There’s a wall in the office here that is plastered with scraps of paper, various notes, media guide covers, pieces of string and various printouts from the NBA’s secret media website. It’s one way to try to keep track of the possibilities for playoff matchups as we head into the last three days of the season. I’m afraid to have guests, however, because it looks a little like "A Beautiful Mind" kind of crazy.
In the West, things are mostly settled. We have the Warriors and Blazers lined up for a 1-8 matchup, and it will be Spurs-Grizzlies for the No. 2 vs. No. 7 series. The Rockets are No. 3, and they’ll face the Thunder in anintriguing battle of MVP candidates. We know the Clippers play the Jazz, but as we will see, we don’t know where that series will start.
The East? It’s a jumble. The Cavs will either be No. 1 or 2, the Celtics could end up in any one of the top three slotsand the Raptors could be No. 2 or 3. We know Washington, the only East seed that is set for certain, is No. 4. The bottom halfis a mess, with only Atlanta (which can finish, at worst, seventh) and Milwaukee (which can finish anywhere between No. 5 and 8) guaranteed a playoff spot.
All this sets up an important stretch for a few franchises around the league, teams that have been trudging their way through more than five months of basketball just to have their entire seasons come down to a paltry few days.
Celtics chaseNo. 1 seed in East
As stated previously, the No. 1 seed is not such a big deal for LeBron James and the Cavs. In fact, after drubbing the Celtics in Boston last week, Cleveland seemed to go out of its way to allow Boston back into the race for No. 1, coughing up two ugly losses to Atlanta.
Boston has two winnable games, at home against Brooklyn on Monday and Milwaukee on Wednesday. The Celticsneed at least one win to guarantee that they’ll hold off Toronto and keep one of the top twoseeds.
More important than seeding, the Celtics need to get their defense back on track — they’ve allowed at least 114 points in four of their last five games.
But a pair of wins will help erase those struggles, and combined with one Cleveland loss (the Cavsare in Miami on Monday and at home against Toronto on Wednesday), the Celtics will enter the postseason on top of the East. It would also set up a possible second-round series against Washington, which has developed into a bit of a bad-blood rival for Boston. And who would not want to see that?
Pacers, Heat and Bulls fight for two spots
One of these teams is not going to make the postseason, and though none of the three quite lived up to expectations this season, failing to earn a spot in the East bracketwould turn disappointment into a major flop.
Start with the Pacers (40-40), who have the best shot at keeping their playoff spot. Indiana, in fact, could zip as high as No. 5 in the East if itwins out, Atlanta loses to Charlotte on Tuesday and Milwaukee drops its two remaining games. But if the Pacerslose their two remaining games andChicago and Miami win out, the Pacers will be banished to lottery land and, more importantly, will face a long summer wrestling with the question of what to do with impending free agent Paul George.
It’s a similar situation in Chicago (39-41), where the Bulls tinkered with the idea of trading Jimmy Butler at the deadline. If the Bulls can’t make the playoffs, Chicago’s brass would likely reopen Butler trade talks and could see Dwyane Wade opt out of his contract and move on. It’s a far cry from the team’s early season optimism. The Bulls have winnable home games against Orlando and Brooklyn to close, and two wins secures a spot (they have the tiebreaker over Miami).
It’s not quite as dire in Miami, because this was a team that was 11-30 back in mid-January, and has gone 28-11 since. The fact that the Heat are even in the playoff race is amazing. Still, Pat Riley did not put this team together to miss the playoffs, especially if they lose out to the team that Wade — of all people — skipped out on the Heat to join.
Clippers hope they can stay home
It could be argued that home-court advantage in the 4-5 series in the West is important for a young team like Utah, which is guaranteed to be the Clippers’ first-round opponent. The Jazz have a very difficult closing week, playing the Warriors (with their 14-game winning streak) on Monday and the Spurs on Wednesday. The Clips have home games against Houston and Sacramento. Both teams are 49-31, and LAholds the tiebreaker, a very big advantage.
It’d be nice for the Jazz to get the home-court advantage, but it’s far more important for the Clippers. You don’t have to be a student of NBA history to know that the Clippers, in recent years, have been beset by a nasty combination of snakebitten luck and crushing ineptitude when the playoffs come around.
There was the Chris Paul meltdown and foul against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder in Game 5 of the 2014 conference semis. There was the stupendous chokery against Houston in 2015, which saw LAgive up a 3-1 series lead — and blow a 19-point Game 6 lead — with a trip to the conference finals on the line. And last year, there was the 2-0 opening series lead against Portland, which was torpedoed by injuries to Paul and Blake Griffin, sending the Clippers meekly into the offseason.
The Clippers have won nine of their last 11 and are taking some momentum into the postseason. Clinching home court against Utah would keep that going. Given their history, the Clippers need all the help they can get.
Lakerskeep winning ... unfortunately
Now, not everything in the final week is playoff-related. At the bottom of the pack, the way teams finish out will have an impact on the number of ping-pong balls awarded when it comes time to determine draft position with the lottery.
That’s critical for the Lakers, whose four-game winning streak has been the cause of much consternation among the team’s fans. The Lakers owe the Sixers their draft pick this year, unless it lands in the top three. At this point, the Lakers are the third-worst in the league, and they are guaranteed to at least finish in that spot.
The Nets — whose pick will go to Boston — are assured of the league’s worst record, so the battle for second-worst comes down to the Lakers and Suns. The best the Lakers (25-55) can hope for is that the Suns (24-57) beat Sacramento on Tuesday, while LAloses to the Pelicans and then again at Golden State on Wednesday.
There is no tiebreaker for the lottery. Instead, the Suns and Lakers will each split the average number of chances of winning the lottery for No. 2 and No. 3, with a coin flip determining what happens should the lottery odds not affect the top threepicks. That would be just fine with Lakers fans, of course — as long as the pick does not get shipped off to Philly.