NBA Playoff Scenarios and Team Motivations for Game 72

NBA Playoff Scenarios and Team Motivations for Game 72 article feature image

Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets.

The NBA regular season has one day left, and man, is it a day.

Entering play Sunday, the following seeds are locked:

Eastern Conference

  1. Sixers
  2. Celtics

Western Conference

  1. Spurs

That's it. Everything else is up for grabs.

A note before we begin: The players won't throw games. That's not how it works.

Front offices and coaching staff make lineup decisions that influence the outcome, but the players typically play hard. They won't intentionally miss shots or haplessly turn the ball over, it's not how they're wired.

A few years ago, the Nuggets sat starters and were clearly trying to lose to Portland to make sure they didn't face the Rockets. But the reserves almost won the game anyway. That's how it goes in the NBA.

Here's a guide to what's happening Sunday and how things could shake out, including a look at motivations for various teams.

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Eastern Conference

First off, the Sixers have clinched the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in the East. The Celtics are locked into the seventh spot, they can't move up or down.

For the rest, I've built you this handy, dandy flow chart. We'll talk about it at the bottom.

Got it?


OK, here's the short version.

If the Nets win, they're the No. 2 seed. If they lose and the Bucks win, the Bucks are the No. 2 seed.

If the Hawks win and the Knicks lose, the Hawks are the No. 4 seed. If the Hawks win and the Knicks win and the Heat lose, the Knicks are the No. 4 seed because they have tiebreaker over the Hawks.

If the Hawks win and the Knicks win and the Heat lose, the Hawks are the No. 4 seed vs. the fifth-seed Heat because it's a three-way tie and division winner (Hawks) get first tiebreaker and then the next tiebreaker is Heat vs. the Knicks, and the Heat won the season series 3-0.

If the Pacers win, they're the No. 9 seed. Whoever wins between Charlotte and the Wizards gets the No. 8 spot (and at least two shots at the playoffs in the play-in) and the loser goes to 10th unless the Pacers lose.

Games to Watch

Odds as of Sunday morning and via FanDuel

Celtics at Knicks (-10.5): The Celtics are resting everyone and have nothing to play for, the Knicks clinch the 4th seed with a win. Big edge, here.

Pacers (-6) at Raptors: The Pacers have more to play for, and the Raptors are holding all the starters out. Still, Toronto hung with the Mavericks on Friday without everyone and the Pacers are shaky. Having motivational edge may not be enough.

Hornets at Wizards (-6.5): One of two "Play-ins before the play-in" games. The difference between Nos. 8 and 10 (if the Pacers win) is massive. If you lose to Boston, you get another chance, with home-court, to make the playoffs. This game matters, which is likely why Bradley Beal was upgraded to questionable from out on Saturday for this one.

Magic at 76ers (-8): The Sixers have nothing to play for and the injury report is unclear, as always. This game doesn't matter to either.

Cavs at Nets (-14.5): The Nets don't need this unless they really want home-court vs. the Bucks in Round 2. A loss and a Bucks win sends them up against (likely) the Heat, which is a much tougher matchup than the play-in winner.

Rockets at Hawks (-11): The Hawks are obviously super-motivated to win, as it gets them into at least the 4-5 matchup in the first round. However, the Rockets have already clinched the top lottery spot and have no incentive to lose. Still, the Hawks obviously have a big edge here and the line shows that.

Heat (-5.5) at Pistons: Miami sat Jimmy Butler Saturday, signaling that they may be fine with the sixth seed. I would wait until tip to see who, if anyone, is playing for the Heat. The Pistons, notably, are actively tanking for draft positioning.

Bucks at Bulls (-2.5): The Bucks want to win if the Nets lose. The Nets play two hours before the Bucks, so by the time the Bucks get to halftime, they'll know if winning helps them or not. Be ready with a second-half bet based on those outcomes.

Western Conference

The East is complicated.

The West is a damn mess.

The Spurs are locked into 10th.

We're going to start with the assumption that the Lakers will beat the Pelicans who are resting everyone, having been eliminated from playoff contention.

The basics:

  • Jazz win and they're No. 1. If they lose, and the Suns win, the Suns are No. 1. If both teams lose, the Jazz are No. 1.
  • The spots 3-7 are a nightmarish hellscape of game theory machinations, and I do not blame you if you just skip to the games section.
  • The Nuggets have tiebreaker over the Clippers and are currently tied with them. If the Nuggets win, they are in third. If they lose and the Clippers win, the Clippers are third. If they both lose, the Nuggets are third.
  • The trick is that the Nuggets play the Trail Blazers, who are tied with the Lakers. If the Nuggets win, they move to No. 3 seed … and, again, assuming the Lakers win, move the Lakers into the sixth spot to face Denver. So essentially, assuming the Lakers win, the Nuggets have to lose unless they want to play the Lakers first round.
  • There is a widespread sense that the Nuggets will not choose that path, if for no other reason than there's no advantage to be gained by playing starters. Nikola Jokic will likely start so that he will have started all 72 games this season, but I would not expect him to play his regular minutes.
  • A tougher question is whether the Clippers will try and win. They rested players and lost to the Rockets on Friday. League sources are split in terms of speculation on whether the Clippers will try and win. The motivation differential is thought to be that if Denver loses to the Trail Blazers, a Clippers win gets them the Blazers — thought to be an easier matchup for LA — in the first round. On the other hand, others are expecting the Clippers to lose since it would ensure them being on the other side of the playoff bracket in the West from the Lakers, no matter the outcomes of the other games.
  • The larger question is honestly whether the Clippers could even successfully tank vs. OKC, which has won one game since April 1 and has incentive to lose. Out-tanking OKC would require blatant efforts that could carry penalties.
  • The Mavericks have mixed motivations depending on what happens in the other games, which are all going on at the exact same time as theirs.
  • Presumably, the Mavericks want to avoid the Clippers in favor of the Jamal Murray-less Nuggets, but they won't know which team is in what slot until after those games.
  • The Blazers want to win to avoid the play-in and hope for a Mavericks loss and a Clippers win to match up with the aforementioned Murray-less Nuggets.
  • The Lakers are in a pretty simple spot. A win and a Blazers loss and they're in sixth. A loss or a Blazers win and they're in seventh. The Lakers cannot climb higher because they lose out in a three-way tie. First things first, though. The Lakers have to beat the Pelicans while the other teams are playing.
  • The Grizzlies and Warriors play Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET in Memphis, and like the Hornets-Wizards game, the winner gets the No. 8 seed and two shots at the playoffs.

If you're asking "What happens if the Lakers lose?" well, there's a chart here for you, but we're not going to go through that right now, we'll cross that bridge if we come to it.

Games to Watch

Odds as of Sunday morning and via FanDuel

Suns (-8.5) at Spurs: The Spurs are locked into the 10th seed, no motivation there. The Suns have to win and hope for a Jazz loss later in the day, so they have to win this one for a chance at the 1-seed (and avoiding the 7th seed which might be the Lakers).

Grizzlies at Warriors (-4.5): The Play-In starts now for those two teams.

Nuggets at Trail Blazers (-11): The market certainly thinks the Nuggets are not going to win this game. The Nuggets have manipulated standings in their favor in past seasons, but it bothered the coaching staff and players. Do not rule out the possibility that the Nuggets could win this game and just tell the Lakers to bring it. After they lost Murray, the Nuggets had nothing more to lose. They're in us-against-the-world mode.

Lakers (-11) at Pelicans: Must-win for the Lakers, period. The Pelicans are already eliminated.

Jazz (-11) at Kings: The Jazz will know if the Suns won or not. If somehow the Suns lost, the Jazz would likely rest starters. If the Suns win, Utah will have to win this one to get homecourt.

Mavericks (-7.5) at Wolves: Again, the market is certainly assuming the Mavericks are looking to win. If they're up double digits, the Nuggets are down double digits and the Clippers are down double digits, the Mavericks are unlikely to just start wildly throwing the ball out of bounds. That's not how it works. But be cautious with this one, Dallas' motivations are complex.

Clippers (-8) at Thunder: This number screams that the Clippers are going to go ahead and try to win. The assumption off Friday's game was that they were ducking the Lakers, a loss meant they couldn't catch the Suns for the No. 2 seed and gave them at least the option (combined with a Nuggets win over Detroit) to essentially choose their opponent. If they lose, they likely face Dallas. If they win, they likely face the Blazers. Again, the Clippers' motivations are unclear.

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