Three things to know: Breaking down playoff races with two weeks remaining
The NBA regular season has two weeks remaining, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.
1) Breaking down the East playoff chase — the 76ers are in the driver’s seat
Sunday’s playoff-intensity, dramatic, back-and-forth battle between the Bucks and Nets — with two former MVPs trading big shots — showed us something.
It showed us just how important this play by Ben Simmons was.
Simmons game-winning tip-in, combined with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks beating the Nets earlier in the day, moved Philadelphia back into first place in the East. By half a game, but still in first.
That Nets/Bucks game showed why getting the No. 1 seed in the East is critical. That game was a knock-down, drag-out battle (keep reading to No. 2 on this list for more) and, if Philly can hold on to the top seed, it is a preview of a likely second-round matchup. One that will wear the winner down. The top seed will have an easier route to the conference finals through Boston or Miami or New York — teams not playing at the contender level of the big three in the East.
The 76ers are only half a game ahead of the Nets for the top seed (one game ahead in the loss column), but Philly also has the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA — a game against the Heat is the only game the 76ers have left against a playoff/play-in team. That makes them the heavy favorite to hold on to that seed.
Milwaukee is three games back of Philadelphia for the top seed and 2.5 back of Brooklyn — its only hope of getting to the top seed is beating Brooklyn in the second game of this two-game set on Tuesday, then hoping the 76ers stumble down the stretch. It’s a long shot, the Bucks are very likely the three seed.
After that, the red-hot Knicks are the four seed, with Miami and Atlanta tied for five/six, and Boston sitting as the seven seed — all four of those teams are within 2.5 games of each other, and the Celtics have the easiest schedule of any team in the East, while the Knicks have the hardest. Nothing is settled in that group.
Charlotte has LaMelo Ball back and sits as the eighth seed, but the Pacers are the nine seed and just half a game back (and tied in the loss column). Getting the eighth seed matters — whoever has that has to win just one of two play-in games to advance to the playoff proper, finish in the nine seed and a team has to win both play-in games.
The Wizards seem locked in as the 10 seed and will get the final play-in spot. Toronto is 2.5 games back (three in the loss column) and would need a lot of help to jump past Washington.
2) Can we please get seven games of Bucks vs. Nets
This felt like a playoff game.
The defenses played well but could not stop the elite scoring — Kevin Durant put up 42 for the Nets but was outdueled by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had 49 and led Milwaukee to the 117-114 win.
As noted above, Brooklyn and Milwaukee are the two and three seeds in the East — this could well have been a second-round playoff preview.
Except that the Nets will add James Harden to the mix (*knock on wood*).
Even so, there are a few things for Bucks fans to like out of Sunday’s win, beyond the Greek Freak going off.
At the top of the list was how Jrue Holiday made this a real and dangerous big three for the Bucks (along with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton). That was the hope when signing Holiday, but the results have been up and down during the regular season. Sunday, we saw how Holiday gives the Bucks improved shooting but also shot creation. The Bucks big three has size, strength, and real versatility of attack — they are a handful to stop.
Holiday also brought elite defense against Kyrie Irving, especially in the second half. Although nothing defensively was as impressive as Antetokounmpo’s block on Durant late in the game.
Tuesday’s rematch should be fun.
One other great part of this game: P.J. Tucker praising Durant after KD scored over him. That’s a pro who appreciates the game.
3) The West playoffs, where the Lakers are flirting with the play-in game
I’m not sure why I am breaking the West down, it’s going to be radically different in 48 hours. That’s not a joke. — in the past 48 hours, every seed in the West except No. 8 changed. More changes are coming.
That said, let’s take a look at the tiers.
• Phoenix and Utah are tied for the No. 1 seed — and the Suns have the tiebreaker. But the Jazz have an easier schedule the remaining eight games. Home court would matter to both of these teams, so expect them to make a push for it.
• Denver is red hot, having won 9-of-10 and is now half a game ahead of the Clippers for the three seed. However, the Clippers have a much easier schedule the rest of the way. Los Angeles is getting healthy, but they keep tripping over their own feet with ugly losses, while the Nuggets seem to be on a mission since Jamal Murray went down (Michael Porter Jr. is on fire and the Nuggets are 9-1 without their point guard).
• Dallas, Portland, and the L.A. Lakers are in a three-way tie for the 5/6/7 seeds. The bad news for Lakers fans is not only are they banged up and feeling disconnected, but Los Angeles also has the toughest remaining schedule of the three. Dallas has by far the easiest (but the Mavs are banged up too, with Kristaps Porzingis out). This could go any direction, but all of them are desperate to avoid the randomness of the play-in games.
• Memphis, Golden State, and San Antonio will be the 8/9/10 seeds — New Orleans is too far back and not playing well enough to catch up — but the order is up in the air. All three teams are within one game of each other. The Grizzlies have the easiest remaining schedule of the group, while the Spurs have the hardest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA.
The Suns and Jazz look at those three and the potential play-in game for the one seed, and they would both like to avoid Stephen Curry and the Warriors.