It all comes down to this. After six months of NBA basketball, the regular season ends Wednesday … giving way to two more months of NBA basketball. But the bookend to this wacky regular season is all we could have ever hoped for. Here’s everything that’s at stake on the last day of the regular season:
The Battle for the West’s Final Spot
The most heated West playoff race in recent memory has come down to one game. Win and you’re in—those are the stakes of Wednesday night’s game between the Timberwolves and Nuggets in Minnesota. It marks the first time the NBA has had a regular-season winner-take-all matchup since 1997. It’s the thrill of an NBA Finals game combined with the stakes of an MLB wild-card play-in game.
Denver arrives in Minny riding a six-game winning streak, fresh off a season-saving grinder of a win against the Blazers on Monday night. Nikola Jokic has been a triple-double machine (he’s had two in his last two games), Paul Millsap is fitting in more and more, and Gary Harris returned last game from a knee sprain. The Nuggets are hot, and they’ve needed every one of those wins to stay in the hunt. Though they’ve disappointed this season relative to their preseason expectations, they’re getting a chance to redeem 71 games’ worth of performances in 48 minutes.
The Wolves, meanwhile, have won two in a row, but seem like they’re stumbling into the matchup. It seems like just yesterday that they were as high as the 3-seed, but now they’re fighting to break into the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. Jimmy Butler is back after missing six weeks following meniscus surgery, but seemingly more out of necessity than health. Andrew Wiggins does a disappearing act every other game. And Tom Thibodeau really does have no choice but to play his starters an inordinate amount of minutes. (Hmm, I wonder whether they’ll be tired.) But the Wolves are at home, surrounded by a crowd thirsty for a playoff berth. And you can make an argument that they’ll have the two best players on the floor in Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. It feels like that could be the difference.
Jazz vs. Blazers for the 3-Seed
The Jazz walloped the Warriors by 40 on Tuesday. For Golden State, it was a meaningless game, aside from the fact that it ensures the reigning champs won’t play the Jazz in the first round. But for Utah, the result opened up a shot at the 3-seed. The game may not be as significant as Nugs-Wolves, but Jazz-Blazers is also winner-takes-all, with the spoils being a potential second-round matchup against a hobbled Warriors team rather than the buzz saw Rockets. Praise the NBA schedule-makers, who had no idea it would turn out this way, but somehow had the magic touch with the finales in the West.
Russ’s Triple-Double Chase
I’m not a betting man. But there is no way that Russell Westbrook won’t grab 16 rebounds against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night. No way. Don’t tell me the odds, because it doesn’t matter. Come tipoff, Steven Adams will clear the runway, and Westbrook will be hounding the boards like he’s Wilt Chamberlain in order to secure a triple-double average for the season for the second time in a row.
And you know what? I respect it. At this point, what other choice does Westbrook have but to double down on his edgy, raucous, sometimes-inefficient but never-not-entertaining brand of basketball? You do you, Russ. We gotta enjoy you while your team is still around.
The Bottom of the West Is a Shuffleboard
New Orleans can finish 5th, 6th, 7th, or 8th— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 11, 2018
San Antonio can be 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, or 8th.
OKC can be 4th, 6th, or 8th
Denver can be 6th or 7th
Minnesota can be 6th, 7th or 8th
Utah can be 3rd, 4th or 5th, no lower.
Portland can be 3rd, 4th, or 5th, no lower.
Beyond the Nuggets and Wolves, the bottom of the West is still up in the air with one game left. The different scenarios have me feeling like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. If you’re waiting on the fates of the Thunder, Pelicans, and Spurs, there are two more important games to keep an eye on:
Oklahoma City at Memphis: The Thunder probably won’t lose to Memphis, but on the slim chance they do, OKC would fall to the 8-seed with the winner of Nuggets-Wolves jumping to the 6-seed; the winner of Spurs-Pelicans would then grab the 5-seed while the loser would settle at the 7-seed. If OKC wins, it will secure either the 4-seed (if Portland wins) or 6-seed (if Utah wins), but their opponent would be the same either way: the Jazz.
New Orleans at San Antonio: The Spurs need this win to avoid the Rockets and Warriors; a loss would move them to either the 7- or 8-seed. If the Pelicans win (provided the Thunder beat the Grizz), that’ll ensure them a matchup with the Blazers in the first round. If they lose, they’ll be the 8-seed and face the Rockets.
Toronto Aims for 60
The Raptors have already accomplished everything they need to this season. They changed styles to adapt to the times, won a franchise-record number of games, and handily took the 1-seed in the East. More so than in the recent past, it’s NBA Finals or bust. But Toronto will play the Heat to finish the season with one last regular-season benchmark on the line: 60 wins.
That may not seem like much, especially after Tuesday’s Warriors loss assured the Raptors home-court advantage in the playoffs against every team but the Rockets. But since 2010, there have been 12 teams that have won 60 games or more in a regular season. Five of those teams have reached the Finals (with this season’s Rockets still TBD), and nine of them have at least reached the conference finals.
The Bucks’ Win-Win Situation
Here’s an intriguing wrinkle that might not be as flashy as Nuggets-Wolves: A win or a loss for the Bucks in Philadelphia on Wednesday could be bittersweet. If the Bucks beat the Sixers, they’ll clinch the East’s 6-seed. But the Cavaliers would then clinch the 3-seed with a win over the Knicks, setting up a Cavs-Bucks first-round series. And facing LeBron seems like a nightmare matchup for an inconsistent Milwaukee team.
If the Bucks lose, they’ll likely finish seventh or eighth in the East (unless both the Heat and the Wizards lose, too), and thus last or second to last among all playoff teams. Why is that important? Well, the Bucks’ first-round draft pick is unprotected if it lands between pick no. 11 and pick no. 16. They are currently 16th in the pre-lottery order (though the loser of Nuggets-Wolves will leapfrog Milwaukee, so effectively 17th). A loss to Philly would potentially hand the Bucks, currently sixth in the East, a lower seed and take their first-rounder and send it to the Suns.
Given how vulnerable the 2-seed Celtics have looked since losing Kyrie Irving for the season, losing their final game to get an easier matchup with Boston might do a lot for the Bucks’ playoff hopes. But winning and keeping open the possibility of holding onto their own pick might be far too enticing. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Matthew Dellavedova will return Wednesday, which will help, though Philly, winner of 15 straight, may not sit anyone in order to ensure it nabs the 3-seed.
The Tank Race Finale
If you enjoyed Suns-Mavs on Tuesday night, then (1) I’m worried about you, and (2) you’re likely grieving the end of yet another tanking race for the ages. There’s little drama at the top of the lottery: The Suns have locked down the best odds in the league, and the Grizzlies have clinched the second-best odds. After that, it gets messier. The Hawks and Mavs are currently tied for the third-best odds, but they played their last games Tuesday (both losses, naturally). The Magic are hanging half a game behind them, meaning if they lose Wednesday to the Wizards, the three teams will be in a tie for the third spot that will eventually be broken by a coin flip.
After them, the Kings have a one-game advantage over the Bulls for the sixth-best odds. Sacramento faces the best team in the league in Houston, but one that also has nothing left to play for in the regular season, while Chicago plays Detroit. A Kings win and Bulls loss would lead to another coin flip.
Finally, New York will be on pins and needles Wednesday, too. (Not really.) The Knicks and Nets (whose first-round pick will go to the Cavs no matter what) are tied for the eighth-best odds, with matchups against the Cavs and Celtics, respectively, on the docket. Unless either N.Y.-based team surprises, we’re headed for, yes, another coin flip for the 8-spot. What a year for loose change this could be.
And one final housekeeping note: The Wolves will keep their first-rounder if they miss out on the playoffs; if they make it, the pick will go to the Hawks. That’s something!
An earlier version of this piece misstated the situation with the Bucks’ first-round pick. It also reversed the roles that Portland and Utah will play in Oklahoma City’s seeding.