The final day of the NBA season didn’t have the excitement that the Wolves-Nuggets play-in game brought us last year, but it did have plenty for us to chew on. The bottom half of the lowly East needed all 82 games to get its seedings and last spot straight (the Pistons hung on by a game and get the treat of facing the Bucks in Round 1). The top of the West sans Warriors went down to the wire as the Blazers and Nuggets both tried to maneuver results to get favorable seedings—and avoid the Warriors for as long as possible. With the playoff field now set, here are three of most interesting story lines we’re watching.
We’re Getting Two Cutthroat Matchups in the West
OK, so maybe we didn’t get Nuggets-Wolves Part 2, but the maneuvering at the end of the Blazers’ and Nuggets’ respective games on Wednesday was nearly as scintillating. The Nuggets were down by double digits to the Wolves before making a comeback and winning by four. The Blazers were down 28 points to the Kings and came back all the way to beat them by five while playing only six players the entire game. Both of their wins meant that the Rockets tumbled to the 4-seed and will have to face the Utah Jazz in Round 1. Given that the Jazz and Rockets were the two best teams in the West (non-Warriors division) since the All-Star break, that’s a matchup that will weed out one potential Warriors beater sooner rather than later. The winner gets the Warriors in Round 2, which could mean an early Western Conference finals rematch.
On the other half of the bracket, Portland-OKC is a fiery matchup between two teams with some history of getting into it, though the Thunder swept the season series. Not having Jusuf Nurkic will hurt Portland’s chances, but the battles between Paul George and Russell Westbrook and Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum will be awesome. The winner of this series could see itself in the West finals given that they’ll get either a not-as-talented Spurs team or a young Nuggets team in the second round. Buckle up.
The Suddenly Hurt Celtics vs. the Scrappy Pacers
Marcus Smart is going to miss four to six weeks with what the Celtics have diagnosed as a “partial avulsion of his left oblique abdominal muscle off of his iliac crest.” Yikes. Smart was reportedly too hurt to even go through an MRI on Tuesday after injuring his oblique in Sunday’s meaningless game against the Magic. The injury makes Celtics-Pacers a far more interesting chess match, and it would hurt Boston’s chances of getting past the second round, should the team make it there. In a season full of ups and downs, this feels ominous.
Smart would have matched up against Bojan Bogdanovic, who has been the Pacers’ best offensive weapon since Victor Oladipo went down with a season-ending quad injury. Now, Brad Stevens will have to make an adjustment before the first game, which could mean running out a starting lineup with Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward, the latter of whom has looked better as of late. The one clear advantage Boston had over Indiana was talent. But losing Smart, who is not only a defensive force but has posted career highs in field goal (42 percent) and 3-point shooting (36 percent) this season, leaves a void. Brown has been inconsistent in his new role this season (and has been dealing with back spasms), but perhaps starting again would reignite him. Hayward, meanwhile, was always going to be the X factor for this team; now he may have to be the answer to the Smart problem.
Embiid’s Health Is a Thing?
Joel Embiid has a sore left knee. Or, at least that’s the reason given by the Sixers (along with, of course, “load management”) in regard to the center missing five of the past seven games and 14 since the All-Star break. Before Philly’s final regular-season game against the Bulls on Wednesday, GM Elton Brand was asked about Embiid’s health going into the playoffs. Brand said he was “optimistic” that Embiid would be ready for the playoffs. He also said it was “possible” that Embiid could not be ready for the first game against the Nets, who secured the 6-seed with a win over the Heat on Wednesday). Brett Brown also added that the team will release a longer statement on Embiid’s status.
Um, this is a problem? Embiid’s injury was never thought to be serious, though there’s a case to be made that any Embiid injury should be taken seriously given his history. But should this linger into the first round (maybe even later?), the Sixers could have their hands full with the Nets, whom they split the season series with, 2-2. Their first-round matchup could be the most entertaining in the East, pitting a team with a backcourt advantage against a team that struggles to defend guards; a team with a dominating center against a team that lacks in that area. That is, if Embiid is healthy.
Embiid’s case as a top-five MVP candidate this season was built on the fact that his team craters when he doesn’t play. The Sixers were eight points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor, by far the highest number of any player on the team, and they were 8-10 when he sat. If Embiid misses any more time or isn’t 100 percent in the postseason, it will elicit questions about his heavy minutes load early on this season—he averaged 33.7 on the season, a career high.