We’re about to see the NBA playoff picture finally take shape, with it crystalizing, finally, over a three-day span starting on Thursday.
That’s when the Wizards take on the Cavaliers (-5.5). Washington has been sliding after it clinched a playoff spot, and no one’s quite sure if it’s because the Wizards are just doing regular-season Wizards things, or if they are tanking to try and land in Boston or Toronto’s matchup. The Cavs, meanwhile, are trying to stave off the Sixers and Pacers for the 3-seed.
By the way, those Pacers take on Golden State (-1.5) on Thursday as they try and hang on through the end of a West Coast road trip that has taken the wind out of their sails for homecourt. All hope is not lost, but the Pacers are two back with four to play.
They’ll get some help on Friday no matter what, when the Cavaliers face the Sixers in Philly on the second night of a back to back. So Indiana, if it can find a way past the Warriors, will gain a game Friday in the loss column for homecourt.
That Cavs-Sixers game is the main event in the East, though, with Ben Simmons and LeBron James (pictured above) taking center stage. Toronto and Boston will continue to squabble over the 1-seed, but after Toronto’s win Wednesday, the odds are heavily in the Raptors’ favor. The Cavaliers are tied in the loss column with Philly going into Thursday’s games, and they lead the season series 2-1. A win clinches the tiebreaker and puts Philly back a game in the loss column, meaning the Sixers would have to win out in their final three games and Cleveland would have to drop its remaining two.
Even if the Sixers win, their tiebreaker situation is not ideal. Unless the Pacers surge, which compromises Philly’s own homecourt standing, the Cavs will win the Central division. If the Sixers win Friday, and the Cavs win the Central, the Cavs still get the tiebreaker with division-winner status as second tiebreaker.
Yes, we still use divisions to decide things for some reason in 2018.
So if the Sixers win, the Cavs will still need just one loss from Philly in their final three games to catch. In other words, the Cavs have more to win and less to lose on Friday than the Sixers, depending on what seed both teams want. That’s what makes some of this academic. LeBron James does not give a damn which team he faces, and the Sixers might prefer Toronto to Boston or vice versa.
Meanwhile, with the Pistons eliminated Wednesday, the remaining questions are about those bottom three seeds and where they end up, like the Wizards above. That’s going to take a while longer to sort out, however, with all three teams tied and facing pretty easy closing schedules.
We have three tiers locked in: Raptors-Celtics at the top, Cavs-Sixers-Pacers in the middle, and Heat-Wizards-Bucks at the bottom. It’s just a matter of sorting out those spots.
THE WEST: THE GAUNTLET IS INSANE
OK. So there’s a lot to deal with here. Let’s start Thursday.
The big one is Wolves at Nuggets (-5). The Wolves lead the season series 2-0. They own tiebreakers over New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and the Clippers. They should be safe. However … follow along.
The Wolves are up one in the loss column. A Denver win Thursday brings the season series to 2-1 with one more to play and brings Denver and Minnesota into a tie (which the Wolves will still hold with it being 2-1). But it also puts Minnesota, which started the year at 9-2 in division games, at 9-6, and moves Denver to 8-6. Denver currently controls its own destiny and will continue to do so should the Nuggets win Thursday.
Not only can the Nuggets finish ahead of Minnesota by purely winning out, but there’s a scenario under which they can knock the Wolves out of the playoffs when doing so. Buckle up …
If Denver loses to the Clippers on Saturday but beats Minnesota twice and Portland on Monday, and the Wolves finish with wins against their remaining opponents except Denver … then Denver secures tiebreaker with a 10-6 division record to Minnesota’s 9-7. Denver would get in over the Wolves.
On the flip side, if Minnesota wins Thursday? They clinch tiebreaker over the Nuggets, move up two in the loss column, and reduce their magic number to one. If the Wolves win Thursday, they’re pretty much in the clear.
Needless to say, MASSIVE game.
Meanwhile, the Clippers play Utah (-7) on Thursday. The Jazz are trying to hold onto homecourt with the No. 4 seed, which they will very much need vs. San Antonio should the Spurs stay in the fifth spot. That’s the positive side. The negative? Should the Jazz lose to L.A., they slip back into that 34-loss muck with the rest, pending Wolves-Nuggets, and that opens the door for the Thunder, who own tiebreaker over Utah, to climb back over them.
For the Clippers? It’s pretty simple. A loss and their tragic number for elimination gets even lower. They need a lot to go right in a hurry. Every game is a must win from here on out.
Speaking of, the Clippers face Denver on Saturday in a “loser leaves town” match. Whichever team loses that game is effectively done for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans are not safe. They have to survive a trap game vs. Phoenix, then the big one on Saturday: Golden State. The Warriors have nothing left to play for but continue to play starters to develop rhythm after all of their injuries. The same can be said for Houston, which plays Oklahoma City on Saturday in a primetime matchup.
There’s a scenario on Saturday night that could see the Wolves, Pelicans, Thunder and Nuggets all tied at 35 losses, with three games or less left in four-day span to sort it out.
Portland is sitting pretty. The Blazers are up three in the loss column, have clinched a playoff spot, and have a magic number of just two for the 3-seed. They face the Spurs on Saturday in a big game for San Antonio but one Portland doesn’t really have to sweat much. The Blazers can clinch a top-four seed and homecourt in the first round with a win Thursday vs. Houston.
But if they lose Thursday vs. the Rockets, and Saturday vs. the Spurs… the Jazz could win out and steal the 3-seed from Portland. So the Blazers still have work to do.
And there you have it: That’s your basic look at everything at stake over the next three days.
Raptors: Clinched top-two seed, fighting for the 1-seed
Celtics: Clinched top-two seed, fighting for the 1-seed
Cavaliers: Clinched a seed 3-5, fighting for 3rd
Sixers: Clinched a seed 3-5, fighting for 3rd
Pacers: Clinched a seed 3-5, fighting for 3rd
Heat: Clinched a playoff spot, fighting for 6th
Wizards: Clinched a playoff spot, fighting for 6th
Bucks: Clinched playoff spot, fighting for 6th
Rockets: Clinched No. 1 seed
Warriors: Clinched No. 2 seed
Blazers: Clinched playoff spot, fighting for 3rd
Jazz: Fighting for a playoff spot
Spurs: Fighting for a playoff spot
Thunder: In the danger zone of missing the playoffs
Wolves: Danger zone
Pelicans: Danger zone
Nuggets: Currently out, control destiny for a playoff spot
Clippers: Need to get help to get in