With just about 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.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
When the Irrelevant Becomes Relevant: It takes a special player to lead this post when his team's win doesn't even help their playoff cause. But Stephen Curry is no ordinary player.
The Golden State Warriors had already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the postseason going into Thursday night's home game with the Portland Trail Blazers, but Curry won all the headlines with a fantastic performance in the Warriors' 116-105 win. Curry scored 45 points on absurd shooting numbers (17-of-23 FG, 8-of-13 3FG, 3-of-3 FT), broke his own record for made three-pointers in a single season, and did it all in such spectacular fashion that he seems to have ended the MVP race for which he already served as frontrunner.
This win ensures that the 64-15 Warriors will finish with sole possession of the league's best record over the East-leading Atlanta Hawks, although that doesn't really affect playoff seeding in any way. The result matters much more to the Blazers, who can't fall lower than the No. 4 seed but now have very little chance of finishing any higher. At 51-28, the Blazers are two games behind the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, the squads currently challenging each other to gain homecourt advantage over Portland in the first round, and 2 1/2 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets, now the top challengers for the conference's No. 2 seed. The Blazers will hold the tiebreaker over any team that hasn't won the division, but with only three games left (vs. Utah, at Oklahoma City, at Dallas) it seems unlikely that they will make up the ground to invoke any of those rules.
It's also possible that the Blazers will be without shooting guard Arron Afflalo, himself the starting-lineup replacement for Wesley Matthews, out for the year after tearing his Achilles tendon in early March. Aflallo hurt his right arm late in Thursday's game and will be reevaluated Friday. The Blazers bench has been thin for several seasons — Afflalo was acquired at the deadline to boost their depth — and any more losses will test them considerably.
Windy City Heat: The world of modern analytics has spent a lot of effort and energy attempting to reverse the belief that momentum matters. The Miami Heat made a very strong argument themselves in Thursday's game vs. the Chicago Bulls.
Entering tied for ninth place and a full game out of the playoffs, the Miami Heat appeared poised to grab a much-needed win by ending the first half on a 29-6 run for a 51-32 lead at halftime. But whatever they were doing well before the break disappeared quickly when the game started back up. The Bulls took the third quarter 33-8 to flip the rout and eventually won 89-78, holding Dwyane Wade to just nine points on 4-of-20 shooting in the process.
The loss puts the Heat in a very difficult position entering their final four games. Now a half-game back of the Pacers and 1 1/2 behind the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, the Heat could need to win out just in order to rely on their various head-to-head tiebreaker advantages (over the Celtics and Nets, but not vs. the Pacers). With remaining games against the Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic, and Philadelphia 76ers, it's entirely possible that the Heat can close on a three-game winning streak. But they have also struggled lately — Thursday's loss brings them to 3-8 in their last 11 — and did not look like a team with much ability during a frankly embarrassing third-quarter performance. The Heat have been the victims of lots of bad luck this season, and it now looks like they'll need to rely on some good fortune to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Bulls' win finds them a half-game up on the Raptors for the East's No. 3 seed. It's a slim margin but a meaningful one given that the Raptors hold the tiebreaker advantage via their Atlantic Division title (despite losing all four games to the Bulls this season). Chicago closes the season with three games of varying difficulty (vs. Sixers, at Nets, vs. Hawks), so there's a fair chance that they will need to finish with a better record than Toronto to avoid falling into a more difficult matchup (likely against the Washington Wizards) in the first round.
No matter their seed, the Bulls will use their final three games to reintegrate Derrick Rose back into the lineup. Rose shot just 5-of-15 from the field for 12 points in his 20 minutes (none in the fourth quarter, by design) on Thursday, but it is notable that he was able to play at all on a back-to-back after Wednesday's comeback vs. the Magic.
Friday's Most Important Games
There are plenty of meaningful games on Friday, but only a few involve two teams that still factor into the postseason picture.
Celtics at Cavaliers, 7:30 p.m. ET: What looks like a challenging game for Boston gets significantly easier if the Cleveland chooses to sit LeBron James, as indicated by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst on Wednesday after the Cavs locked up the No. 2 seed. The Celtics will have a challenge on their hands regardless — the Cavs have a lot of good players! — but missing out on the most talented player in the NBA is always a good thing for a team in need of a win. The better news is that LeBron could also miss his next game ... which is also against the Celtics. Sometimes it's best to be lucky.
Wizards at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET: Like the Celtics, the Nets need a win in order to keep pace with each other and remain ahead of the Pacers and Heat in the race for the conference's final two playoff spots. The difference is that they're playing a team that still has something to play for. The Wizards are just a game behind the Raptors in the race for homecourt advantage in the first round — they would need to finish ahead of the division winners, of course — and could feasibly catch the Bulls if they fall below the Raptors.
Spurs at Rockets, 8:00 p.m. ET: This one isn't just important on this day — it's arguably the most important game for playoff seeding remaining on the NBA schedule. If the Spurs win, they will hold the tiebreaker advantage in the event of a tie with the Rockets or a three-way tie with the Rockets and Grizzlies. That would put them in solid shape to win the Southwest Division and therefore lock down a top-four seed, perhaps getting up to as high as No. 2 before the end of the season. Meanwhile, Houston needs a win to ensure that they can keep pace in the tiebreaker battles with both rivals and and effectively require San Antonio to win their final two games to have any hope of grabbing homecourt advantage in the first round. This is the messiest race of the postseason by far, but Friday's result will go a long way towards clarifying it.
- - - - - - -