NBA

NBA Storylines to Watch as The Season Nears a Close

May 2, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) drives for the basket against Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the fourth quarter at Fiserv Forum.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season is almost over. Most teams have 7 or 8 games left, with many jockeying for playoff position. Unlike past seasons, the end of this current season has been quite interesting. Not only has the play-in tournament added more competition, but there are also other stories and topics to watch as we approach the playoffs. I’ll be listing some of the biggest storylines to watch as we near the end of the season.

Who Will Get the 1 Seed?

Apr 14, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots the ball while being fouled during the third quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at Wells Fargo Center.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Both conferences have a tight race for the 1 seed going on. In the West, the Suns and Jazz are currently tied with a record of 46-18. Meanwhile, in the East, Philadelphia is half a game ahead of Brooklyn for the 1 spot. Not only does the 1 seed come with easier matchups in the early rounds (theoretically), it also guarantees homecourt advantage all the way up to the NBA Finals.

Considering how well the Jazz did in the first half of the season, it’s a little surprising that they are now tied with the Suns for 1st in the West. It seemed like they would coast to the 1 seed, but they’ve struggled a little bit in the 2nd half of the season. Post-All-Star break, they are tied for the 4th best record in the league. I know, that seems really good, but when you’re looking at getting the 1 seed, it’s not quite enough.

This has allowed Phoenix to catch up, and now we have an interesting race for these last couple of weeks. Neither team has an extreme leg up on the other in terms of schedule strength; the Jazz have the 22nd hardest in the league, and the Suns have the 13th, according to Tankathon. They won’t play each other again, so it’s all about who can close out with the least losses.

What might end up being the differentiator is injuries. Donovan Mitchell is going to miss at least the next 2-3 games for the Jazz with the ankle injury he sustained in mid-April. The Suns currently don’t have any significant injuries to their stars, which gives them the advantage over Utah as we advance.

The wrinkle in this contest for the 1 seed is the LA Lakers and where they end up. The biggest draw of the 1 seed is playing against easier opponents. A date with the Lakers in the 2nd round is not what most 1-seeds signed up for. There’s a lot of options for where the Lakers end up.

If they end up in the 4-5 seed, the 1 seed would potentially see them in the second round. If they end up as the 6 seed, the 2 seed would potentially see them in the second round. There’s also a chance they drop to the play-in tournament. This could end with them as a 7 or 8 seed, meaning matchups with 1 or 2 in the first round! The top of the western conference will definitely be one of the storylines to watch during these last couple of weeks.

In the east, the story is similar. It’s too close to give a good prediction for the 1 seed. Injuries may play a role, as James Harden has no date set for a return to the Nets lineup. This gives Philadelphia a small advantage here.

What gives Philadelphia a much bigger advantage? They have the easiest remaining schedule in the league, according to Tankathon. There’s a good chance that they win out the rest of the season unless they rest some players. So it’s a lot more likely that Philadelphia ends up with the number 1 seed, but Brooklyn’s not out of the picture in any way.

There’s a clearer reward for the 1 seed in the East compared to the West. All year long, there have been 3 teams above the rest in the eastern conference. Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee. Whoever gets the 1 seed in the east avoids a potential second-round matchup with the Bucks, which would be a tough series. Unlike the West, where anything can happen with the seeding, this is pretty set in stone. The 1 seed in the east makes for a much easier path to the NBA finals, which should be a big motivator for the two teams in that race.

Bottleneck on The East Coast

Apr 7, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) battles for the ball with New York Knicks guard Derrick Rose (4), center Taj Gibson (67) and New York Knicks forward Reggie Bullock (25) during the second quarter at TD Garden.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The addition of the play-in tournament has made the 6 seed the last “real” playoff spot. Fall below, and you enter the play-in. In both conferences, there’s an interesting competition as a result. There are 4 teams in the middle of the East: New York, Atlanta, Miami, and Boston. Considering how good the 3 teams above them are (Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee), these teams are probably all fighting for the 4 and 5 seeds. They’ll want to avoid the 6 seed and a matchup with one of those teams in the first round, most likely Milwaukee

The Knicks have a 1.5 game lead for the 4 seed but have a tough schedule remaining. Atlanta and Miami are in a tie for the 5 seed, and Boston sits behind them at 7. So we have 4 teams, all quite close, fighting for 2 spots. This should be interesting.

The Knicks’ destiny is in their own hands because they have a lead for the 4 seed. Unfortunately, they also have the 3rd toughest schedule remaining in the league, according to Tankathon. If they can keep up what they did in April, they shouldn’t have trouble. They went 11-4 with a top 5 offense and defense. The Knicks. Top 5 offense. And defense. Sorry, it just feels weird to say that.

The Hawks have nothing special about their remaining schedule. Over the last few games, they’ve seen some key players return to the lineup, most notably Trae Young. This puts them in a good position to fight for one of these spots. They have no games remaining against Miami, Boston, or New York. This could play to their advantage if those teams split games with each other, allowing the Hawks to quietly take the 4 or 5 seed.

Miami and Boston are interesting as they play two games against each other next week. If one team wins both of those games, they will likely knock the other out of the chase for a 4 or 5 seed. The team that wins both would also put themselves in a great position. On the other hand, if they split the games, it opens up a path for Atlanta and New York to take the 4 and 5 seed. This would leave Miami and Boston to fight for the 6 seed to avoid the play-in.

Out of these 4 teams, Boston has the biggest potential to rise. Back in early April, when they were cruising, it seemed like they would inevitably take the 4 seed. They have 2 matchups with the Heat and one with the Knicks remaining. But that’s just what they COULD do. With problems that have plagued them all season resurfacing, and injuries continuing to bother their roster, it’s tough to see the Celtics rising in the standings.

But that’s what makes this race interesting. None of these teams have been perfect this year. Yet still, all of them have the potential to go on a run here and get a good seed. Not only that, but all of them are good enough to go on a run in the playoffs. This unpredictability at the end of the season is courtesy of the play-in tournament, and it’s created some great storylines to watch at the end of the season.

Not Everybody Appreciates the Play-In Tournament

May 2, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) moves the ball against Toronto Raptors forward Stanley Johnson (5) during the first half at Staples Center.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If you can’t already tell, I like the play-in. It’s adding a significant intrigue to the regular season by giving teams more to play for. It’s already been a win, and it hasn’t even taken place yet. When it does take place, we’re going to get some great teams playing in single-elimination games; personally, I think it’s a great idea.

Some people around the league have recently voiced their opinions, and they differ from mine, to say the least. First off, it was Luka Doncic and Mark Cuban:

“I don’t understand the idea of a play-in,… You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. So I don’t see the point of that.”

Luka Doncic

“In hindsight, this approach was an enormous mistake,”

Mark Cuban speaking to ESPN

Since these quotes, the Mavericks have pushed up to the 5 seed but are in a three-way tie with the Lakers and Trailblazers. One mistake, and they’re right back in the play-in tournament. Speaking of the Lakers, LeBron just recently stated his opinions on the play-in tournament:

“Whoever came up with that s— needs to be fired,”

LeBron James

So yeah, he doesn’t love the idea of a play-in tournament. The question I have is, do these guys really hate the idea of the play-in? Or do they hate the idea of playing in it? Both the Lakers and Mavericks weren’t thinking about the play-in tournament coming into this season; their expectations were set much higher. For various reasons, they now find themselves neck-deep in the play-in, and now they complain? If they had a problem with the idea, they could’ve brought it up back when it was getting voted on. Yeah, when the Board of Governors unanimously voted yes on it.

LeBron’s comments came immediately after a loss to the Raptors, which knocked them back into the 7th seed. It seems a little hypocritical, especially for a guy who suggested something quite similar to a play-in scenario a year ago on the Road Trippin podcast. So maybe LeBron should be fired?

Now, I’m just joking around, this season has been weird, and these guys are valid in their criticisms of the play-in. Especially when they question whether this was the best year to start the play-in, they’re also proving the concept’s success. These guys are frustrated by it, which means they have something to fight for. Therefore, the play-in tournament is a success.

It’s not all complaints though. Many others have shown support for the play in:

On the other side, you don’t see teams like the Wizard complaining. They had a tough beginning to the season due to injuries and COVID. But they’ve been playing great lately; they posted the league’s 5th best record in April. This is what’s great about the play-in. The Wizards deserve a shot at the playoffs, and if teams like the Mavericks and Lakers think they’re too good to “play-in”? Well, they should be able to win their games easily if that’s true.

On top of all this, the NBA is sitting back and taking it all in. What’s their conclusion from this drama? This is exactly how we wanted it to go. Heck, a week or two from now we might be watching Steph and the Lakers go at it in the play-in. Forget getting fired, whoever proposed the play-in tournament might get promoted.

The play-in has been a great addition this season. The fact that some players don’t love it only makes it better. Seeing how the Mavs and Lakers close out their season will be one of the storylines to watch, especially if they end up in the play-in tournament.

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