Kyrie Irving (275451)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

“The referees f—ing suck!”

These were the searing and defining words of the Philadelphia 76ers brash center Joel Embiid as he ended his postgame press conference at the Wells Fargo Center in the so-called City of Brotherly Love Tuesday night, Feb. 12.

But there was certainly no love lost between Embiid and the officials after the 76ers’ 112-109 loss to the Boston Celtics, their 10th in the last 12 meetings with their longtime Atlantic Division rival since the beginning of last season. The Celtics have owned the 76ers, who have realistic aspirations of making it to the Finals, and hold the same objective after losing in the Eastern Conference Finals 4-3 to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last season.

What’s more, as the league takes a pause for the All-Star Game break, neither team is currently considered the favorite to represent the East come June. When the league tipped off its schedule last night, the Milwaukee Bucks were atop of the standings in the conference with an NBA best record of 42-14. But they were only one game ahead of the Toronto Raptors, who had the second best record at 42-16 and are the post-NBA trade deadline favorites as installed by Las Vegas odds makers to reach the Finals out of the East.

The Raptors addition of center Marc Gasol, acquired in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies last week, proved to be more impactful in the eyes of odds makers than the Bucks getting sharp shooting forward Nikola Mirotic in a deal with the New Orleans Pelicans and the 76ers gaining more firepower in obtaining New York’s 2010 high school “Mr. Basketball USA” award winner Tobias Harris via a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers.

In recent years, the Cavaliers faced little resistance in the playoffs before reaching the NBA Finals. They were a combined 12-3 in 2015, 2016 and 2017 in the conference finals before being taken to seven games by the Celtics, who were without the injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, a season ago. No team will have an unimpeded run this season.

Even with 2018 All-Star Victor Oladipo out for the remainder of this season with a ruptured knee tendon sustained late last month, the Indiana Pacers had won six straight games as of last night, were third in the East at 38-19, and will be a headache for any opponent in the postseason. Ditto for the Brooklyn Nets who were sixth at 29-29. The conference is no longer a one-trick pony with LeBron now in the west. They have four—Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics—legitimate championship contenders.