Fantasy Basketball: Breaking down everything you need to know for the playoffs
We take a look at the schedule for every team on the bubble of the playoff picture down the stretch.
As we head into the final weeks of the NBA regular season, the playoff picture increasingly comes into focus. While some teams are locks to join the 16-team bracket, others are fighting and scraping to climb the standings and into the top eight of their conference, sealing an invite to what's arguably the most exciting postseason in sports.
For the elite teams that have already clinched a berth, there's still a bit of jockeying to be done, as one or two positions can make the difference between an easy walk through the early stages of the bracket, or a decidedly more difficult journey. Several games down the stretch will make or break playoff aspirations for a number of teams, and we'll run down pivotal situations that could well determine who remains when the dust settles.
KEY BUBBLE MATCHUPS IN THE WILD, WILD WEST
Only 2.5 games separate fifth through 10th place in the Western Conference, and it will be a fight to the finish to see who can claim the final two spots. And that's assuming that Portland, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Minnesota hang on. Only 1.5 games separate the Timberwolves and Pelicans, who are tied for fifth, from the Clippers, Jazz and Spurs, who find themselves in a three-way tie for seventh.
If any of those teams experience a late-season slump, or even a two or three-game skid, it could drastically impact the standings. Let's take a look at some key games that each team will need to reach the playoffs in the coming weeks.
OKLAHOMA CITY: TOUGH ROAD AHEAD
Aside from two easy games against Atlanta and Memphis, every team on the Thunder's schedule from here on out is in the thick of the playoff race. If OKC can win half of these games, they'll likely secure a spot, but if they stumble, it could get interesting. If things get desperate for the Thunder, the most pivotal game may occur against the Pelicans on April 1, when both teams will be at a critical juncture in their playoff quest.
NEW ORLEANS: CAN THE PELS AVOID THE WARRIORS?
Aside from a three-game back-to-back-to-back that makes up for the indoor rain-out that occurred earlier in the year, the Pelicans have a relatively easy schedule and considering their excellent play of late, they're in a good position. Even so, they'd likely prefer to be the sixth seed, so they can avoid the Warriors and the Rockets in the first round. The aforementioned April 1 matchup against the Thunder will be pivotal, but they face Golden State on April 7 with less than a week to go – it could be the difference-maker between a top-six seed and the seventh or eighth spot.
MINNESOTA: ON EASY STREET, BUT BARELY
With two games against Memphis and four other games against teams with no chance for the playoffs, Minnesota looks like it has the potential to move up a couple of spots. Even so, the Wolves do play Houston on Sunday, and they face off with the Nuggets twice during the final week of the season. Those matchups could be a difference-maker for both teams, but they're shaping up to be especially critical for Denver.
L.A. CLIPPERS: MAKE-OR-BREAK MOMENT
The Clippers looked like they wouldn't even be in the conversation earlier in the season, but they are making a run with a rag-tag crew of cast-offs, rookies, ex-G Leaguers and a few established vets. The Clips will need to play better than .500 ball to make the playoffs, and two crucial games come this week, courtesy of a Thursday/Friday back-to-back against the Rockets and the Thunder. If they drop both contests, it'll be an uphill battle, especially with a matchup with Portland looming on Sunday. After that, the Clippers hit the road for a four-game trip that includes stops in Minnesota, Milwaukee, Indiana and Toronto. Overall, the Clippers play only two non-contending teams – Phoenix (Mar. 28) and the Lakers (Apr. 11) – the rest of the way.
UTAH: WINNING WAYS SEAL THE DEAL
The Jazz have currently won seven straight games and have only lost two of their past ten. Even though Donovan Mitchell has cooled off a bit, Rudy Gobert has been out of sight since returning from injury. Utah should go 3-0 against the Hawks, Kings and Grizzlies this week, which would set them well on their way to creating some separation at the bottom of the race. Two big games come at the end of the season, as the Jazz will play back-to-back against the Warriors and the Trail Blazers in games 81 and 82.
DENVER: NUGGETS ON THE ROPES
The Nuggets suddenly find themselves in 10th place, despite a fairly decent post-All-Star-break record, but their worst nightmare is in the making. They have been terrible on the road, and two-thirds of their remaining games are away from Denver. Luckily, the Nuggets have no more back-to-backs left, but they will endure a seven-game road trip that features a tough East coast stretch with games against the Heat, Wizards, Sixers and Raptors before a stop in Oklahoma City on Mar. 30. After that, the Nuggets face six more playoff contenders to close out the regular season.
SAN ANTONIO: UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY
The Spurs have only missed the playoffs five times EVER. Can Kawhi Leonard save them? If he does come back this week, he could be the shot in the arm they need to get over the hump, but it will be a tough road, especially when you look at their last stretch of games. San Antonio starts its march with a homestand that includes dates with the Pelicans, Timberwolves, Warriors, Wizards and Jazz. Then, the Spurs head to Milwaukee and Washington before finishing out with five of their final seven games against contending teams.
Assuming the Spurs, themselves, stay in contention, their final game of the season against the Pelicans on April 11 could be the difference between the eighth seed and watching from home.
EASTERN CONFERENCE: PREDICTABLE OUTCOME – MOSTLY
The top teams are pretty much set, and barring some late losing/winning streaks, the Raptors, Celtics, Pacers and Cavs will likely comprise the top four, with the Wizards, Sixers, Heat and Bucks left to figure out the rest. The most crucial game will likely be the Cavs-Wizards matchup on April 5th. Depending on how each team plays, the Wizards could make a play for the fourth spot with a win here. Heading into Wednesday night, the Cavs only trail the third-place Pacers by a half-game, while holding a 1.5-game lead over fifth-place Washington.
Right now there is a six-game gap between the eighth and ninth place team in the East. The Pistons and the Hornets sit in ninth and tenth respectively, and they will basically need to play perfect basketball to even get close to sniffing the eighth seed.
CHARLOTTE: NEVER THE BRIDESMAID... OR THE BRIDE
The Hornets can never seem to put it all together, and this year is no exception. One bright spot is that seven of their remaining 14 games are against non-playoff teams. The Hornets would need a ton of help to even be in serious contention for the eighth seed, but a home-and-home against Pacers on April 8th and 10th will be pivotal if that's somehow the case. As of Wednesday, Charlotte's Losing Magic Number is eight, which will likely reduce on its own. Currently, the probability of the Hornets making this jump is about one percent.
DETROIT: IN GRIFFIN WE (DON'T) TRUST
Basically, Blake Griffin makes or breaks this team. Andre Drummond is always going to show up with double-double numbers, but the recent injury to Reggie Bullock and underwhelming backcourt play make the Pistons look a lot like a team that doesn't warrant playoff consideration. Unlike the Hornets, the Pistons don't have it easy looking forward.
Detroit is currently in the midst of a six-game road trip that includes matchups with the Blazers, Nuggets and Rockets. The Pistons will have to win at least two of those to stay relevant, and the only way they will be able to do that is with Griffin and Drummond's help. In short, things are bleak.
MIAMI: PROBABLY, BUT YOU NEVER KNOW
The remaining schedule for Miami is charmed by eight non-playoff teams, including two games each against the Knicks and the Hawks. If the Heat struggle against any of these bottom-dwellers, things could get interesting. Miami also has tough games against the Thunder, Cavs, Pacers and Wizards remaining, but its final game against the Raptors on April 11th could ultimately be meaningless for both teams.
MILWAUKEE: GIANNIS GETS IT DONE
Six of the Bucks' remaining games are against sub- .500 teams. They also face only four surefire playoff teams, so if anyone is going to suffer a huge drop, it won't be the Bucks -- unless , God forbid, something happens to Giannis Antetokounmpo. The only question here is who they will play come playoff time, and that will likely change on a daily basis moving forward. Consecutive games against the Nets, Knicks and Magic on April 5-9 should help right the ship for a team that's looked increasingly shaky of late.
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