NBA’s 5 biggest storylines ahead of playoffs: Lakers fate, tight MVP run, fight for No. 1 in the East

There are only two weeks left in the 2021-22 NBA regular season before the playoffs begin, and only three teams have claimed playoff spots. The Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies are the only two teams that know which seed they will have in the playoffs, as they respectively clinched the top two spots in the West. Other than that, only the Miami Heat earned a playoff berth in the East after already clinching their division. With less than 10 games remaining for each team in the league, there’s still plenty of playoff positioning to do.

As teams race toward the regular season finish line on April 10, there are plenty of intriguing storylines as we enter the final leg before the playoffs. From which team will be the No. 1 seed in the East in the playoffs, to determine whether the Los Angeles Lakers could completely miss the play-in tournament, here are the five biggest stretch scenarios.

Race for the No. 1 seed in the East

As of this writing, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are tied for first place overall in the East, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks just half a game behind them. So it’s safe to say that the battle for the top seed in the Eastern Conference is going to be played out. The Celtics have played the best basketball of the four teams — and the entire NBA — posting a 13-2 league record since the All-Star break. Boston also ranks first in offensive rating and third in defense since that span, as Jayson Tatum’s MVP-level play lifted the Celtics after a slow start to the season.

But in terms of schedule strength, Boston has the toughest remaining among the top four seeds in the East, with games against the Grizzlies, Heat, Bucks, Bulls and Raptors. However, given that the Celtics have just crushed their opponents since late February, it doesn’t matter who they play against; that’s how dominant they were.

On the other hand, the Sixers have the easiest remaining schedule of the four teams, with four matchups split between the Pacers and Pistons. Since the trade that brought James Harden from Philadelphia, the Sixers have mostly looked like the formidable championship contender everyone expected of them. So they have as much of a chance as anyone else of claiming first place. Then there’s the defending champion Bucks, who have held steady through the season despite injuries to key players, and seem to be hitting their stride at just the right time with the No. 1 seed on the line.

The team most at risk of not being in contention for the top spot is ironically the team that currently holds part of it. The Heat have stumbled lately, going 4-6 in their last 10 games after holding a rather firm grip on the No. 1 spot for more than a month. They have a favorable schedule to finish the season, but recent losses to the lottery-bound Knicks and a depleted Warriors squad without its three biggest stars suggest easy opponents aren’t a guaranteed win for Miami these days.

The Nets get scarier with full-time Kyrie

Kyrie Irving played his first home game of the season on Sunday night after New York City Mayor Eric Adams changed the vaccination mandate that now exempts New York-based entertainers and athletes who play for local New York teams. York. Irving’s full-time status will help Brooklyn as it fights for playoff positioning in the final two weeks of the season, which got much murkier after Sunday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

The loss to the Hornets on Irving’s home debut tied the Nets with Charlotte for eighth place in the East. It also put the Atlanta Hawks within 1.5 games of the Nets and Hornets, making the home stretch for play spots even more intriguing. Although the Nets lost a crucial game against the Hornets, which gives Charlotte the tiebreaker of the season, having Irving for the last seven games instead of the last two road games remaining on the schedule will make a significant difference. for Brooklyn.

In March alone, we’ve already seen Irving lose performances by 60, 50 and 43 points, and his production will help take some of the scoring responsibility off Kevin Durant and improve Brooklyn’s guard rotation. in the rear area. Looking ahead to the playoffs, if the Nets get one of the last two spots in the East, having Irving available every game makes it a tough draw for any team in the East. Remember, the Nets entered the regular season as title favorites, and despite a few bumps in the road, this is still a team that includes Durant and Irving, and that alone should be scary enough for them. opposing teams.

Fight for West’s mid-pack positioning

The West’s playoff picture is just as wild as the East’s, especially the No. 3-6 seeds. The Dallas Mavericks beat the Utah Jazz on Sunday, giving them a one-game lead in fourth place and bringing them within two games of the Warriors for third place. Then there are the Denver Nuggets, who are just one game behind the Jazz for fifth, and even lower are the Minnesota Timberwolves who are just 1.5 games behind the sixth seed. .

Stephen Curry’s foot injury will define where the Warriors land in the West standings, as they went 1-3 in his absence. He’s expected to be out for at least another week with the injury, which isn’t a good time given the tough matchups against the Grizzlies, Suns and Jazz to come. The Jazz have lost their fourth-ranked stronghold in the West, and they’re now facing a four-game losing streak with games against the Suns and Grizzlies still on the schedule.

Perhaps the most intriguing team in this pack is the Mavericks, who have been one of the hottest teams in the league since the All-Star break with an 11-5 record. Dallas’ recent success can be attributed to Luka Doncic shaking off some early season rust and returning to All-Star form. Spencer Dinwiddie’s insertion was also a revelation for the Mavericks, consistently providing an offensive spark every time he comes on. It feels like the Mavs are playing with house money for the rest of the season, as they have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league and own tiebreakers over the Warriors, Nuggets and Timberwolves. Dallas is in a favorable spot to climb to No. 3 or as low as No. 5 in the West.

The Lakers may miss the play-in

A loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday night dropped the Lakers to 10th place in the West. To make matters worse, the San Antonio Spurs are hiding in 11th place with just one game between the two teams. No one could have predicted the Lakers would be in this position at the start of the season, battling for one of the last playing spots, but here we are.

On the bright side, the prospect of Anthony Davis returning could help turn things around before time runs out. Davis hasn’t played since Feb. 16 as he suffers from a sprained right foot, but ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reports the All-Star big man could be back in lineup in the first week of the season. April. It would be the faint silver lining in a dark cloudy sky for a Lakers team that has never quite found its footing this season.

If Davis returns fully healthy, it’s good to get around 23 points and 10 boards for the Lakers, which would be a huge offensive boost for a team that ranks 23rd in the league in offensive rating. Then there’s the fact that this team still has LeBron James, who is once again setting up an unprecedented season for someone his age. With a healthy Davis and LeBron (who are unfortunately dealing with more injuries that could be a problem) playing like he has been, the Lakers would still be tough in the playoffs…if they can get there.

Tight MVP race

This season really feels like one of the closest MVP races we’ve had in quite some time. There isn’t really a clear favorite, as you could ask a handful of people and you might get Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid as different answers. Jokic may be the frontrunner, given he carried a Nuggets team without two of their best players to the No. 6 seed in the West. He does so while leading virtually every forward metric this season.

Yet then you look at Embiid’s case for MVP, he took a similar path to Jokic. Embiid also carried a Sixers team that was left without its second-best player in Ben Simmons who was eventually traded before the deadline. Even though he now has a stronger co-star in James Harden, Embiid is still the star of the show for Philadelphia, and if they manage to get the No. add to Embiid’s argument for winning the award. .

Just as the Sixers claiming the No. 1 spot in the East would help Embiid’s narrative, would the Nuggets falling in the play-in tournament hurt Jokic’s case? Because both teams are still battling for playoff positioning, and the last handful of games could play a role in deciding who edges out the other for the prize.

About Ethel Partin

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