Sports

NBA playoff picture, standings, magic numbers: Warriors-Grizzlies battle for No. 8; Lakers projected for No. 6

Well, we’re down to the final day of the NBA’s 2020-21 regular season, and there’s no telling what’s going to happen on Sunday. Are teams going to try to tank their way into preferred matchups? It’s not quite that simple. Many of the games involving teams in potential position to manipulate their seed are happening at the same time. One result changes all the other scenarios. You’re going to see a lot of scoreboard watching and mid-game “adjustments.” 

A quick reminder on the NBA‘s new play-in format: The top six seeds in each conference are in, with the final two seeds up for grabs via the new play-in tournament. In each conference, No. 7 will play No. 8 with the winner getting the No. 7 seed. The loser will then play the winner of 9 vs. 10 for the No. 8 seed.

Below is what the playoff picture looks like entering play on Sunday, May 16. Teams are listed in order of current seed along with the SportsLine projected finishing seed and different magic number scenarios. A “playoff spot” means a top-six seed. This post will continue to update for the remainder of the season as we keep track of these races down to the wire. 

NOTE: Our SportsLine model, developed by predictive data engineer Stephen Oh, simulates the entire season 10,000 times to produce the most unbiased and precise projections possible.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(Current playoff teams)

1. Utah Jazz

The Jazz have a one-game lead over the No. 2 Suns, who own the tiebreaker. A Jazz win over Sacramento on Sunday clinches the No. 1 seed. If Utah loses, Phoenix can claim the No. 1 seed with a win over San Antonio. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 1 seed: 1
  • Final game: vs. Sacramento Kings
  • Projected seed: No. 1

2. Phoenix Suns

The Suns trail the No. 1 Jazz by one game. A Jazz win over Sacramento on Sunday clinches the No. 1 seed for Utah. If Utah loses, the door opens for Phoenix, which could then claim the No. 1 seed with a win over San Antonio. Phoenix can’t finish below the No. 2 seed. 

  • Final game: vs. San Antonio Spurs
  • Projected seed: No. 2

3. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are tied with the No. 4 Clippers with the tiebreaker secured. If Denver beats Portland on Sunday, it clinches the No. 3 seed. But beating Portland could help the Lakers, if they beat New Orleans, jump Portland into the No. 6 seed. Does Denver want to play the Lakers in the first round? Probably not. Don’t be surprised to see Denver basically throw this game and try to set up a 3-6 first-round matchup with the Blazers. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 3 seed: 1
  • Remaining game: vs. Portland Trail Blazers
  • Projected seed: No. 4

4. Los Angeles Clippers

There is no scenario in which the Clippers can face the Lakers in the first round. They made sure of that by losing to Houston on Friday. The Clippers are tied with the No. 3 Nuggets, who own the tiebreaker. If the Clippers beat the Thunder on Sunday and the Nuggets beat the Blazers, the Clippers stay at No. 4 and play the No. 5 Dallas Mavericks. If the Clippers win and the Nuggets lose to Portland, L.A. goes to No. 3 and plays either the Blazers or Mavericks at No. 6, depending on whether the Mavericks beat the Timberwolves. 

  • Final game: vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Projected seed: No. 3

5. Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks are one game up on the No. 6 Blazers and No. 7 Lakers. The Mavericks own the tiebreaker over the Lakers, but the Blazers own the tiebreaker over Dallas. If the Mavericks beat the Timberwolves on Sunday, they’re the No. 5 seed. If Dallas loses, Portland wins and the Lakers lose to New Orleans, Portland is No. 5 and Dallas is No. 6. If Dallas loses and the Blazers and Lakers both win, it would end a three-way tie. 

In the case of a three-way tie, the first tiebreaker goes to Dallas as the only division winner. From there, the Blazers own the head-to-head over the Lakers to secure the No. 6 seed, leaving L.A. in the play-in tourney at No. 7. Dallas cannot drop below the No. 6 seed. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 5 seed: 1
  • Final game: vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Projected seed: No. 5

6. Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers are one game back of the No. 5 Mavericks and tied with the No. 7 Lakers with the tiebreaker secured over both. If the Mavericks beat the Timberwolves on Sunday, the best Portland can do is beat the Nuggets and end up at No. 6. But here’s the thing: If the Blazers beat the Nuggets and Clippers beat the Thunder, the Clippers move to No. 3 and would then become Portland’s first-round opponent. Do the Blazers really want that?

If the Blazers lose and the Lakers win, the Blazers fall to No. 7. This is the outcome our SportsLine model projects. The Lakers have no incentive to lose. They can’t face the Clippers, the one first-round matchup they may try to avoid. If the Lakers play all their guys, they’re likely not going to lose to the Pelicans (90 percent chance of victory in simulations), while the simulations only have Portland beating Dallas 47 percent of the time. This all changes, of course, if the Nuggets hold their main players out to make sure they lose and go back to No. 4, which would keep them from having to face the Lakers. 

If the Mavericks lose and the Blazers and Lakers both win, they will end in a three-way tie, in which case the first tiebreaker goes to Dallas as the only division winner. From there, the Blazers own the head-to-head over the Lakers to secure the No. 6 seed, leaving L.A. in the play-in tourney at No. 7. 

  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 1
  • Remaining game: vs. Denver Nuggets
  • Projected seed: No. 7

(Current play-in teams)

7. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers beat the Pacers on Saturday to pull even with the No. 6 Blazers, who own the tiebreaker. The Lakers cannot get any higher than the No. 6 seed. For that to happen, they need to beat New Orleans and have the Blazers lose to Denver. SportsLine projections have the Lakers beating New Orleans and Portland losing to Denver, which would move the Lakers up to No. 6.

But … that would pit the Lakers against the No. 3 Nuggets, and does Denver really want that? If Denver holds out its main players in an effort to lose the game to Portland, drop to No. 4 and avoid the Lakers, the sims go out the window. 

If the Blazers, Mavericks and Lakers end up in a three-way tie, the first tiebreaker goes to Dallas as the only division winner. From there, the Blazers own the head-to-head over the Lakers to secure the No. 6 seed, leaving L.A. in the play-in tourney at No. 7. 

  • Remaining games: vs. New Orleans Pelicans
  • Projected seed: No. 6

8. Golden State Warriors

The Warriors play the Grizzlies on Sunday, with the winner getting the No. 8 seed and the loser getting the No. 9 seed — which represents the difference having to win one play-in game and two play-in games. SportsLine simulations have Golden State losing to Memphis and falling to No. 9. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 8 seed: 1
  • Final game: vs. Memphis Grizzlies
  • Projected seed: No. 9

9. Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies play the Warriors on Sunday, with the winner getting the No. 8 seed and the loser getting the No. 9 seed — which represents the difference having to win one play-in game and two play-in games. SportsLine simulations have the Grizzlies beating the Warriors and jumping to No. 8. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 8 seed: 1
  • Final game: vs. Golden State Warriors
  • Projected seed: No. 8

10. San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio is locked into the No. 10 seed. 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(Current playoff teams)

1. Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have clinched the No. 1 seed. 

2. Brooklyn Nets

The Nets lead the No. 3 Bucks by one game and can clinch the No. 2 seed with a win over the Cavs on Sunday. If the Nets lose and the Bucks beat the Bulls, Milwaukee would be the No. 2 seed with the tiebreaker over Brooklyn. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 2 seed: 1
  • Remaining games: vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Projected seed: No. 2

3. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks trail the No. 2 Nets by one game. Milwaukee has the tiebreaker. If the Nets lose to Cleveland, Milwaukee can go to No. 2 with a win over Chicago. If the Nets win their game, Milwaukee is locked into the No. 3 seed. 

  • Remaining game: vs. Chicago Bulls
  • Projected seed: No. 3

4. New York Knicks

The Knicks are tied with the No. 5 Hawks (Knicks own tiebreaker). For the Knicks to enter playoffs as the No. 4 seed, they’ll simply need to beat the Celtics on Sunday. If they lose and Atlanta wins, Atlanta goes to No. 4 and the Knicks, depending on what Miami does vs. Detroit, drops to either No. 5 or 6.

If Atlanta, Miami and New York finish in a three-way tie, Atlanta would win the Southeast Division by way of having a 2-1 head-to-head advantage over Miami, and by extension, would be awarded the No. 4 seed as the lone division winner among the three teams. From there, Miami would be No. 5 by virtue of its 3-0 season-series advantage over New York, which would be left at No. 6.   

  • Remaining game: vs. Boston Celtics
  • Projected seed: No. 5

5. Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks, who cannot fall below the No. 5 seed, are tied with the No. 4 Knicks, who own the tiebreaker. To get up to No. 4, Atlanta needs to win its game vs. the Rockets and have the Knicks lose to Boston. 

If New York and Atlanta lose and Miami beats Detroit, they would end in a three-way tie. In that case, Atlanta would win the Southeast Division by way of having a 2-1 head-to-head advantage over Miami, and by extension, would be awarded the No. 4 seed as the lone division winner among the three teams. From there, Miami would be No. 5 by virtue of its 3-0 season-series advantage over New York, which would be left at No. 6. 

  • Remaining game: Rockets
  • Projected seed: No. 4

6. Miami Heat

The Heat fell to the Bucks on Saturday to drop one game back of both No. 5 Atlanta and the No. 4 Knicks. The highest the Heat can get is No. 5. For that to happen, New York would have to lose to Boston and the Heat would need to beat Detroit, which would give Miami the edge via the head-to-head tiebreaker. If Atlanta and New York both lose and the Heat win, that would create a three-way tie. 

If Atlanta, Miami and New York finish in a three-way tie, Atlanta would win the Southeast Division by way of having a 2-1 head-to-head advantage over Miami, and by extension, would be awarded the No. 4 seed as the lone division winner among the three teams. From there, Miami would be No. 5 by virtue of its 3-0 season-series advantage over New York, which would be left at No. 6. 

  • Remaining games: vs. Detroit Pistons
  • Projected seed: No. 6

(Current play-in teams)

7. Boston Celtics

The Celtics are locked into the No. 7 seed.  

8. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are tied with No. 9 Washington and No. 10 Indiana. The Hornets play the Wizards on Sunday, so this cannot end in a three-way tie. If the Hornets win, they’re No. 8. If the Hornets lose and Indiana loses, the Hornets are No. 9 by virtue of owning the tiebreaker over the Pacers. If the Pacers win and the Hornets lose, Charlotte is No. 10, which is the scenario our SportsLine projections have playing out. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 8 seed: 1
  • Remaining games: vs. Washington Wizards
  • Projected seed: No. 10

9. Washington Wizards

The Wizards are tied with the No. 8 Hornets, whom they play on Sunday. If the Wizards win, they’re No. 8. If the Wizards lose and Indiana loses to the Raptors, the Wizards are No. 9 by way of owning the tiebreaker over the Pacers. If the Wizards lose and the Pacers win, the Wizards are No. 10. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 8 seed: 1
  • Remaining games: vs. Charlotte Hornets
  • Projected seed: No. 9

10. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers cannot move higher than No. 9 as both Washington and Charlotte own the tiebreaker over them. To get to No. 9, they simply have to beat the Raptors. Then whoever loses the Charlotte-Washington game falls to No. 10. 

  • Magic number to clinch No. 9 seed: 1
  • Remaining games: vs. Toronto Raptors
  • Projected seed: No. 8




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