- The NBA stretch run is ripe with storylines, including the race for the postseason, MVP and draft lottery.
The playoffs are almost, almost here. Until we can all experience the sweet, sweet joy of first-round sweeps and podium games, we have to endure the final three days of the regular season. NBA teams will wrap up their 82nd and final games on Wednesday night—here’s what to watch for in the last 72 hours.
The Playoff Race
The Western Conference, the successful older brother of the NBA, has already wrapped up its postseason plans. Every first-round matchup is set, the only thing left to be determined is whether the Jazz or Clippers will have homecourt advantage when they face off in Round 1. The East, of course, is a disaster.
The No. 1 seed is still up for grabs after Cleveland lost twice in embarrassing fashion to the Hawks over the weekend. The Cavaliers are in Miami on Monday night, and they need one win and a Boston loss to clinch the one-seed. Two wins would also get Cleveland the No. 1 spot. The Celtics can still finish first in the East, but they have to finish one game ahead of the Cavs because LeBron and Co. hold the tiebreaker.
The Cavs finish with the Heat and the Raptors, the latter of whom can steal the No. 2 seed if they beat Cleveland and Boston loses its final two games. The Celtics finish with Milwaukee and Brooklyn, which is the easiest schedule of the East’s top three. Making sense? No? Good, because it only gets worse.
The race for the final two playoff spots is super tight. The Bulls, Pacers and Heat each have two games left entering Monday. The Pacers are a game up on Miami and Chicago, but would lose a tiebreaker to either team. Miami has the tiebreaker on Indy, but would lose one to Chicago. The Bulls have Orlando and Brooklyn left on their schedule, so they should win, but the Bulls also just lost to the Nets on April 8. The Pacers have Philly and Atlanta left, while Miami will face the Cavs and Wizards.
It doesn’t look great for the Heat, though they could potentially catch a break if their opponents rest players. The Bulls and Pacers have favorable schedules, but both are capable of blowing easy wins. There are a ton of combinations here, let’s just hope two of these teams win out and make this easy.
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, the Bucks and Hawks could still swap seeds in the middle of the conference. Basically, almost every East game means something these last few days. Watch as many as you can involving the top-nine teams and enjoy the chaos.
The Tank Race
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Nets have clinched the worst record in the NBA, which means Boston is guaranteed the best chance at securing the No. 1 pick in this summer’s draft. The Lakers are inexplicably on a four-game winning streak, though their last win was an emotional one, as D’Angelo Russell hit a game-winner on the same day he found out his grandmother passed away. All the Suns have to do is lose their last game and they will wrap up the second-best lottery odds, with L.A. now most likely to fall behind them at three.
The 76ers have lost six in a row in an effort to hold off the Magic, as the two teams entered Monday with the same record. Philly still has the Knicks left on its schedule, which means the Sixers are at danger of picking up a win by accident. If Orlando and Philly finish with the same record, the Sixers will have the slightly better lottery odds.
Elsewhere, Minnesota and Sacramento could switch between the seventh and eighth worst records, but otherwise there isn’t much to write home (or on SI.com) about.
The Awards Race
The Thunder finish with the Timberwolves and Nuggets, which gives Russell Westbrook a chance to pad his stats against two non-playoff teams. The Rockets—and James Harden—finish with the Clippers and Wolves. Kawhi Leonard will wrap up his MVP case against the Blazers and Jazz, and Gregg Popovich has said he won’t be resting players these final two games. Of course, Pop and any of these coaches could be tempted to hold guys out, especially considering the playoff field is set in the West.
Malcolm Brogdon can pad his Rookie of the Year case against the Hornets and Celtics, and he’s got a great chance at winning the award, unless Rodney McGruder goes off for 70 points or Joel Embiid is resurrected. Embiid, of course, still has a chance at the honor.
Erik Spoelstra could snag Coach of the Year if Miami sneaks into the playoffs, but Mike D’Antoni also has a stronger case after each successive Rockets win.
Kevin Durant Watch
The Warriors will likely rest a bunch of guys in their remaining games against the Jazz and Lakers. Kevin Durant should get some burn, though, as Golden State looks to get him in rhythm in time for the playoffs. If Durant finishes the season, he will have played in three games since returning from his knee injury.