Ball Don't Lie

NBA playoff positioning: Which Thursday games matter, and why

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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Tonight's Atlanta Hawks-Dallas Mavericks game could impact three playoff matchups. (Getty Images)

Heading into the final night of the NBA's slapdash lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, we know which 16 teams will be playing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy come this weekend, and we have four matchups set. In the Eastern Conference, the third-seeded Indiana Pacers will take on the No. 6 Orlando Magic, who clinched their seeding with a 102-95 Wednesday win over the Charlotte Bobcats, while the No. 4 Boston Celtics will square off against the No. 5 Atlanta Hawks. Out west, the San Antonio Spurs (the conference's top seed for the second straight year) will face the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz, while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will lead the Los Angeles Clippers into a 4-5 matchup with last year's postseason darlings, the Memphis Grizzlies.

That's what we know. So what don't we know? Well, for starters, who's going to have home-court advantage in C's/Hawks and Clips/Grizz? Who are the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder going to face in the first round? Where do the defending champion Dallas Mavericks fit into the mix?

[Related: Miami Heat fan punches Suns' Gorilla mascot at Arizona appearance]

By the end of Thursday's slate, we'll have the answers to those questions and more. Let's take a brief look at which games mean what in terms of playoff positioning Thursday night.

Dallas Mavericks vs. Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves

These games matter because: As it stands, Denver (37-28) holds the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, while the Mavs (36-29) sit a game back in seventh. A Denver win over the flagging Wolves would lock down that finish, setting the Nuggets up for a first-round series against the Pacific Division champion Los Angeles Lakers and putting Dallas in line to open against Oklahoma City in a rematch of last year's Western Conference finals. A Dallas loss to Atlanta would do the same.

If Rick Adelman's squad can pull the upset, though, that leaves the door open for Dallas to move up to sixth with a win, because while Denver and Dallas would share 37-29 marks, the Mavs own the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two teams by virtue of winning three of four regular-season matchups with the Nuggets. That'd send George Karl's team back to OKC for a rematch of last year's first-round #THUNDERNUGGETS extravaganza, while Dirk Nowitzki and company would look to summon the shooting onslaught they used to sweep the Lakers out in the second round a season ago.

[Related: Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman would love a roster upgrade]

The game also has huge implications for Atlanta. While the Hawks can't move up from the No. 5 line on the East's bracket, they can take home-court advantage for their first-round series with the Celtics if they finish with a better record than Boston; they enter the final night of the season at 39-26, one game ahead of Doc Rivers' crew. If Atlanta beats Dallas, they'll start the postseason at Philips Arena.

But if they don't ...

Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks

This game matters because: ... then the combination of an Atlanta loss and a Boston win knots the teams at 39-27, which would give the Celtics the home-court edge in Round 1 because Boston is a division champion and Atlanta isn't. If the Bucks can pull the upset, though, Boston won't see the TD Garden until Game 3.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks vs. Charlotte Bobcats

These games matter because: They'll determine the 1 vs. 8 and 2 vs. 7 matchups in the East. A Knicks win over the Bobcats would lock them into the No. 7 seed and a date with the Heat no matter what Philly does, as New York won the season series between the two teams; a Sixers loss to Detroit would do the same, guaranteeing Doug Collins' crew a trip to Chicago. The combination of a Philadelphia win and a New York loss, though, would invert matters, pitting the 76ers against the Heat and the Knicks against the Bulls when the playoffs begin.

[Related: Larry Brown blasts Michael Jordan's Charlotte Bobcat culture of 'spies']

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Orlando Magic

This game matters because: After the Clippers lost a road game to the Knicks on Wednesday night to drop to 40-26, Memphis (40-25) now holds a half-game lead for the No. 4 seed out west, putting them in line for home-court advantage in their series with the Clips ... provided, of course, Memphis can beat the Magic on Thursday. If Zach Randolph and company lose, though, the Clips will regain the fourth seed by virtue of beating the Grizz twice in three tries during the year.

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That rundown still leaves seven other games on the Thursday night docket, each with their own storylines unfolding (including, most notably, lottery ping-pong ball implications and the race for the scoring title). For more on what else is at stake on the season's final night, we leave you in the very capable hands of NBA.com's John Schuhmann.

Just one more night, y'all. Then, we can all start growing our playoff beards.

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