It was a busy Wednesday around the NBA with the league announcing no new COVID-19 cases for a fourth straight week, head coaches Brad Stevens and Nate McMillan were awarded with contract extensions for Boston and Indiana, and the playoff picture in the East was officially set:
Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs. Orlando Magic (8)
Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Brooklyn Nets (7)
Boston Celtics (3) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (6)
Miami Heat (4/5) vs. Indiana Pacers (4/5)
Technically, the Heat and the Pacers are still battling for the 4th seed, but home-court advantage inside the bubble means absolutely nothing. Out West, we're still waiting for the dust to settle as the Blazers, Grizzlies, Suns and Spurs battle it out for the 8th and 9th seed play-in game. The rest of the Western Conference matchups have been set though:
Los Angeles Lakers (1) vs. TBD
Los Angeles Clippers (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
Denver Nuggets (3) vs. Utah Jazz (6)
Houston Rockets (4) vs. OKC Thunder (5)
As a reminder for the play-in game, it's single elimination for the eighth seed and double elimination for the ninth. Let's quickly take a look at what needs to happen for those four teams to make it to the play-in game. All four teams have one game remaining, but it's still a bit messy to decipher.
Blazers: The Blazers face the Nets on Thursday, and while they are obviously heavily favored, Brooklyn could at least make things interesting since all three of Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen are returning from a day of rest.
Portland is currently the 8th seed and will lock it up with a win. However, a loss by Portland following wins by two of the other three teams would eliminate the Blazers.
Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.'s season-ending knee injury took the air out of Memphis' tires but the franchise would still love to get Ja Morant some playoff experience. They catch a big break on Thursday as they will face a Milwaukee team with nothing to play for and who are also missing Giannis Antetokounmpo to a suspension after he head-butted Moe Wagner.
With a Memphis win and a Portland loss, the Grizzlies will lock up the 8th seed for the play-in game. Memphis would remain in 9th if they win and Portland does too. However, if they don't manage to defeat the Bucks they will need both the Suns and Spurs to also lose in order to advance.
Suns: Against all odds, the Suns are 7-0 inside the bubble thanks to Devin Booker and the emergence of Mikal Bridges. They have a brutal matchup on paper vs. a red hot Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, but with Dallas locked in, I think there's a good chance both superstars sit.
With a Phoenix win, the Suns could claim the 8th seed if both Portland and Memphis lose. That's very unlikely though, so the Suns will be hoping for just one of those teams to lose so they can officially be the 9th seed for the play-in game.
Spurs: The Spurs MUST win vs. the Jazz and could even be the 8th seed if all three of Portland, Memphis and Phoenix lose. But just to get in as the 9th seed, the Spurs need two out of those three teams to lose in order to sneak in.
This bubble has been all about developing the youth for San Antonio, but surely they’d love to keep their playoff streak alive — if they sneak in this will be their 23rd consecutive trip to the postseason.
So that’s a lot to digest. With that behind us, let’s take a quick look at some other things that stood out to me Wednesday.
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Joel Embiid returns, but probably regrets it…
Joel Embiid returned from his ankle sprain that cost him one game but didn’t last long vs. the Raptors, leaving with a right hand injury and getting ruled out shortly after. X-rays were negative, but we’re still waiting on a official diagnosis. With Philly locked into their seed, you’d think they’d do the smart thing and sit him for the final seeding game.
As for his performance, well, it left a lot to be desired. Embiid finished with five points on 1-of-4 shots, struggling with Toronto’s swarming double teams and the physicality of Marc Gasol. This has been nothing new though — in two previous matchups vs. Toronto, Embiid put up just 5.0 points on 16.7% shooting - YIKES. Gasol legit owns real estate in Embiid's head.
And while the matchup with Boston in the first round of the playoffs isn’t as intimidating for Embiid, it’s not exactly a walk in the park either. In three appearances vs. Boston this season, Embiid has shot just 39.1% from the field for 21.3 points, doing most of his damage at the free throw line. if Philly has any prayer in this series, Embiid will need to average 30+ PPG.
T.J. Warren battling plantar fasciitis
Panic set in for Pacers fans when coach Nate McMillan said T.J. Warren had the same injury as Domantas Sabonis. “He’s been experiencing that really throughout the season,” McMillan said. “Been able to play on it.” Warren was held out Wednesday and that may be the plan for the final seeding game as well. However, McMillan did downplay the issue a bit and said he wanted to get him extra rest, so the chances of this keeping him on the sidelines for any postseason action should be fairly low.
A report by ESPN’s Tim MacMahon shortly after McMillan’s comments calmed the storm as well, as MacMahon said the plantar fasciitis is “not serious” and that he’ll be ready for the playoffs. Now the question becomes whether or not the bubble MVP (other than Damian Lillard of course) can get anything going vs. Miami in the postseason. Jimmy Butler takes this matchup personally and these two guys have quite a history, so their matchup could dictate the series. In three games vs. Miami this season, Warren averaged his second lowest points per game against an opponent with 10.3 points on 35% shooting.
Before we move on from Indiana, McMillan also provided a brief update on the status of Domantas Sabonis who is currently out indefinitely. McMillan said the Pacers haven’t ruled out a return to the bubble at some point, but added that he still has no target date. If I had to guess, I'd say it's pretty unlikely we see him at all in Round 1.
Russell Westbrook dealing with quad injury
What was originally supposed to be a planned rest day for Russell Westbrook turned into a bit of bad news as he was diagnosed with a strained quadriceps muscle following an MRI. The Rockets went ahead and ruled him out for the final seeding game on Friday, but did say that he will be re-evaluated before the playoffs start.
I don’t think it would be the end of the world if Westy ends up missing a bit of time if you’re Houston because it makes James Harden go full video game mode with the sliders all the way up and travels turned off. Take tonight for example, as Harden dropped 45 points (13-of-21 FG, 12-of-14 FT), 17 rebounds, seven triples, nine assists, three steals and six turnovers…
A line like that doesn’t even surprise anyone anymore, as Harden has a 43.5 usage rate with Westbrook off the floor with per-36 stats of 39.8 points, 8.2 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks and 5.0 triples. It certainly doesn't seem like he's ready to give up his title as the best fantasy basketball player in the world just yet.