Three things to Know: With one week to go, breaking down playoff pictures in East, chaotic West
Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.
1) With one week to go, bottom half of West playoff race remains chaotic
What Adam Silver and the league office wanted with the play-in tournament was for teams, fans, and the media to focus on who was getting into the postseason and not on who was tanking for Victor Wembanyama (or any particular year’s No.1 pick). What he wanted was this — there is chaos and a great race for the 5-8 seeds and Dallas struggling to even make the play-in despite having one of the game’s best players and a second superstar.
Let’s break it down:
• After this weekend, the top four spots are locked in. That’s not mathematically official yet, but it might as well be.
Denver was still without the injured Nikola Jokić Sunday but still beat the Golden State Warriors (who lost again on the road), the Nuggets have a three-game lead over the second-place Grizzlies with four to play. The Grizzlies, who fell to a Bulls team playing well, has a couple of game cushion over a Kings team that is stumbling toward the finish line after clinching — they lost to the tanking Spurs on Sunday. The Suns are now 4-0 when Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Devin Booker play and might be the team to beat out West right now, but they enter the playoffs in fourth.
• Seeds 5-8 are chaos, with all four teams having 38 losses. The two spots to avoid the play-in — and the better two seeds of the play-in — are wide open.
The hottest team in this group might be the Lakers, who are finally healthy, have Anthony Davis playing like it’s the bubble again, and have won three straight including beating the nine-seed Timberwolves on Friday (and the hapless Rockets Sunday). The game to circle on your calendar: Lakers at Clippers on Wednesday night; the winner of that one has the upper hand in getting a top-six seed. The Pelicans have the hardest remaining schedule of this group (games against the Grizzlies, Kings and Knicks, but how hard are those teams trying this week) but also are playing well behind a resurgent Brandon Ingram, who outdueled Kawhi Leonard in a Pelicans win on Saturday.
If you believe in the Warriors, you believe in the muscle memory of the playoffs. And Stephen Curry. (I remain unconvinced based on this season’s performance.)
• Seeds 9-10 have a team that expected better and one that did not. This is not where the Timberwolves expected to find themselves (or we expected them to be, for that matter), but they finally have Karl-Anthony Towns healthy, have a better fit at the point in Mike Conley, and they are a legitimate threat to come out of the play-in, even if they have to win a second game on the road.
Oklahoma City continues to impress — especially Jalen Williams (smart people are making his case for Rookie of the Year) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Honestly, I am debating SGA or Luka Dončić for fifth on the MVP ballot, the Thunder guard has been that good. First-team All-NBA also is reasonable.
The Dallas Mavericks look like a broken team. Could Dallas climb into the play-in? Sure, but they are a game back and it is essentially two because the Thunder have the tiebreaker. Mathematically it could happen, the Thunder have the tougher remaining schedule (Grizzlies, Warriors, Jazz) but Luka and Kyrie Irving need to get hot enough to cover up the Dallas defense and win out (Kings, Spurs, Bulls). The Mavs do not look like a team ready to string together three wins.
It is going to be a wild off-season in Dallas.
2) The East playoff chase is far more settled, except the bottom of the play-in
There is far less drama in the East playoff chase, where things are largely settled except for a few seeds. Let’s take a look.
• Boston could get the top seed — and getting the top seed matters. The Heat have the inside track on being the No.7 seed and the No.2 seeds first-round matchup, then the two seed likely faces the 76ers in the second round. That is a gauntlet. The path for the top seed to the conference finals is far less daunting (sorry, Cleveland).
Boston is two games back of Milwaukee with four to play, but the Celtics have the tiebreaker. Both teams play the 76ers this week — Philadelphia could have an impact on who it faces in the first round. The bottom line, the Celtics can catch the Bucks but will need some help from Milwaukee to get there.
• Seeds 3-7 are pretty much set. The 76ers are the third-best team in the NBA and legit title contenders (in my view), but they are still third in the East. Cleveland is fourth and not an easy out in the playoffs (three straight 40+ point games for Donovan Mitchell, making his All-NBA case), but they need Jarrett Allen back consistently and healthy to solidify the defense. Credit to the Knicks, who clinched a playoff spot with Sunday’s win over the Wizards — it’s going to be hard to leave Tom Thibodeau off Coach of the Year ballots or not have Jalen Brunson as an All-NBA guard, but both are in brutally deep fields and deserving men are going to miss the cut.
The Nets have a two-game cushion and the tiebreaker against the Heat, they would need to lose out and Miami win out to give up that spot. The Heat can start selling tickets for the first play-in game, they will host it.
• Seeds 8-10 are where the chaos is in the East. The Hawks, Raptors and Bulls could end up in any order — Atlanta sits eighth now after an OT win over Dallas Sunday, but the Raptors and Bulls are playing better basketball (both 7-3 over their last 10). Look for the Bulls to climb up, they have a much easier schedule (they do face the Bucks, but also have the Pistons and Mavericks) while the Raptors have the Bucks and Celtics left, and the Hawks have the Celtics and 76ers on the docket.
The game to circle on the calendar is Tuesday: Atlanta at Chicago. That will have a big say in how things play out.
3) Why Victor Wembanyama is unlike any other
LeBron James said Victor Wembanyama “is more like an alien” than a unicorn.
If you want evidence, here you go. Watch the 7'3" player out of France take a comfortable step-back 3 — and when it clanks off the front rim, he gets his own rebound for the putback dunk.
That is your No.1 pick come June. No questions asked.