Although we still don't have any seeds in the Western Conference playoffs completely decided, San Antonio's loss to the Lakers last night makes a few things much more likely. For one thing, the Thunder will almost certainly be the number one seed in the West. Oklahoma City's magic number is down to one -- one win in their final two games, or one San Antonio loss, and the Thunder finish first. There's no way that OKC is losing at home to both Sacramento and Milwaukee, so it's really all over. Kevin Pelton in his ESPN PER Diem column (Insider required) puts the odds at 99.6 percent.
The Lakers win also vastly improves their chances of squeaking into the playoffs, even without Kobe Bryant. The Lakers' magic number is likewise down to one, but they have fewer chances to get that one. Even if Utah wins out in road games against Minnesota and Memphis, the Lakers will still advance to the postseason with a win over Houston on Wednesday.
Speaking of Utah, you really have to feel for them. They desperately needed the Spurs to beat the Lakers last night, and had to sit at home watching NBA-TV as Gregg Popovich finished a one possession game with a lineup of Tim Duncan, Matt Bonner, Danny Green, Gary Neal and Cory Joseph. Pop said afterward that Tony Parker wasn't in because he was playing poorly (1-10) not because he was hurt. Still, don't you play your best player on the assumption that he'll step up? Parker sat the final nine minutes of the game. The score was tied when he exited, and the Lakers immediately went on a 15-4 run to open their biggest lead of the game. So yeah, Parker was really killing the Spurs.
Utah's chances of catching the Lakers may depend on the level of motivation of the opponents on Wednesday. Utah (a poor road team) at Memphis looks like a loss -- but if Memphis loses in Dallas tonight and the Clippers win against Portland tomorrow, then the Grizzlies will be locked into the five seed and may choose to rest up for the playoffs. On the other hand, if Houston wins in Phoenix tonight they might be totally satisfied with the seventh seed (facing the slumping Spurs) rather than trying for the sixth seed (which would probably give them the red-hot Nuggets). Ah, the crazy drama of the final week.
Which brings us to the Nuggets-Clippers-Grizzlies dance. With just two games remaining, all the permutations of the 3-4-5 seeds are still possible for all three teams, but it's highly unlikely that the Grizzlies will climb up to the three seed. Pelton has run hundreds of simulations on the last two games, and they show Denver finishing with the three seed 71.6 percent of the time, the Clippers moving up 28 percent of the time, and Memphis with just a 0.4 percent chance of finishing third.That 28 percent number for the Clippers seems pretty optimistic to me, but Denver does have a losing road record. Here's Pelton's explanation (Insider required):
Saturday's Clippers win in Memphis was one of the season's biggest games. It not only gave the Clippers the inside track on home-court advantage should the two teams meet again in this year's opening round but also kept alive the Clippers' hopes of finishing third. Denver is still the heavy favorite for the third seed; if the Nuggets can win tonight in Milwaukee, they wrap up the schedule with a home gimme against the Phoenix Suns. The Clippers would need a Denver loss and to win out hosting Portland on Tuesday and visiting Sacramento on Wednesday in what is sure to be an emotional game.
If the Nuggets finish third, the Clippers would be the fourth seed and the Grizzlies fifth, but ,as I detailed on TrueHoop last week, home-court advantage would still be decided by record. Because the Clippers win any tie as division champs, two wins would secure home court one way or another. So Memphis needs help to get home-court advantage, and the Grizzlies also have the most difficult remaining schedule -- at Dallas tonight and home on Wednesday against a Utah team that might be fighting for its playoff life.
The Nuggets have won 22 straight at home, so the idea that they would lose to the last place Suns in Denver on Wednesday is pretty far fetched. If they win in Milwaukee tonight I'm guessing their odds of finishing third move into the 95 percent range or higher. So obviously Clips Nation becomes Bucks Nation tonight. Unfortunately the Bucks have been dreadful lately and have nothing to play for since they're already locked into the eighth seed in the East. Two Bucks starters, Brandon Jennings and Larry Sanders, have been sitting out to rest injuries, and coach Jim Boylan doesn't sound like a guy who's pushing hard for more regular season wins:
We'll try to keep our guys fresh and keep them playing enough that they're feeling in a rhythm and ready to compete. I don't want to sit them out completely, but at the same time we want to be cautious.
Of course, Denver will be missing two starters also, as Kenneth Faried twisted his ankle last night to join Danilo Gallinari (done for the year after ACL surgery) on the sidelines. Denver did get Ty Lawson back last night.
In contrast to the West, six of the eight Eastern Conference seeds are completely decided. Only the 5-6 race between Atlanta and Chicago is yet to be determined. Then again, with the Heat representing the 800 pound gorilla in the postseason, why would anyone want to be the fifth seed? The sixth seed goes into the other side of the bracket and wouldn't face the Heat until the Conference Finals, while the fifth seed would head to Miami in the second round if they make it that far. With little difference between Indiana and Brooklyn in the first round, the sixth seed is infinitely preferable in my opinion. If I'm Chicago, Noah and Deng are resting until the playoffs start.
There are 11 games tonight. The key ones all start at 5 PM Pacific, with Memphis in Dallas, Denver in Milwaukee, and Utah in Minnesota. The Mavs and/or Bucks can do the Clippers a huge favor tonight, a win from either one of them making life much better for L.A. The Memphis game is on NBA-TV.
New York at Charlotte, 4:00 PM
Chicago at Orlando, 4:00 PM
Miami at Cleveland, 4:00 PM
Washington at Brooklyn, 4:30 PM
Philadelphia at Detroit, 4:30 PM
Denver at Milwaukee, 5:00 PM
Memphis at Dallas, 5:00 PM, NBA-TV
Sacramento at Oklahoma City, 5:00 PM
Utah at Minnesota, 5:00 PM
Houston at Phoenix, 7:00 PM
San Antonio at Golden State, 7:30 PM, NBA-TV