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As the Cleveland Cavaliers climbed 20 games over .500 on Sunday, one can’t help but notice that 11 of the Eastern Conference’s 15 teams have 20 or fewer wins. The only other East team that opens the week more than 10 games over .500 are the Raptors, which means this postseason is going to be a drag unless teams improve over the next few months.

While the Warriors will be tested as they look to get to their third straight NBA Finals, Cleveland’s road looks lined with rose pedals by comparison. Literally. Derrick Rose’s Knicks could be their first opponent and have looked anything but a super team he predicted they would be.

Behind Houston’s eight-game run of victories, the three longest winning streaks in the league entering the week belong to Atlanta, Boston and Indiana. While they’re not necessarily the three teams most likely to emerge as the Cavs’ top adversary, they are worth watching to see whether their early success in 2017 is a sign of things to come.

The Hawks last lost on Dec. 26 and own victories over the Spurs, Pelicans and Mavs during their surge. Despite ownership appearing to be rebuilding on the run by moving Kyle Korver and shopping All-Star Paul Millsap, the team has pressed forward and actually thrived on the road. If they’re able to win in Brooklyn on Tuesday, the Hawks will have swept a four-game trip, which would be a major accomplishment for a team that lost eight straight road games from Nov. 18-Dec. 3.

Since Budenholzer has final say as team president, the fact he’s been able to keep the team focused as head coach is a testament to veterans like Millsap, who hasn’t allowed the rumors to affect his on-court performance. We’ll see what winds up happening with a team that has been among the streakiest in the league this season.

Less than two years removed from a 60-win season and a trip to the conference finals, the acquisition of Dwight Howard to replace Al Horford helped produce a 9-2 start, but losses in 10 of 11 quickly drowned out heightened expectations. It will be interesting to see what direction they go in. Despite moving Korver, convincing Mike Dunleavy, Jr. to come on board when he wanted to be bought out suggests they’re still interested in competing for a division title and ultimately, a ring, but the fact so many contenders are sniffing around Millsap means things could change at any moment.

After facing the Nets, the Hawks will return home and have a few days off before settling in for weekend home games against the Celtics and Bucks, teams that also harbor postseason expectations.

Boston has won four straight and is riding an amazing run from point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is now averaging 28.0 points per game after averaging 34.8 over his last five games.

Thomas closed out 2016 with a 52-point game on Dec. 30 and scored 38 points to secure a 117-108 win against New Orleans to close out a perfect 4-0 home stand. The diminutive guard will square off against Kyle Lowry and the Raptors in Toronto on Tuesday before returning home to square off against John Wall-led Washington on Wednesday.

Next week features home games against Kemba Walker’s Hornets, Rose’s Knicks and Damian Lillard’s Trail Blazers, so he can really make an impression as he seeks a second consecutive All-Star berth. Thomas was fourth in the first returns of fan voting behind Kyrie Irving, Dwyane Wade and DeMar DeRozan, so people have really taken notice of his exploits.

The Celtics have fared well since getting Al Horford back in the lineup to provide the defensive presence they hoped he’d bring to the table when he agreed to leave Atlanta for Boston as a free agent, but it’s been Thomas’ big nights on offense that has helped put away games of late. He’ll have to do even more of the heavy lifting this week since backcourt partner Avery Bradley is suffering through an Achilles injury.

Indiana has gotten its act together to open 2017 and hasn’t lost since Dec. 28. All but one of the wins has come at home, but the team will have plenty of rest before facing Denver at 02 Arena in London on Jan. 12 as it looks to move its winning streak to six games.

The Pacers won’t play again after that until returning home to host the Pelicans on Jan. 16, so they should have fresh legs once they overcome any jet lag. Nate McMillan’s first season as head coach didn’t start as team president Larry Bird had hoped, but this current run suggests that the pieces are finally coming together. Indiana lost a season-high four straight games from Dec. 20-28 before going on their current run, averaging 118.6 points in the victories.

Although no one will line up the Bulls, Magic, Pistons, Nets and Knicks as a murderer’s row, the fact the Pacers handled business against teams that they were favored to win against bodes well for their continued improvement since they’ll face the Pelicans, Kings and Lakers after they return from England. All are sub-.500 teams. If Indiana takes care of business, they could be hunting a 10-game winning streak when they take the court at Utah on Jan. 21.


About the Author
Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national writer for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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