The Boston Celtics, who have won 16 straight and own the league's best record, are rightly seen as strong contenders in the Eastern Conference this season, along with the three-time defending conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
But are there any other teams with a realistic shot at representing the East in the NBA Finals? Let's take a look at a few teams that, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI), should at least be in the conversation with the Celtics and Cavaliers.
The Raptors are perennially waiting in the wings, but they have been shut down by LeBron James the past two seasons. The Raptors are off to a hot start this season, winning 11 of their first 16 games; BPI only gave that a 23.1 percent chance of happening. It now projects Toronto to win 56 games this season -- which is fourth best in the league, behind only the Golden State Warriors, Celtics and Houston Rockets.
The Raptors ranked fourth in quantified shot quality and third in quantified shooter impact, according to Second Spectrum. That means they are taking the fourth-best selection of shots and have the third best team of shot-makers. As a result, their offense is third in the league, according to BPI.
The Raptors have played the sixth-toughest schedule to date, but they have the second easiest schedule going forward. With a 73.1 percent chance of landing the No. 2 seed in the East, BPI gives them a 30.5 percent chance to reach the NBA Finals.
The Boston Celtics' winning streak had recently reached double digits and, after a satisfying win over the Toronto Raptors, coach Brad Stevens was doing his best to downplay the growing hype around his team's run.
These Celtics, Stevens pleaded, were not sitting around talking about their accomplishments. Inside the Celtics locker room, that sentiment was relayed to third-year guard Terry Rozier, who pondered it for a moment.
"We don't talk about [the streak]," Rozier started, before a smile appeared and he slightly amended his statement. "When [Stevens is] not around we do."
The Celtics have now won 16 straight games, and the entire league is talking about Boston. Celtics players are well aware of the absurdity of the streak, particularly the way this team has routinely rallied from double-digit deficits.
Boston was supposed to sink from the top of the Eastern Conference after Gordon Hayward's season-ending ankle injury just minutes into last month's opener at the Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead, it has been more than a full calendar month since Boston lost a game, and the Celtics stand three wins shy of matching a franchise record for consecutive wins.
With a win on Wednesday night at the Miami Heat
DALLAS -- The Boston Celtics' 16-game winning streak has been built on big comebacks and consistent crunchtime dominance.
The Dallas Mavericks became the most recent victim Monday night, as the Celtics rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter to pull out a 110-102 overtime victory, fueled by All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving's spectacular efficient, season-high 47-point performance.
It marked the eighth comeback win during Boston's streak, which is three games shy of tying the franchise record set during the 2008-09 season. The Celtics trailed by double digits in five of those comebacks, including their past three games, when they trailed the Golden State Warriors by 17, the Atlanta Hawks by 16 and the Mavericks by 13 before pulling out wins.
"Teams make their runs and we just stay the course," Irving said after single-handedly outscoring the Mavs by a 17-12 margin in the final 12:47 of the game. "We're just unwavering in our approach, and I think that we've been that way. In the last few games, we've been down quite a few, so for us it's just about battling back when teams get a comfortable rhythm, whether it'd be in the first half or the second half. As a group, we continue just to stick together throughout anything and everything."
DALLAS -- Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his season-high 47 points in overtime as the Boston Celtics rallied once again from a double-digit deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-102 and extend their winning streak to 16 games.
The Mavericks led by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, but as they have several times during their winning streak, the Celtics stormed back.
The winning streak ties the fourth-longest in Celtics history.
Irving scored his team's first six points of overtime. Then after Jaylen Brown gave Boston a 104-102 lead with a jumper with 1:39 to play, Irving went to work on Yogi Ferrell, backing him down and drawing contact on a lay-up with 48.5 seconds to play. Though Irving missed the free throw to keep the score 106-102, Dallas never got closer.
Irving and Barnes had chances in the final 30 seconds but both missed shots that would have given their teams the lead.