With less than a week left in the NBA's regular season, several games per night make a big difference in the fights for playoff berths and seeding. This post catches you up on everything that matters to these races.
GAMES THAT MATTERED A LOT
Detroit is back: Congratulations to the Detroit Pistons, who locked up their first playoff berth since 2009 and eliminated the Washington Wizards with a 112-99 win at the Palace. The Pistons will enter the postseason with one of the final two seeds in the East, a meaningful accomplishment given the competition throughout the conference this season and the relatively quick progress they have seen in Stan Van Gundy's second year as head coach.
Washington rested John Wall for the second straight game, and Detroit point guard Reggie Jackson took full advantage with a dominant 39 points (14-of-20 FG) and nine assists in 34 minutes. The Wizards were in it until late and managed to tie at 92-92 with 8:33 remaining in regulation, but the Pistons never looked in serious trouble with Jackson on the floor. He had a clear advantage and used it every opportunity.
The 43-37 Pistons also moved ahead of the losing Indiana Pacers (more on them in a bit) to grab a half-game lead for the No. 7 seed. Detroit plays only two more games (one fewer than Indiana) and will not hold the tiebreaker after losing three of four in the season series. Their matchups with the Heat and at the Cavs also look difficult on paper, although Cleveland could opt to rest players in the season finale. At the same time, the Pacers face the more immediate concern of clinching the conference's final playoff berth.
The Wizards' loss closes the books on a very disappointing season that began with hopes of emerging as the most formidable challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the top of the conference. Head coach Randy Wittmann will not be back barring some kind of hostage situation, and it's a safe bet that general manager Ernie Grunfeld will look into every possible option to reform and improve the roster this offseason.
Jazz and slop: The Los Angeles Clippers handed the Utah Jazz a gift when they opted to rest Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick (and Austin Rivers!) for what looked like the toughest remaining game on their schedule. The West's eighth-place team looked in good position to drop its magic number to just two, leading 52-47 at half on it's home floor.
Everything went terribly wrong in the second half as the Jazz scored just 42 points, including a five-minute stretch without a field goal over the end the fourth quarter and into the first minute of overtime. Gordon Hayward performed relatively well with 24 points, a season-high 13 boards, and five assists, but his seven turnovers typified an up-and-down night for the Jazz. The shorthanded Clippers took advantage and claimed victory when Jamal Crawford nailed this long three-pointer in the final second:
The 102-99 loss drops Utah's lead over the No. 9 Houston Rockets to just one game with three left for each team. The Jazz can clinch a berth by winning out, but they travel to Denver Sunday and host the Mavericks Monday. None of the Rockets' games look so difficult, and they will hold the tiebreaker in the event of a tie. Utah's best hope could be that Houston pulls another Houston and loses to one of the West's worst teams.
The game means little to the Clippers, who are locked into the No. 4 seed and weren't going to have their first-round matchup changed by a Jazz win. The best news for them was that several role players looked quite good when given the opportunity. That's especially true of center Cole Aldrich, who put up 21 points, 18 rebounds, and five steals against one of the league's best frontcourt duos:
The Clippers need help from reserves whenever they can get it. Perhaps this game will bump up Aldrich's confidence enough to make him a more useful contributor this spring.
Stellar Dallas: The night's only matchup of likely West playoff teams saw the Grizzlies travel to the Mavericks to clarify seeding. Spots 6-8 are a little more jumbled when they were when the night started, but at least we have a better idea of what could occur in these closing few days.
The injury ravaged Grizzlies led by three at half but could not overcome a lack of offensive options, scoring 44 points in the second half and shooting just over 40 percent from the field on the path to a 103-93 Mavs win. Dallas shot 50 percent from the field and 31-of-39 from the line to balance 17 turnovers. Dirk Nowitzki led the way with 21 points, but rookie wing Justin Anderson was the star of the night with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks. First-Team All-Scoring member Tony Allen put up 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting to lead Memphis.
The Mavericks still haven't clinched a playoff berth, but they should be able to win one of their final three games to get it done. The games are all difficult on paper (at Clippers, at Jazz, vs. Spurs), but Los Angeles and San Antonio could opt to rest players with their seeds locked up. It would also behoove the Mavericks to win as many of those games as possible, because they're only a game behind the Grizzlies for No. 6 and 1 1/2 back of the Blazers for No. 5 with tiebreaker advantages over both teams.
The Grizzlies are going to have a very tough time holding onto their spot in sixth. A final three against the Warriors (twice) and Clippers could bring three losses for a team that's dropped seven of its last eight. Wherever they finish, Memphis is the team every top-four squad will want to play in the first round.
GAMES THAT MATTERED PLENTY
Running from the 6: Friday could have been the night that solidified the East's playoff field, but the Indiana Pacers did not comply against a Toronto Raptors squad that rested stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan at home. Toronto didn't really its top scorers, out-gunning Indiana 32-20 in the third quarter to pick up a 111-98 win.
The Pacers won't feel especially great about this one. They allowed 54.4 percent shooting to the limited Raptors, including a career-high 27 for Norman Powell, who had never scored more than 18 prior to this one. Powell went to the line 19 times, half of Toronto's total attempts.
The good news for Indiana is that they figure to clinch in a matter of time. A Cavs win over the Bulls on Saturday would get it done, as would a Pacers win Sunday against the lowly Nets. The real question concerns seeding — the Pistons have a half-game lead for No. 7, although the Pacers have the easier schedule and won three of four in the season series.
Toronto's win keeps alive the hope of claiming the East's top seed, although any Cleveland win would end that dream. There's a reason why the Raptors didn't feel the need to play Lowry and DeRozan in this one.
The H Is O:
In a league where most eliminated teams pack it in, the Orlando Magic deserve credit for relishing the role of story. Orlando has played three playoff teams tight this week and picked up their second win against that group Friday with a 112-109 win over the Miami Heat. A Nikola Vucevic dunk with 20 seconds remaining broke a 109-109 tie and put Miami in a rough position. They had two attempts to tie in the closing eight seconds, but a Joe Johnson miss and Devyn Marble steal won it for Orlando. Evan Fournier was the star of the game with 28 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in 46 minutes (!!!).
The loss drops the Heat into a tie with the Charlotte Hornets for fifth place, although Miami currently holds the tiebreaker with a 1 1/2-game lead in the in-division tiebreaker. The bigger problem for the Heat is that they trail the Hawks and Celtics by one game for the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds. They will look for revenge against Orlando on Sunday.
The seed of Boston is muddy: If we lead with upsets in this feature, it's usually because expected results do little to clarify the playoff picture. The Celtics took care of business at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, winning 124-115 behind 26 points for Tyler Zeller and 21 for Isaiah Thomas. The formula was familiar — Boston got scoring balance, forced 19 turnovers, and generally made life difficult for their opponents.
The win brings the Celtics into a tie with the idle Atlanta Hawks, although Boston occupies the No. 4 seed due to a 2-1 disadvantage in the season series. If the Celtics beat the Hawks on Saturday, they will push that tiebreaker to the in-conference record they would hold. Althought possibly wouldn't matter much, because the Celtics finish the season against the Heat and Hornets, two teams that trail them by one game.
If you can't tell, this race is a giant mess. It's almost certainly going to come down to a tiebreaker or two.
Hornets evade Nets: As the bold phrase indicates, the Hornets beat the Nets 113-99 in a predictable result. Six Charlotte players scored in double figures, including Kemba Walker with 22.
The 46-33 Hornets are lucky enough to face two eliminated teams (Wizards and Magic) in their final three, although Monday's game with the Celtics will be a big one. The Hornets do not hold tiebreakers against any of their three closest seeding rivals, so they're going to have to win as many games as they can to get out of sixth.
GAMES THAT MATTERED TO MATH
Most seeds are either decided or in deep flux, so no games were of mere mathematical consequence. Regardless, it's worth checking in with the Spurs, who were locked into No. 2 with their loss to the Warriors on Thursday but can still make history with one more win. The Spurs already the No. 2 seed with the most wins ever, but they could become the best second-best team the league has ever seen with one more win. They did not get it on Friday, losing 102-98 at the Nuggets while resting the vast majority of the rotation.
SATURDAY'S BIGGEST GAMES
Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks, 7:30 p.m. ET: This result will give one team a leg up on the East's No. 3 seed. The teams are currently tied for that position, but the Hawks have won two of three previous meetings and hold the tiebreaker. A Boston win would render that irrelevant and give Boston the in-conference tiebreaker. Whichever team wins will have a one-game lead in the standings and a two-game lead over the other due to tiebreaker rules. Staying ahead of the Heat and Hornets would get them to the seed they need.
Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies, 8:00 p.m. ET: This game is most important to the Warriors' pursuit of 73 wins, but it's also the Grizzlies' best chance to stick in a top-six seed. A Memphis loss would drop its lead over Dallas to a half-game. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, that's a likely result given their recent form.
Cleveland Cavaliers at Chicago Bulls, 8:30 p.m. ET: The stakes are clear — a Cleveland win gives them the No. 1 seed and eliminates the Bulls from the postseason. That would be great news for the Indiana Pacers and give the Cavs the ability to rest as many players as they want through the end of the regular season.
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