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NBA: Eastern Conference update

The NBA regular season is close to reaching a conclusion and there is plenty left to play for in the Eastern Conference.

Boston Celtics appeared on course to claim the top seed with relative ease for much of the season but they have been overtaken by Milwaukee Bucks in an intense battle to finish first, while there are still playoff places and play-in spots up for grabs.

Celtics and Bucks battle for supremacy

The Celtics made an awesome start to the season in what was a real statement of intent after falling short in the Finals Series last year.

Boston won 18 of their first 22 games and after a difficult December they responded well by going 18-8 through January and February, but Milwaukee put together their own 16-game winning run from January through to the start of March and they are now the frontrunners in the East.

Boston are rated at 13/10 to win the Eastern Conference (including playoffs), while Milwaukee can be backed at 8/5 and Philadelphia 76ers are 5/1.

The Bucks boast a league-best 49-19 overall record, two-and-a-half games ahead of Boston, but they do have a few tough assignments remaining – including trips to Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets, who lead the way in the West.

The Celtics and Bucks are due to meet in the final round of regular season games at the Fiserv Forum in what could well be a preview of the Eastern Conference finals, but the conference is by no means a two-horse race.

MVP contender Embiid in the mix with Sixers

Philadelphia sit third in the East and with Joel Embiid and James Harden on their roster they will be a threat for any team over a best-of-seven series.

Embiid was perhaps unlucky to miss out on the top regular season individual honour last year as he lost out to Nikola Jokic of Denver. The two-time reigning MVP is heavily fancied to win a third straight MVP crown this year, but Embiid is his closest challenger.

Jokic is rated at 4/15 to be crowned Regular Season MVP, while Embiid is 5/2.

Embiid is averaging a career-high 33.4 points-per-game and leads the way in the battle to be the scoring champion. The center is also averaging 10.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists, but the fact he has missed 13 games is perhaps working against him in the MVP race.

If Embiid can maintain his form and get through the rest of the season without missing any further games he has a real chance of denying Jokic a third title, but as it stands the Serbian is on course to lead the Nuggets to the top seed in the West so he is justifiably the frontrunner.

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Playoff spots still up for grabs

Milwaukee, Boston, Philly and Cleveland Cavaliers are all on course to book top six seeds but the final two places appear to be up for grabs.

Brooklyn Nets hold fifth spot and they are in good form, with four wins in their last five games, but after losing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in February they appear catchable and are only three games ahead of Miami Heat in seventh place.

New York Knicks sit sixth but they have three defeats in their last four games and the Heat will feel they can still force their way into those automatic playoff spots.

The fight for the play-in places is perhaps even more intense and it looks as if there is a five-way tussle for two spaces set to play out over the remainder of the campaign.

Atlanta Hawks have a 34-35 overall record and they sit in eighth place, but they are just three games ahead of Indiana Pacers in 12th.

Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls occupy the final play-in places, with Washington Wizards still in the mix in 11th place.

Orlando Magic still have an outside chance of gate crashing the postseason places and there are some fascinating battles to be played out in all areas of the Eastern Conference as the regular season wins down.

Miami could get early chance at Celtics revenge

If the season were to finish as it stands now, there is a chance Miami could face Boston in the first round in a repeat of last season’s conference finals.

The Heat would need to come through the play-in tournament to claim seventh seed and that would then set up a showdown with the Celtics.

Philadelphia would play the Knicks in what would be another first round highlight, while the Cavs against Brooklyn would generate plenty of interest.

The Bucks would come up against either Chicago or Toronto – and given Milwaukee’s form over the second half of the season they would expect to wrap up that series in no more than five games.

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