Last Wednesday had the potential to be the craziest night of the NBA season, a loaded schedule with huge playoff implications. The night largely delivered, with a half-dozen games coming down to crunch time. Tonight’s schedule of 11 games — one fewer than last Wednesday’s cascade — is nearly as crazy, and as the season gets closer to its end point, the playoff impact of key games only gets larger.
Can you put off doing your taxes one more day? If you can, here’s a game-by-game look at the madness:
7 p.m. ET: Pacers vs. Cavaliers and Sixers vs. Raptors
Philadelphia’s slippage has made the middle of the Eastern Conference less interesting, since it leaves four teams — Boston, Indiana, Orlando and Atlanta — battling for the Nos. 3-6 spots. Each of those four spots guarantees avoidance of Miami and Chicago in the first round, so the punishment for falling all the way to the bottom of this barrel isn’t so severe.
Still, home-court advantage in the first round is nice if you can get it. Indiana, quietly developing a good offense to go with a solid defense, has the inside track at 35-22, with a two-game edge in the loss column over the presumptive Atlantic Division champs in Boston. The Pacers have the same two-game edge over the Magic but just a one-game lead over the Hawks, and they have already lost tiebreakers to both Atlanta and Orlando. Given that the Atlantic Division champion (i.e., Boston) is guaranteed a top-four seed, the Pacers need to bank every winnable game left on the schedule.
A note on the Pacers: Over their last 20 games, they have scored 106.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank third overall, per NBA.com’s stats database. That is heady stuff for a team whose offense has generally dragged it down over the last two seasons. There are only four teams ranked in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession: the Bulls, Heat, Thunder and … Pacers.
It’s tempting to credit the acquisition of guard Leandro Barbosa, who has indeed provided some scoring punch. But the Pacers are scoring at about the same rate regardless of whether Barbosa is on the floor. They have been shooting a few more three-pointers of late, but they haven’t really changed much in the big picture. They are simply hitting more shots from the field while still drawing their usual pile of free-throw attempts. After shooting in the low 40 percent range at the start of the season, Indiana has improved to 46 percent over the last 20 games, with Danny Granger, once ice-cold, finally settling into a groove.
As for Philadelphia, it was nice to see the Sixers take care of business against an overmatched team on Tuesday (the Nets) after recent blowout losses to the Wizards and these same Raptors. The 76ers are in a dogfight with New York and Milwaukee for one of the East’s final two playoff spots, and though their remaining schedule is relatively easy, they have just two home games left and have already lost the tiebreaker to New York. A head-to-head matchup in Milwaukee on April 25 will decide that tiebreaker.
The Sixers feel like a team in chaos, with coach Doug Collins aggressively fighting accusations that the team has “tuned him out” and changing the starting lineup (again) on Tuesday. But they have no excuse against a Raptors team starting a recent 10-day signee (Alan Anderson) and likely missing Andrea Bargnani.
One interesting nugget: The Sixers have lost 11 of 12 against the Heat since LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with Miami, and they would figure to have a much better shot at making a first-round series against Chicago mildly competitive. The Bulls are two games up on Miami, with two head-to-head matchups remaining, and with its own playoff future at stake, Philly cannot yet think about picking its seed. But this might be something to monitor on the last day or two of the season.
8 p.m.: Knicks vs. Bucks, Hawks vs. Celtics, Kings vs. Hornets, Jazz vs. Rockets, Clippers vs. Thunder, Suns vs. Grizzlies
Yeah, good luck navigating this batch of games. Milwaukee-New York is probably the game of the night, now that we know Kobe Bryant is missing one of the Lakers’ three (!) remaining games against San Antonio. This is a huge opportunity for the Bucks after they blew a similar chance by laying one the ugliest eggs you’ll ever see in New York two weeks ago. A win tonight gives them and New York identical 29-29 records and clinches the season series for the Bucks 3-1. (Both teams have already clinched tiebreakers over the Sixers.) The Knicks are now through the toughest part of their late-season murderer’s row, but their remaining schedule is still harder than Milwaukee’s.
This is a huge game, especially because the Knicks, if healthy and settled (yeah, right), would seem the most dangerous upset threat in the No. 7 or No. 8 spot. This should be an entertaining game; the Knicks are playing small, with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, and the Bucks’ army of wings and point guards would seem well-suited for that kind of matchup.
But neither Milwaukee nor New York will be quite as desperate tonight as Utah, which sits at No. 10 in the West, two games behind No. 8 Denver in the loss column and having already lost the tiebreaker to No. 9 Phoenix. A loss tonight would be devastating for Utah’s chances, though perhaps not fatal, if only because of the Suns’ brutal remaining schedule and the Nuggets’ constant health woes.
Tonight’s game will also decide the head-to-head tiebreaker between these teams, and a Houston win should pretty much lock up a playoff spot for the Rockets. Houston could pull within one game in the loss column of both the Clippers (No. 4) and No. 5 Memphis if either or both lose tonight. But it’s unclear how pressing or realistic it is for Houston to (theoretically) move into the 4-5 bracket. The Rockets have already lost the tiebreaker to the Clippers, and they have played the No. 3-seeded Lakers very well, winning two of three.
Speaking of Memphis: Don’t sleep on the Grizzlies for a possible run all the way to No. 3, especially if they beat a desperate Phoenix team at home tonight. Memphis has by far the league’s easiest remaining schedule, with a collective opponents’ winning percentage of .420, and it could pull even with the Lakers in the loss column if San Antonio takes care of business.
The Suns, on the other hand, have an absolutely brutal remaining schedule, with only one game left against a certain lottery team, Monday’s clash against the Trail Blazers. Having already lost the tiebreaker to Denver after a depressing fall-from-ahead job last Friday, Phoenix can afford only one or two hiccups the rest of the way. The Suns have gone 5-3 since losing Grant Hill to a knee injury, their defense has held basically steady, and their offense has continued to surge behind the glorious Steve Nash, an evolving Jared Dudley and a bench that has kept things afloat — and often much more — when Nash sits. Can they keep it up against the bulky, physical Grizzlies?
You know who else has an ultra-tough remaining schedule? The Pacific Division-leading Lakers. With Kobe in a walking boot and the Lakers facing playoff teams in six of their eight remaining games, the door is open for the Clippers to seize the division even after losing the tiebreaker to the Lakers last week. A win over the conference-leading Thunder would obviously be huge in that pursuit. The Clippers also have to look in the rear view at Memphis and even Houston, though Los Angeles has tiebreakers in the bag over both.
As for the Thunder, they have home-court races to think about both in their conference and in potential Finals matchups against Miami or Chicago. The Thunder and Spurs are tied in the loss column, but San Antonio has dominated Oklahoma City head-to-head for three years running and has already clinched the tiebreaker.
Looking east, the Thunder trail Chicago by one game in the loss column and have a one-game edge over Miami, with whom they split the season series. Thanks to the unbalanced lockout schedule, the Thunder and Bulls play only once this season, meaning Oklahoma City clinched the tiebreaker over Chicago in their easy win two Sundays ago against a team missing Derrick Rose. Thanks, lockout!
Both Clippers-Thunder games have been landmarks of sorts this season. The first featured the epic Blake Griffin slam over Kendrick Perkins and seemed to announce the Clippers’ legitimacy as contenders. The second, a blowout Thunder win three weeks ago, was the low point in a long stretch of stagnant play that came close to costing coach Vinny Del Negro his job. Let’s see what happens tonight, and how the Clips respond when Oklahoma City slides Kevin Durant to power forward.
Turning back to the East: Boston’s resurgence as a defensive juggernaut really began with an ugly 79-76 win in Atlanta on March 19, a game that ended with Jeff Teague air-balling a potential game-tying three and Kevin Garnett referring to Teague as a “nobody.” Like the Pacers, the Hawks have seen their scoring rate jump from abysmal to top-five-level in the last 20 games. A lineup of Teague, Kirk Hinrich, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia has been especially prolific. Bringing Marvin Williams off the bench has also worked out. The Hawks will be a problem, especially if they can get anything from Al Horford.
This game could determine who gets home-court advantage if these teams finish fourth and fifth in the conference. Remember: A division title guarantees Boston a top-four seed, but it does not guarantee the Celtics home court. An Atlanta win tonight would give the Hawks a two-game edge in the loss column and even the season series at 1-1, with one game left next week in Atlanta. A Boston win evens the two teams and clinches the tiebreaker for the green guys.
The Kings are Hornets are charming in their own ways, but on this night, they don’t merit your attention.
8:30 p.m.: Lakers vs. Spurs
Finally, the first of three meetings between two longtime powerhouses preposterously squeezed into the final two weeks of the season. The Spurs have a real chance to grab the No. 1 overall seed, but doing so would likely involve battering the Lakers down into the No. 4 spot, setting up the possibility that a top-seeded Spurs team would face the winner of a Lakers-Grizzlies first-round clash. Both those teams have two behemoth interior scoring threats, and that is exactly the sort of team that’s well-equipped to bother San Antonio, even if it has added some bulk by nabbing Boris Diaw.
Then again, if the Spurs happily accept the No. 2 seed, they may concede a game to the Lakers, helping Los Angeles remain in that No. 3 spot — and on a path to meet San Antonio in the second round.
As for the Finals, the lockout has San Antonio facing Miami and Chicago just once each. The Spurs have already lost both games — and the tiebreakers that went with them.
There are just too many scenarios to comprehend, which is why San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is smartly resting players with the big picture in mind.
9 p.m.: Timberwolves vs. Nuggets
The Wolves have lost six straight in an injury- and malaise-fueled tailspin. They should be easy pickings for a Denver team clinging to the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference.
Things are not all hunky-dory in Denver: Danilo Gallinari has to find himself again after missing three weeks with a broken thumb, Wilson Chandler is hurting, Al Harrington is playing through a meniscus tear and the team is clearly missing Nene’s steady two-way play. Timofey Mozgov can’t get off the bench, and Denver is playing substantially worse on both ends of the floor — and getting murdered on the glass — whenever JaVale McGee plays, meaning he’s had about the same impact in Denver as he had for years in Washington.
The Nuggets have lost tiebreakers to Utah and Dallas, and this is their last easy game before a seven-game stretch that goes Lakers-Houston-Houston-Clippers-Phoenix-Orlando-Oklahoma City. A few of those games might turn out to be easier than they look if Bryant is still out and the Magic and/or Thunder are locked into seeds by the time they face Denver.
Still, a loss here would be a disaster.
10:30 p.m.: Warriors vs. Trail Blazers
Feel free to turn in early.