NBA Playoff race set for photo finish


David Joles, Minneapolis Star Tribune | TNS

The Minnesota Timberwolves' Jeff Teague (0) drives against the San Antonio Spurs' Patty Mills (8) during the second half on Friday, Jan. 18 at the Target Center in Minneapolis. The Spurs won, 116-113.

By Stephen Thompson, Assistant Sports Editor

Less than a week remains in the NBA regular season and most teams have already secured their spot in this month’s playoffs. But there are still decisive games left in both conferences to determine seeding and homecourt advantage, with many of the league’s contenders expected to battle through their season finales next week.

Out West, all eight playoff teams have already clinched their spots, but three pairs of teams have identical records and the top two seeds are separated by only one game.

At the bottom of the playoff bracket, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit at seventh and eight, respectively, despite holding duplicate 44-33 records. If both teams end the season tied, San Antonio will likely be awarded the higher seed after winning the season series with Oklahoma City.

San Antonio is expected to hold on to that seventh seed with a very favorable remaining schedule. Four of their final five games come against nonplayoff teams, while Oklahoma City is staring down a much more difficult closing slate. They will host Detroit and Houston before heading north for a season-ending matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Farther up the West’s playoff hierarchy are the Utah Jazz. Winner of 10 of their last 11 games and currently riding a five game winning streak, Utah has rocketed up the standings to the No. 5 seed. They sit just two games behind Portland and Houston for the No. 3 seed, and only two of their five remaining opponents have winning records.

The Los Angeles Clippers also remain in the hunt for homecourt advantage in the first round. Only two and a half games separate them from the No. 4 seed Houston Rockets. The Clippers have found their stride as they enter the home stretch and are holding on to an outside chance of jumping Houston. The remaining schedule is daunting, with home games against Houston and Utah sandwiching a roadtrip to Oakland, where they will face the juggernaut Golden State Warriors, but it appears that LA is peaking at the right time.

The current top two seeds in the West are separated by a razor thin margin and will provide great theatre as they close the regular season. Denver and Golden State, who have exchanged the top spot in the Western Conference all season long, are separated by only two games after the Warriors’ blowout victory over the Nuggets on Tuesday night.

This was a backbreaking loss for Denver, who is unlikely to gain back any ground in the coming week. After Tuesday’s win, Golden State only has one game left against a team with a winning record.

Denver, on the other hand, will have returned home to face San Antonio before going on to play red-hot Portland twice. The Nuggets are then set to travel to Salt Lake City for a road match with the streaking Jazz before wrapping up their regular season at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Over in the Eastern Conference, things are even less clear cut. The top of the conference is more or less settled. No. 1 and 2 seeds Milwaukee and Toronto are separated by three games, but after both teams suffered significant injuries in recent months, starters will likely rest for the final four or five games.

But at the bottom of the bracket, three playoff spots remain unclaimed, and only four games separate the No. 6 seed Detroit Pistons from the No. 10 seed Charlotte Hornets.

Of the five teams vying for those final three spots — Brooklyn, Detroit, Miami, Orlando and Charlotte — it would appear that Orlando has the easiest path toward a playoff spot. They’re set to finish the regular season with games against New York, Atlanta, Boston and Charlotte.

While Orlando is going to face a trio of playoff teams, that pales in comparison to what lies ahead of the two squads directly above them

Brooklyn must play Milwaukee, Toronto, and Indiana while Miami concludes with games against Boston, Minnesota, Toronto and Philadelphia. The Heat and Nets will meet in the season finale next Wednesday night in Brooklyn.

The Magic are on the outside looking in, but all they have to do is win three of their last five games. If they can accomplish that while Brooklyn goes 1-4 and Miami goes 2-3 over the same stretch, Orlando will find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Basketball Reference playoff odds generator currently gives that a 74.1 percent chance of happening.  

Further up the standings, Boston and Indiana hold mirror 46-32 records and are still jockeying for homecourt.

Both teams have effectively managed injuries as they enter the final week of the regular season. Indiana has continued to rack up wins despite a season-ending injury to star guard Victor Oladipo, and the Celtics have been judicious with the minutes of veteran Al Horford and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. Irving missed the entirety of the 2018 playoffs with a knee injury and his offensive attitude was sorely missed.

Boston currently holds a 2-1 edge in the season series, meaning if the season ended today, then it would win the No. 4 seed and homecourt in its first-round series against the same Indiana Pacers. Indiana will have one more shot to even the score after suffering a last-second loss in their last trip to Boston.

The Celtics and Pacers will play Friday night in Indiana. If Indiana manages to tie the season series and both teams remain tied through the conclusion of the regular season, it will be the division records that determine who gets the higher seeding. But first, Indiana needs to win Friday night to keep their hopes of homecourt alive.

There are seven more nights of NBA basketball remaining and more than half the league is still playing meaningful games. In the final handful of games left there are a myriad of different scenarios and outcomes that can play out as this year’s playoff race comes down to the wire.

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