By beating the Hornets on Tuesday in a game that was never in doubt, the Hawks sapped a lot of the drama out of tonight’s festivities. Atlanta will be the No. 5 seed, which means they’re likely to rest regulars on the second night of a back-to-back in Indiana.
The problem with that is Chicago and Miami would both really appreciate a Pacers loss. In a three-way tie breaker, between those teams, Indiana would be eliminated. The Bulls could be the No. 7 seed if they end up even with the Pacers, while the Heat need either of those teams to lose and a home victory over Washington to get in at 41-41.
Paul Millsap has played only four games since missing eight with a knee injury that nearly sabotaged the team’s season, helping the Hawks to a 3-1 record. He sat on the second night of the only back-to-back since his return and figures to be inactive. Center Dwight Howard and point guard Dennis Schroder sat that night too, so it wouldn’t be suprising to see Mike Budenholzer give his three most important players the night off. Kent Bazemore has been dealing with a knee bone bruise, so sitting him would be worth looking at too. Thabo Sefolosha just returned from an eight-game absence due to a groin strain against Charlotte and is hoping to play to work out the rust, so he could be in the mix. Still, it’s likely that the Pacers will have a backup-filled opponent to vanquish as they look to end the regular season with their fifth straight win, earning them the No. 7 seed.
That would likely set up a Paul George-LeBron James matchup we haven’t seen since the 2014 Eastern Conference finals that wrapped up in Miami. Cleveland, barring a LeBron-less win over Toronto and a Celtics loss to a Bucks team that plans to rest All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, will be the No. 2 seed. It still hasn’t been determined whether Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love will play since they’ve had knee issues over the last few issues, but James is citing a calf strain as the reason for his absence and preparing for the postseason. Tristan Thompson has missed four consecutive games due to a thumb sprain that ended his Ironman streak at 447 games, but he’s been cleared to return and will play to build up a little rhythm before the weekend.
It remains to be seen whether Toronto will go all out effort-wise, having already set a franchise record for victories with 50. The plan is to dress everyone and get a win in Game No. 82 as they look to sustain a rhythm, but the game won’t change anything from a seeding standpoint. Although beating the Cavs would help avoid a season sweep and tie them for the second-best record in the East, the Raptors would lose the tie-breaker since they’ve dropped the first three games in the series.
Although beating the visiting Raps without James is certainly possible, Cleveland also needs Milwaukee to pull off a short-handed upset over the Celtics in order to climb into the No. 1 spot. In addition to grounding the Greek Freak, the Bucks also excused Khris Middleton, Matthew Dellavedova and Tony Snell from flying into Boston. They’ll all be in action at Toronto this weekend in the 3-6 pairing.
Stranger things have happened, but the Celtics are looking to improve to 30-11 at home, don’t plan on resting anyone and value the top seed since they know they can use any edge they can get against a Cavs team that won three of four during the regular season.
Boston’s likely first-round opponent looks to be Chicago, which only needs to defeat Brooklyn at home to guarantee itself a playoff berth after missing out last year for the first time in eight seasons. A Bulls win would also help avoid the first sub-.500 season since 2007-08 and everyone but point guard Rajon Rondo (wrist) is expected to play.
Brooklyn has made itself no friends in South Florida by announcing that it will sit six players in the season finale, including veterans Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin, Trevor Booker and Quincy Acy. The Nets, one of the two largest underdogs (+15) on the regular season’s final day, will ride young guards Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead and Archie Goodwin in addition to forwards Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, K.J. McDaniels, Andrew Nicholson and Justin Hamilton. Dinwiddie, LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson combined for 54 points, 20 boards and eight assists in Saturday’s 107-106 upset of the Bulls, shooting 18-for-28. It remains to be seen whether they can come close to duplicating those numbers without Lopez and Lin to command attention.
Miami will face a Wizards team that it beat in D.C. this weekend to help extend its season. Hassan Whiteside scored 30 points in the 106-103 win and has been on a tear, but Washington may opt not to rest players despite being locked into the No. 4 seed. Starters John Wall (quad) and Otto Porter (back) have already missed time and may want to get back in a rhythm, while Bradley Beal expressed an interest in playing because winning 50 games for the first time since 1979, having already become the winningest Wizards team since they stopped being the Bullets 20 years ago.
Nothing has come easy for the overachieving Heat all season, so writing them off would be a mistake given the obstacles they’ve already overcome. Miami can avoid its second losing season in the three years since James left town by improbably finishing at .500 following an 11-30 start. Unfortunately, the Heat have put themselves in position where they need help that isn’t likely to come. Boston swept them 4-0 in the regular-season series, but the games were all competitive.
The Celtics could make their fans and backers awfully happy by securing the No. 1 seed with a win over the Bucks since it would help them eclipse their projected season win total of 52.5. Those who faded can’t be happy that the Bucks left so much talent behind in Milwaukee.
The Raptors won 50 games for the first time in their history, but still need one more to cash for their backers. It’s good news for over-backers that head coach Dwane Casey is dressing everyone and the Cavs aren’t, but winning in Cleveland is never easy. A victory at the Q would wrap up the NBA’s second-best home record behind Golden State. A Toronto win would tie Boston for the East’s top road mark.
Speaking of the Warriors, they’ll be looking to cash tickets for believers who waited for the initial number following the Kevin Durant signing to come down from 68.5 to the number it settled at, 66.5. Golden State needs one more win to get to 67-15 and are expected to play Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson together for the first time since Feb. 28. Draymond Green and Andre Iguoldala will rest and there’s no guarantee that Steve Kerr will play starters more than token minutes, but there should still be enough firepower in place to help end the Lakers’ improbable five-game winning streak that they haven’t really wanted any part of since it may cost them a lottery pick. L.A. chased its over with a rout over the Pelicans last night despite Metta World Peace leading the team with 18 points on 17 shots.
The Grizzlies are also favored to eclipse their projected win total with Dallas in town. The Mavericks lost at home to Denver on Tuesday and won’t play Dirk Nowitzki or J.J. Barea after both started yesterday. Harrison Barnes and Wes Matthews rested in the loss, so they could be available here. Memphis may not rest players but has already begun preparations for its upcoming with the series with the Spurs, making a win no sure thing. The Griz have lost eight of 11, so not coming up with a win to notch the over would be a rough beat for backers.
Two more teams will either equal their expected win totals or come up one short. Atlanta would need to pull off its short-handed upset in Indianapolis to reach the 44-win mark that was expected of it.
Sacramento routed Phoenix on Tuesday to put itself in position to equal the 33 wins oddsmakers forecasted, avoiding 50 losses for the fouth straight season and seventh time in eight years. The only year they didn’t lose 50 came in the strike-shortened ’11-’12 season, so the Kings have already won more games than they’ve managed since going 38-44 in ’08. Unfortunately, they’re Wednesday’s largest underdog, getting 16 at the Clippers. L.A. needs the game to guarantee its 4-5 series against the Jazz starts at Staples Center instead of Salt Lake City.
Utah needs to beat a full-strength Spurs squad and then have Sacramento upset the Clips in order to claim the No. 4 seed. Despite the long odds, the Jazz are playing Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and George Hill, who have all been in and out of the fold the last few weeks. That should make their matchup with San Antonio perhaps the night’s most watchable since a dress rehearsal feel could yield quality play.
We touched on this topics in the matchups above, but there are still a few more situations worth addressing.
There won’t be many games like the Spurs-Jazz that will feature both teams playing their best guys, but Timberwolves-Rockets may be one of them. James Harden will make one last argument in his case for MVP and will be joined by anti-rest advocate Patrick Beverley (shoulder) in the backcourt. Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene have all been in and out of the mix down the stretch but look to be available as Mike D’Antoni seeks rhythm entering the Thunder series. Minnesota lost to OKC on Tuesday night but are unlikely to pull back for the finale. Tom Thibodeau is true to his nature.
Russell Westbrook isn’t a lock to play for OKC against Denver, so check prior to tip-off for a determination. Doug McDermott (knee) sat against the Wolves and is unlikely to play, while Taj Gibson and Andre Roberson joined Westbrook in resting and may take another night off to ensure they’re fresh. The Nuggets rolled in Dallas despite shelving Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried, Will Barton and Jameer Nelson the rest of the way. Emmanuel Mudiay (ankle) may return tonight, but Michael Malone may just disperse minutes evenly as he did last night. Denver could earn a 40th win in a season for the first time since ’13.
The Knicks won’t have Carmelo Anthony or Kristaps Porzingis in the final home game of the season, which is why the 76ers have been installed as a road favorite at the Garden. Yes, the Phil Jackson era is going swell.
Anthony Davis (knee) and DeMarcus Cousins (Achilles) sat out Tuesday’s loss against the Lakers and aren’t likely to participate in the finale against the Blazers. E’Twaun Moore also sat with an ankle issue, so the same team that head coach Alvin Gentry chastised for lacking concentration may be out there together again. Veteran Jrue Holiday might escape playing a back-to-back, but the Pels will want to look for more production from Cheikh Diallo, who delivered 19 points and 11 rebounds at L.A. Damian Lillard has already announced his intention to play, and while you shouldn’t expect Terry Stotts to play his starters normal minutes, it looks like Portland will have most of its guys out there against New Orleans.