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East vs West no longer a one-sided NBA battle

On Thursday night, the Boston Celtics topped the Golden State Warriors 92-88, a result that not only snapped Golden State’s seven-game winning streak, but also extended Boston’s league-best winning streak to 14 games. After the win, there was a lot of (rightful) fawning about how well the Celtics are playing, especially in regard to their stifling defense that sits at an NBA-best 95.4 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Zooming further out, Boston’s victory over the defending champion also serves as an interesting referendum on the state of the league. Entering play Saturday, Eastern Conference teams are 52-43 against the Western Conference thus far this season. That sterling record even includes Chicago’s mark of 0-5, and the Bulls have so brazenly assembled a roster equipped for tanking, I half-expect the league to insert a Colangelo in the front office any day now. The East is having success both at the top and across the board; Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee are a combined 13-2, and 10 of the 15 teams in the East are .500 or better against the West.

This reversal of fortune stands in stark contrast to what most people expected heading into the year. Entering the 2017-18 season, the West had been better than the East in head-to-head play in each of the last eight, and 17 of the last 18 seasons.

Everyone expected that divide to deepen this year. Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Millsap all made like early American settlers and headed West. Gordon Hayward was the lone star to go West to East, and he played only a few minutes with the Celtics before suffering his season-ending leg injury. The disparity between the two conferences was expected to be so lopsided this season that the league changed the All-Star game format from East-West to the new playground-style, captains-choose format.

The most apparent explanation for these early results is that while the West represents the old guard, the East has been laying a foundation for years. This season, youth is finally being served.

Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are playing like All-Stars, but a crucial part of Boston’s rise to the top of the NBA standings has been first- and second-year players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown looking like seasoned veterans. 24-year-old Andre Drummond has miraculously conquered his demons at the foul line, allowing him to stay on the court in crunch time and propel the Pistons to their best start in years.

Giannis can seemingly go from grabbing a rebound to throwing down a monster dunk in two steps, thereby stepping to the forefront in the MVP discussion. Kristaps Porzingis has seamlessly assumed the mantle of King of New York from Carmelo Anthony. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have national publications discussing the Sixers so frequently that I can’t tell them apart from Philadelphia blogs in my timeline. The list goes on and on.

Whether or not the East remains over .500 against Western counterparts beyond the first month of the season, it’s safe to say these teams are not the doormats people anticipated. For the league, this is a huge win, reintroducing a degree of competitive balance and quieting talks about the need to shift to a 1-through-16, league-wide playoff format. As for the West, it can still take solace in this: Thursday’s result notwithstanding, I think everyone expects Golden State and the West will still prove their dominance when everything’s on the line next June.

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