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The Two Biggest Games Tonight

On the final day of the regular season, it looks like the last game to end will have significant playoff implications.  Three games, including Clippers-Lakers, are scheduled for 7:30 tips.  But the Phoenix at Utah battle will likely start last of the three and end last, because it's the ESPN game, and they schedule more and longer breaks for National TV.  They'll also hold the tip for the end of the first game in the double header, Memphis at OKC (a meaningless game from a playoff standpoint, so I'm not sure why they're not showing Chicago- Charlotte in that time slot).  By the way, take a look at tonight's NBA schedule to see the power of ESPN.  Every game on the slate - all 14 of them - start at either 5 PM or 7:30PM.  That's so that ESPN could choose the best of each time slot for their final double header of the regular season.  Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, and they used their power to show Memphis-OKC when there are literally five other games in that time slot with playoff implications.  Well played, ESPN.

(In fairness, I don't really know why they have this uniquely timed schedule on the final day.  It may in fact be to discourage certain shenanigans that can occur when you know the result of another game.  FIFA employs this strategy on the final day of pool play in the World Cup.  It seems a little less necessary at the end of an 82 game season, and the fact that West coast games aren't tipping off at 8 Eastern sort of invalidates the whole thing. Portland will know the result of the San Antonio game before they begin, so if the Spurs lose then the Blazers don't have to win, just as a for instance.)

Anyway, back to Phoenix at Utah, which probably won't end until after 11PM in Salt Lake City, forcing the Utahans to stay up past their bed times.  The Suns secured a home court matchup in the first round with last night's win over Denver, so this one doesn't really mean as much to them.  In fact, you could make a pretty compelling case that they DON'T want to win this game, since a loss would set up a first round meeting with Denver (Phoenix won the season series 3-1) while a win would get them either Portland (who won 2 of 3 from the Suns) or San Antonio.  The Suns don't want any part of the Spurs in the playoffs, given their recent post-season history with them.  There are however two perceived advantages to Phoenix to winning the game and finishing third in the conference -

  1. they avoid the Lakers until the conference finals (perhaps not an advantage at all given how LAL is playing right now versus how DAL is playing right now) and
  2. they would have home court against the Jazz if those two teams were to meet in the Western Conference Finals (pretty far away, and not terribly likely though not out of the question).

If Phoenix' motivation is somewhat unclear going into the game, the Jazz on the other hand are absolutely desperate for a win.  The middle section of the Western Conference race is so jam-packed that the Jazz could finish anywhere from 2nd in the conference to 5th in the conference in the last game of the regular season.  That's the difference between a guarantee of home court advantage in the first two rounds, to being on the road from the beginning of the playoffs.  For the Jazz, a team that won 80% of their home games this season versus barely winning half their games on the road, that's a huge difference.  The results of this one game will determine 3rd seed or 5th seed for the Jazz - open at home against either Portland or San Antonio, or open on the road in Denver.  They could make it up to the 2nd seed if Dallas were to lose to Spurs tonight coupled with their own win over the Suns.  The irony there is that the 3 seed will probably end up facing a severely depleted Portland team, probably playing without Brandon Roy, in the first round, while the 2 seed will likely draw the red hot Spurs.  But in the second round, the 2 seed would host the 3 seed, so it's definitely preferable going foward.

San Antonio at Dallas and Golden State at Portland also have playoff implications, but Phoenix at Utah is the big one in the West.

In the East, the one to watch is the aforementioned Chicago at Charlotte game.  Unfortunately for the Raptors, Charlotte is locked into the 6th spot win or lose, so they may rest guys, and they won't be hyper-motivated.  This may be the break that Chicago needs to sneak into the playoffs for the second season in a row.  If Chicago loses and Toronto wins at home against the Knicks, then Toronto gets the 8th seed in the East.  If Chicago wins or Toronto loses, the Bulls get in.