NBA

10 questions for final stretch of NBA season: Will Lakers secure top-four seed? Knicks to end playoff drought?

The NBA is approaching the tail end of the 2020-21 regular season, and as we set our sights on the playoffs, there’s still plenty of storylines to keep an eye on as the final month of the season approaches. Some teams are firmly out of the playoff picture, like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, while others are still competing for seeding and have a foot in the door for that play-in tournament to decide the final two seeds in each conference.

Some stars could make a return from injury in the final month, and their presence could make all the difference for their respective teams. Other players unable to return from injuries, however, could heavily influence who wins Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest questions to focus on as the regular season wraps up.

1. Will the Lakers make a late push for home court in first round?

The Los Angeles Lakers are currently trying to stay afloat while their two franchise stars nurse injuries that have kept them sidelined for a significant chunk of time. Entering Wednesday, Anthony Davis has missed 26 games, while LeBron James is going on 13 missed games. While the team managed to fare well without Davis, the Lakers have gone 6-7 in LeBron’s 12-game absence, and sit just 2.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers as the fifth seed out West.

Fortunately, the Lakers expect to get Davis back within 10-14 days, while LeBron could be “right behind him” in a return. If that’s the case, then a late Lakers run could be coming with the season winding down, especially after news broke of Nuggets guard Jamal Murray tearing his ACL, which means the West standings are even more up in the air. Denver sits just a half-game ahead of the Lakers in the West, and if Davis and James return in the next couple weeks, they could fight for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. 

However, if A.D. and LeBron are out a bit longer than what’s been reported, the Lakers risk the chance of falling further down the standings. If they fall to the sixth spot, that could set up a potential first-round matchup against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers, which wouldn’t be ideal for either team in the opening round. If they fall even further to the seventh spot, that’d mean the Lakers would have to participate in the play-in tournament, adding more games before the postseason even starts. There’s several directions the Lakers’ season could go from this point forward, and it all hinges on when Davis and LeBron return.

2. Can the Celtics finish in the top four in the East?

Boston has had a pretty underwhelming season, given the preseason expectations. This was a team fresh off a conference finals run with two incredibly versatile young wing players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Being hit with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the league certainly didn’t help, as Tatum struggled mightily to overcome the lingering effects of the virus. Then there was an injury to defensive stalwart Marcus Smart, which showed just how much of an impact he makes on this team, both from a defensive perspective and leadership standpoint as well. 

However, after a tough March which saw them go 6-8 on the month, the Celtics are trending up at the perfect time and are just a game back of the No. 4 spot in the East. Tatum has been electric in the last month of action, averaging 29 points, 8.5 rebounds and nearly 40 percent from deep. His play has helped the Celtics to a 6-1 record in April with big wins over the Nuggets and Blazers.

The talent the Celtics possess is good enough to get to that No. 4 spot, but with an upcoming schedule that features the Blazers and Heat twice, the Suns and the Nets, it won’t be easy. Getting home-court advantage for at least the first round could be a difference-maker for Boston, as it has struggled on the road this season, going 12-16. 

3. Who wins race for home-court advantage throughout East playoffs between Nets and 76ers?

The Philadelphia 76ers looked like they were going to run away with the No. 1 seed in the East at the start of the season, as Joel Embiid had them looking like world beaters. But then the Nets traded for James Harden … and signed Blake Griffin … and LaMarcus Aldridge. Now, Brooklyn and Philadelphia are tied atop the East standings with Kevin Durant back in the lineup and James Harden not too far behind on his return. These two teams face each other on Wednesday in what is sure to be an exciting matchup that could end up being the difference between who gets that No. 1 seed.

Due to the Nets’ Monday night game against the Timberwolves being postponed, Brooklyn will enter Wednesday’s game on the second night of a back-to-back, which could swing the game in favor of Philly. Both teams took a win in the previous two matchups between them, and Wednesday’s game will decide which team will earn the tiebreaker if they both somehow end the season with the same record. Gaining home-court advantage throughout the playoffs in the East would be a huge advantage for either team, but especially for the Sixers, who have the second-best home record in the league (20-5). This race should come down to the wire with this upcoming game holding huge implications.

4. Can the Jazz hang on to the No. 1 seed in the West?

Unlike the race atop the East standings, the Utah Jazz have a bit more breathing room, as 1.5 games separates them and the second-place Phoenix Suns, followed by the Clippers just 3.5 games back. The Jazz, who own the best record in the league (41-14), have been consistently dominant all season long with very few hiccups along the way, so it would be no surprise if they lock up the No. 1 seed in the West and home-court advantage throughout the entirety of the playoffs.

However, we’re always told to expect the unexpected in this league, and a small slump could prove costly for the Jazz with the Suns hot on their trails. The Jazz have remaining matchups against the Suns, Nuggets and Trail Blazers, all teams still fighting for positioning in the West. The Suns, and perhaps the Clippers, could capitalize greatly if the Jazz had a few losses pile up, and catch them. It may not be as intriguing as the race in the East, but it’s still worth keeping an eye on as regular-season fatigue could set in for Utah, which could result in costly mistakes.

5. Will the Warriors or Pelicans make the West play-in tournament?

At the opposite end of the West playoff picture, there stands the Golden State Warriors, who, entering Wednesday, currently occupy a one-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans for the 10th spot. The Warriors have had a weird season with injuries, COVID-19 outbreaks and just general confusion for this extended limbo period they’re in with Klay Thompson sidelined for the second consecutive season. Yet Stephen Curry has managed to keep this team in the hunt with his amazing play.

It would be silly to assume that the Warriors wouldn’t make the play-in tournament with Curry in the picture, but the Pelicans have made a recent surge to make things interesting. New Orleans, similar to Golden State, has also had an odd season but for different reasons. There haven’t been many injuries to point to as to why this team has underperformed, or a massive COVID-19 outbreak that has kept several sidelined. Instead, this roster full of talent has simply just underperformed. Individually, Zion Williamson is putting up absurd numbers (26.8 points, 7.1 rebounds), and so is Brandon Ingram (24 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists), but collectively this team hasn’t been able to string enough wins together to become a real threat in the West. 

The Pelicans have done enough to keep the chase for the final play-in spot interesting, though, and with three upcoming games against Golden State, these two teams will be able to settle this race head-to-head.

6. Can the Raptors catch Bulls for the 10th spot in the East?

The Raptors are having a season to forget, and the Bulls are just hoping to get back to the playoffs after making a splashy move at the trade deadline to land two-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic. Both teams have been struggling recently, posting 3-7 records in their last 10 games each, but the Bulls hold a two-game lead over the Raptors. Toronto has had some of the worst luck of any team in the league, between COVID-19 protocols, injuries and playing away from home for the entire season. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if this team could magically turn it around in the final month of the season. 

If that happens, it also wouldn’t be surprising if the Raptors ended up with one of the two final playoffs spots in the East, given that the three teams above them in the standings have not had nearly the same success in recent history as Toronto has had in high-pressure situations. But they’ll need to get to that 10th spot to make that happen, and although the Bulls haven’t been able to rack up wins since the trade deadline, the chemistry between Zach LaVine and Vucevic is growing with each game, and every win they rack up — or Raptors lose — the closer they are to the play-in tournament.  

7. Does LaMelo Ball return at all this season?

For entertainment purposes I’m sure we would all love to see LaMelo Ball in the postseason this year, but taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Hornets decided to sit him out for the rest of the year. The front-runner for Rookie of the Year had surgery to repair his fractured wrist, and is supposed to be reevaluated toward the end of the regular season. It leaves the door open only slightly for a return this year, but if you’re Michael Jordan and the rest of the Charlotte organization, why risk it? It’s great that the Hornets have been relevant this season in part because of Ball, but rushing your prized rookie back just to be potential first-round fodder for the top two teams in the East isn’t something you want to bet the house on.

8. Will Victor Oladipo be healthy enough to help Miami?

Just four games into his tenure with the Miami Heat after being traded at the deadline, Victor Oladipo got sidelined with what the team is calling “knee soreness.” During a matchup against the Lakers last week, Oladipo went up for a dunk and when he landed he grabbed at his right knee as he began jogging back on defense. He was quickly taken out of the game, and the Heat haven’t given a timetable for a return other than he would miss their four-game road trip. When head coach Erik Spoelstra was asked if Oladipo would play again this season, he declined to speculate on his injury. He had X-rays on his knee during the game, which came back negative and he had an MRI last Friday but the results have not been made public, making this injury even more puzzling. 

It’s obvious Miami is being incredibly cautious with Oladipo given his injury history, and perhaps this is nothing more than that — just being cautious. But if it ends up being serious, then it would be a blow for a Heat team that traded for Oladipo to give them an edge in the Eastern Conference. While his time with the Heat hasn’t been incredibly productive, he’s still averaging 19.8 points this season. If he’s able to perform at that level for Miami, and continue to play strong defense as he’s capable of doing, his presence would be a difference-maker in the playoffs. 

9. Will anyone catch Nikola Jokic in the MVP race?

Injuries to just about every MVP candidate, plus a recent cold spell by Damian Lillard and the Blazers, has seemingly made this a one-man race for Nikola Jokic. He’s got the numbers, his team is winning big, and what may cement his status is the final month of the season. He and the Nuggets are about to embark on the final four weeks without Jamal Murray, who suffered a torn ACL after Monday night’s game. If Jokic can keep the Nuggets afloat as the fourth seed in the West without the second-best player on his team, then it’ll serve as a final box he needed to check to fulfill his candidacy. He’s already done enough to prove he’s this season’s MVP, but it’ll get the people who may think otherwise off his back. 

10. Will the Knicks finally make the playoffs?

I’m sure the New York Knicks were wishing that the play-in tournament didn’t exist right now, because it would mean that if the season ended today they would have the eighth and final seed in the East. But before they can get there they’ll have to fight off a number of teams looking to take their spot in the postseason, which could include the Raptors, Bulls, Pacers, and Hornets. Led by Julius Randle and head coach Tom Thibodeau’s hard-nosed style of play, the Knicks have been playing their best basketball in a decade. But there’s still some hurdles to clear before they can end their nine-year playoff drought. There’s actually the possibility that the Knicks could avoid the play-in altogether if they manage to jump up the standings to finish sixth in the East. There’s several possibilities for how this Knicks season could end, including missing the postseason entirely. That said, an elusive playoff berth is in their sights.



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