in tournament.

The top six teams from the conference have already qualified for the playoffs, while seeds seven through 10 enter the play-in tournament for an opportunity to qualify for the final two playoff spots in each conference.

Here are three key Eastern Conference talking points ahead of the NBA playoffs:

1. Are the second-placed New York Knicks playoff contenders or pretenders in the East?

The Knicks squeaked into the number two spot in the Eastern Conference standings on the final day of the season on Sunday.

For a franchise that has not won an NBA championship in 51 years and an Eastern Conference crown since 1999, this was exciting news and heralded in an exciting new era for one of the league’s most storied teams.

Led by a single, diminutive, by NBA standards, All-Star blessed with the heart of a lion, Jalen Brunson has New Yorkers believing that this could be the year the team finally starts winning playoff series again.

The 1.88-metre (six-foot-two-inch) Brunson refused to let his team falter this season, despite injuries to key players constantly threatening to derail their campaign. The point guard averaged a career-high 28.7 points per game and delivered over and over in crunch time to win his team games that sometimes they had no business winning.

And herein lies the dilemma for Brunson and the Knickerbockers: if they overachieved in the regular season, will they be able to do so again in the playoffs, where teams have more time to prepare defensive strategies over the course of a seven-game series?

In the absence of key forward Julius Randle – out for the playoffs with season-ending shoulder surgery – Brunson’s regular season scoring average – 28.7 points per game – is almost as much as his next two teammates combined in Donte DiVincenzo – 15.5 ppg – and Immanuel Anunoby – 14.1 ppg.

In the Eastern Conference playoffs, this poses a major problem for the Knicks when they play high-scoring super teams with multiple All-Stars like Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

The Knicks final regular season game on Sunday was a perfect snapshot of their season, their team, their performance, gutting out a relentless one-point, overtime victory against the Chicago Bulls with Brunson bravely leading the way with 40 points in a never-say-die performance.

For New York to win the East, it would be easy to say “As Brunson goes, surely do the Knicks” – but even a career-best playoffs showing by the little floor general may not be enough to take NY to the promised land.

Jalen Brunson (11) and Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso (6) fight for a loose ball.
New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, 11, and Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso, 6, fight for a loose ball in overtime at Madison Square Garden on April 14, 2024, in New York [Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports]

2. The Eastern Conference crown is Boston’s to lose.

Making a statistical case for Boston to win the East might be the easiest task in NBA reportage:

  • First team in either conference to clinch a postseason spot
  • Finished with the NBA’s best regular season win-loss record at 64-18, that is eight games better than anyone else
  • Finished first in the Eastern Conference standings by 14 games
  • NBA’s best win-loss point differential at 11.4
  • Scored 1.22 points per possession, which is the best in NBA history

If statistics do not tell the whole story, then it is also important to point out that the Celtics easily have the most complete starting five in the East, with All-Stars Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown flanked by some of the league’s best role players in Jrue Holiday, Kristaps Porzingis and Derrick White.

Despite their historically great season, the Celtics are not infallible. This star-studded team has gone off the rails from time to time, making one question their intensity and/or tactics – but not their talent.

The Celtics lost both matchups this season against the hapless Atlanta Hawks, and in perhaps the NBA’s single biggest one-game humiliation, they lost a stunner on home court against a depleted Lakers squad playing without their All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

They also lost twice to the defending NBA champions Denver, which exposed the Celtics’ regular habit of alternating between superb team play and relying too often – especially in crunch time – on the do-it-yourself sublime individual talents of their mercurial wing players Tatum and Brown.

Boston may indeed be the league’s best team, but no NBA title was ever won in the regular season; they will have to impose that dominance once again in the Eastern Conference playoffs to win their first NBA championship since 2008.

Jayson Tatum (0) and Jaylen Brown.
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, 0, celebrates with Celtics teammate Jaylen Brown, 7 [Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports]

3. Does Joel Embiid’s late-season return from injury put the Philadelphia 76ers back in the Eastern Conference playoff race?

The reigning most valuable player’s (MVP) knee injury on January 30, 2024, killed his team’s chances of finishing in the top two in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.

Embiid’s return to NBA action just days before the end of the regular season threw a gigantic spanner into the works of a conference that features only one great team, the Celtics, and several quite decent teams – Bucks, Magic, Knicks, Cavs.

Pre-injury, Embiid was scoring at a faster rate than any player ever has in the NBA regular season.

With a pro-rated scoring rate of 38 points per 36 minutes, Embiid enjoyed the highest “per-minute” scoring average in league history, surpassing even the best per-minute scoring season of the legendary Michael Jordan in 1987/88.

If unprecedented scoring statistics are not enough to calculate the 30-year-old’s worth to the 76ers, then this might be: In the 39 games Embiid played in the regular season, Philadelphia had the NBA’s best record at 31 wins and eight losses. Without him, they were 16 and 27.

The unexpected rise of Tyrese Maxey as a first-time NBA All-Star is further cause for Philadelphia’s optimism heading into the postseason. The super-athletic guard averaged a career-best 25.9 points per game to finish 11th in the NBA scoring race.

The seventh-seeded 76ers will first need to clinch their winner-take-all play-in game on Wednesday night to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Their opponent is none other than last year’s Eastern Conference champion, the Miami Heat.

Philadelphia is favoured against Miami, but the Heat might be relying on the most ominous Embiid statistic of them all: The gigantic 2.14-metre (seven-foot), 127-kilo (280-pound) centre has suffered an injury in every postseason of his career.

Joel Embiid on basketball court.
Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid plays during an NBA game, on April 2, 2024, in Philadelphia [Matt Slocum/AP Photo]

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