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USATSI

We are officially into the final week of the shortened 2020-21 NBA regular season. The final slate of games is Sunday, May 16, and there remains a lot to be decided with the play-in tournament beginning May 18 through May 21 followed by the start of the playoffs on May 22. Be sure to check this daily update to the ongoing playoff races as well as an explainer to the new play-in format.

Here are five things to watch over the final seven days of the regular season. 

1. Play-in pressure cooker

The playoff cut line is the No. 6 seed this season. Fall to No. 7 or 8, and you have to earn your way into the eight-team field by winning a play-in game, or two play-in games if you fall to No. 9 or 10. 

As it stands entering play on Monday, the Lakers are the No. 7 seed in the West, one game back of the No. 6 Trail Blazers. But Portland owns the tiebreaker, making that an effective two-game gap. Both Portland and L.A. have four games remaining. If the Blazers go 4-0 or 3-1, they seal the 6-seed. If the Blazers go 2-2 or 1-3, the Lakers can go 4-0 or 3-1 and jump Portland. 

It's not out of the question that Portland falls. The Blazers have three tough games remaining against the Jazz, Suns and Nuggets, all of which still have something to play for. The Lakers, on the other hand, have four pretty winnable games against the Knicks, Rockets, Pacers and Pelicans

In the East, things are a bit clearer on the 6-7 cut line. Entering Monday, the Heat have a two-game lead over the Celtics with the season series tied 1-1 and one head-to-head matchup remaining on Tuesday. Each team has four games left. If the Heat win that game on Tuesday, they lock up at least the No. 6 seed and avoid the play-in. If the Celtics win, they would be one back of Miami with three games to go and the tiebreaker in hand. 

2. The race to the bottom

The new NBA lottery system give an equal 14 percent chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick to the teams with the three worst regular-season records. The Houston Rockets, with 52 losses entering Monday, have the worst mark in the league and have, for all intents and purposes, sewed up one of those bottom three spots. The Detroit Pistons have the second-worst record at 20-49 followed by the Oklahoma City Thunder at 21-48. 

But then you have the Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic all at 21-47, just one game ahead of OKC and two games ahead of the Pistons. The race to the bottom is going to be tight -- with a loaded 2021 draft class further incentivizing what could be pretty egregious tank jobs over the last week. 

3. LeBron's last-minute ramp-up

LeBron James is reportedly aiming to return to action on Tuesday vs. the Knicks. In addition to the Lakers fighting to stay out of the play-in tournament, it's equally important to track to how LeBron looks on a sprained ankle that isn't expected to be 100 percent until the offseason. 

The Lakers are obviously going to need LeBron to be elite to have a chance to win a second straight title, and that's not just about health. LeBron has played a total of 60 minutes over the past six weeks. He's not just going to come back firing on all cylinders. Anthony Davis has been rounding himself into top form for the last three weeks. 

Davis appears to be peaking, but LeBron has to be right there with him and the runway is short. It's not as though the Lakers are going to have an easy first-round series for LeBron to use as a tune-up. They're likely going to have to win a play-in game just to make the field. If current seeds hold, and the Lakers do in fact get through the play-in game, they would face the Phoenix Suns in the first round. 

4. Curry vs. Beal for scoring title

The scoring-title fight is going down to the wire. Unfortunately, Bradley Beal is out for the next two games with a hamstring strain, so his 31.4 PPG average will stay put for the time being. Entering play on Monday, Stephen Curry is at 31.9. If Beal doesn't play the rest of the way, Curry would need to average 24.7 PPG over the Golden State Warriors' final four games to finish ahead of Beal at 31.42 PPG for the year. 

That seems pretty likely given that the Warriors are in need of victories to stay in the No. 8 seed, which would mean only having to win one play-in game rather than two to qualify for the playoffs. Curry is going to be hunting his offense. But if Beal can get back on the court to close out the Washington Wizards' season and can throw a couple big games up, this could get really tight. 

5. Potential positioning to avoid Lakers

The battle for the No. 4 seed is tight in both conferences, and it carries significant implications. In the West, the No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers lead the No. 3 Denver Nuggets by one game with four games each remaining, and Denver owns the tiebreaker.

If we look at this race through the lens of avoiding the Lakers as long as possible, it would, as things currently stand, be best to end up No. 4. The Lakers are currently No. 7, and if they win their first play-in game and "upset" Phoenix in the first round, they would get the winner of the 3-6 matchup in the second round. Do the Nuggets really want to move up? Might the Clippers look to quietly, shall we say, down-seed themselves accordingly? 

Now, nobody's saying for sure that the Clippers would actually want to put off a potential Lakers series. An argument could be made that the sooner you play the Lakers the better, while LeBron James is still working his way back into shape and rhythm. Also, it's not a given that the Lakers will end up at No. 7. They could lose their first play-in game and sneak in at No. 8, which would reverse their bracket and set up a 4-8 conference semifinal if the Lakers were to "upset" the Utah Jazz. 

Also, the Lakers could still pass the Dallas Mavericks for No. 5, in which case, if the Clippers were to try to fall back, they could end up in a 4-5 first-round series with the Lakers. There are still a number of scenarios that could play out, and they'll change nightly. Keep an eye on this.