With less than one week remaining until the NBA postseason, every night can impact the standings. The NBA Playoff Picture Update keeps you up to date on all the most important news for all 16 berths and seeds.
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Gunnin' for that No. 8 Spot: The two tightest races in the West intertwined on Sunday when the Houston Rockets hosted the New Orleans Pelicans. Tied at 86-86 entering the fourth quarter, the Rockets ended up with a 121-114 victory behind 30 points from James Harden and 47 points split between reserves Josh Smith, Pablo Prigioni, and Corey Brewer. Anthony Davis led the Pelicans with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, but they could not get the necessary stops in the final period.
The loss affects New Orleans primarily as a lost opportunity. With the Thunder having lost earlier (more on that in a bit), the Pelicans had a chance to decrease their magic number to one with a win over the Rockets. As it stands, they can now lose the conference's last playoff spot with two OKC wins and at least one of their own losses. They play the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves and the very good San Antonio Spurs to close out the season — we'll let you guess which of those is tougher.
The circumstances of the Rockets' win are far more complicated and can only really be explained in the context of San Antonio's Sunday result, so we'll discuss them in a few paragraphs. The short version is that, at 54-26, they're now tied with the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers for third place but currently occupy the No. 6 seed because they have the worst in-conference record of the trio.
OKC-Ya?: The Oklahoma City Thunder put themselves in very poor shape on Sunday with a 116-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The story of the night was Russell Westbrook's career-high 54 points on 43 shots (!!!), a performance that typified the extremes of his memorable season. Westbrook also received his 16th technical foul of the season, which would have triggered a one-game suspension had the league not rescinded the technical on Monday. A loss to Portland on Monday combined with a Pelicans win at the Timberwolves would eliminate OKC.
The result held much better news for the Pacers, who are now tied with the Brooklyn Nets for eighth place in the East but occupy the No. 9 spot via the lost tiebreaker. We'll discuss this scenario more when we get to the Nets' fortunes on Sunday.
The Most Complicated Explanation Ever: The San Antonio Spurs beat the Phoenix Suns 107-91 for their 11th straight win, improving their record to 55-26, a win and a half-game better than the Clippers-Grizzlies-Rockets trio tied for third place. This is the only thing about the race for the West's No. 2 seed that makes any sense right now. Let's try to break it down as best we can.
Unless the Clippers finish with a better record than everyone, the West's No. 2 seed will be the winner of the Southwest Division, currently led by the Spurs because of that extra game. If all three division contenders tie each other, then the Spurs take the title because they split four games with the Grizzlies and won three of four vs. the Rockets. The Grizzlies take any tiebreaker over the in that same scenario because of their better in-division record.
If the Spurs tie just the Grizzlies, though, then they lose the tiebreaker because Memphis cannot lose the next tiebreaker (in-division record, where their 9-7 beats San Antonio's not-yet-finished 8-7) and have clinched the one after that (in-conference record). Houston can only take the No. 2 seed if they finish with a better record than Memphis and San Antonio and at least tie the Clippers.
Things get really complicated if all four teams finish with the same record. The Southwest Division still takes the No. 2 seed, but the Clippers would have an opportunity to finish third ahead of both runners-up if they maintain their half-game lead over the Grizzlies for the best in-conference record.
The important thing to remember here is that some tiebreaker is going to be invoked to decide seeds Nos. 2 and 3 or Nos. 5 and 6. The latter battle is especially notable, because whoever wins that is going to hold homecourt advantage in the first round over the No. 4 Blazers.
Please don't think about this until you have to. Here is a fun video to cleanse your mind:
Somebody's Gotta Do It: Let's move to the East, where life is not so complicated. The Boston Celtics caught another break Sunday vs. the No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers and now look set to clinch a playoff berth that few predicted in the fall. Two days after facing the Cavs as they played without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics trounced a lineup without Kyrie, LeBron James, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith by the score of 117-78. The Cavs actually won the first quarter by a point, but a 34-9 second-quarter margin eliminated any doubt about the eventual winner. Boston's magic number is now one, but they play the Raptors and Bucks, two playoff teams, to close out the season.
Cavs coach David Blatt indicated that the missing quartet would play Monday vs. the Detroit Pistons, so it's possible that they did not go all-out vs. the Celtics because they're currently matched up in the first round. Perhaps it's better to give a team momentum than to ... oh, hell, who are we kidding, the Celtics are not going to beat the Cavs in a best-of-seven series.
Brooklyn Zoo: The Brooklyn Nets seem most likely to be the East's final playoff team, but they put themselves in some trouble with a 96-73 loss to the No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks. The Nets shot just 32.5 percent from the field and 3-of-18 from deep. No BrooklyKnight Brooklynite scored more than Brook Lopez's 12 points, and Deron Williams was especially poor with four points on 1-of-11 shooting. The win officially clinched a playoff berth and the No. 6 seed for the Bucks.
The Pacers' win over the Thunder has created a tie at 37-43, although the Nets will win any tiebreaker due to having won two of three in the season series. The Pacers seem unlikely to finish ahead of the Nets with remaining games vs. the Wizards and Grizzlies and the Nets ending the season with a very winnable game against the Orlando Magic, but this team also just lost by 23 points and could easily screw things up.
Disappearing Act: John Wall returned to action with 24 points and nine rebounds to help the Washington Wizards defeat the Atlanta Hawks 108-99. The Hawks rested all five of their starters.
Washington's win opens up the possibility of finishing with the conference's No. 4 seed if they win both remaining games and the Chicago Bulls lose both of theirs. The teams split the season series, so the tiebreaker would come down to in-conference record, where the Wizards trail by one game.
Monday's Most Important Games
A 12-game night finds most teams taking the court for the penultimate time this season. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of potential outcomes, including some clinched seeds and playoff berths. Let's take a look at every game that could possibly mean something.
Rockets at Hornets, 7 p.m. ET: I am not going to reiterate the various permutations of the West's race for the No. 2 seed, so let's just say that they need to win to keep pace with their rivals.
Bulls at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET: The Bulls are tied with the Raptors for third-place and need to finish ahead of the Atlantic Division champs to grab the No. 3 seed. The Nets can fall into ninth place at a half-game behind the idle Pacers with a loss.
Magic at Heat, 7:30 p.m. ET: The Heat can only make the playoffs if they win their final two games and the Celtics, Pacers, and Nets all lose theirs. So, you know, don't bet on Miami.
Pelicans at Timberwolves, 8 p.m. ET: New Orleans can clinch a playoff berth with a win at the Target Center and a loss from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Blazers.
Blazers at Thunder, 8 p.m. ET: Portland is locked into the No. 4 seed without homecourt advantage, so their decision to rest or play their best players could decide OKC's fate.
Grizzlies at Warriors, 10:30 p.m. ET: The marquee game of the night pits the NBA-best, still-going-for-it Warriors vs. a Grizzlies team that needs a win to keep pace with the rest of the West's No. 2 contenders.
Nuggets at Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET: The Clippers have to finish ahead of the Southwest Division's trio to get the No. 2 seed, so they'll be giving it their all. A loss could put them in position to drop all the way down to No. 6.
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