Bucks and Nets missing their stars shuffled the Eastern Conference

It took one not-so-starry night for the top of the Eastern Conference to change its appearance. The Boston Celtics are still alone at the summit with a comfortable four-game cushion. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks have found themselves in second place, while the Brooklyn Nets have dropped two spots down to the fourth seed behind the Philadelphia 76ers.

Both the Bucks and the Nets were in action on Tuesday. Both teams faced opposition at the bottom third of their respective conferences. And both teams played without their two best players. The Bucks managed to come up with a win, and the Nets struggled without star power.

About halfway through the NBA Season, while the race to catch the Celtics is getting tighter, two of the top teams in the East, unfortunately, stumbled on injuries. But if you want to find the value of a team, see how they would do without their best player. If you want to know even more, take away their second best. Here is how the two sides responded to the situation.

Jrue Holiday is the definition of “next man up”

The Toronto Raptors are 11th in the east, but they are no easy team to beat. The Bucks have been without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the past four games. Meanwhile, Khris Middleton’s extended rehab period from a knee injury has kept him off the court since the middle of December. But in the absence of their two aces, Jrue Holiday has stepped up in a big way for the Bucks.

The Bucks are 2-2 in the recent stretch without Anetokounmpo and Middleton. Holiday has led them in points and assists in three of those games. His 35-point game against another tough Easter Conference team in Miami preceded his season-high 37 as the Bucks edged the Raptor 130-122. Holiday became the first Bucks guard to have back-to-back 35-point games since Michael Redd in 2006.

Holiday’s star shined bright without their two All-Stars. Holiday led the herd, and they look like a team that deserves to be where they are in the standings. Five other Bucks hit double digits as Grayson Allen, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, and Pat Connaughton had 25, 19, 15, 12, and 10, respectively.

“Obviously we’re a little bit down, we’re a little bit undermanned”, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer stated. “He’s just stepped up in a big way. It’s two games in a row, just vintage Jrue Holiday. He’s just doing everything.”

Ben Simmons’ triple-double proved insufficient for the Nets

Ben Simmons tallied ten points, ten rebounds, and eleven assists but it was not enough to get the Nets past the San Antonio Spurs. Tuesday’s 106-98 loss proved that the Nets are a complete team only when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the floor. With Durant yet to be reevaluated for an MCL sprain, and Irving sitting out due to calf soreness, the Nets looked lost for a good fraction of the game.

Simmons is yet to prove to fans that he can be anywhere relatively close to his former self. And while a triple-double is no easy task, fans still expect the former All-Star to gather the courage to try and get buckets, especially without their two best players. TJ Warren led the Nets in points with 19. And while Seth Curry chipped in 16 and Nic Claxton had 15 of his own, Joe Harris and Royce O’Neale had a quiet evening in Texas.

Harris, who is mostly a reliable shooter for the Nets, only attempted three field goals and made none of them. Yuta Watanabe, who has been a spark off the bench for Brooklyn this season, was also scoreless. Royce O’Neale capped off a night of disappointing performances with only five points. As a result, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn shuffled lineups to salvage a win. On the bright side, the Nets’ young and deep bench players took full advantage of the minutes they received. Cam Thomas and Edmond Sumner scored 15 and 13, respectively, knowing their minutes would shrink again once the team gets healthy.

“I’m not going to give them excuses,” Vaughn told the press post-game. “I don’t care about last year. I care about the now. Today was the most important game. Now I’m going to reload and be ready for Phoenix. I’m not going to give them a chance to have excuses”.

While Durant will miss at least two more weeks, the timeline for Irving’s return is questionable. But given the nature of his injury, he should be able to play against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday. His team needs him. Especially now that they have dropped down in the standings.