With 146 days now in the books, the 2020-21 NBA regular season will now come down to only the last three days. With 98 percent of the season in the books, only two of the 20 playoff seeds across both conferences have been locked in: the San Antonio Spurs at No. 10 in the Western Conference and the Boston Celtics at No. 8 in the Eastern Conference. The other 18 will need to be decided in the coming days, and one of the most important battles in those races played out on Thursday night.
When the Phoenix Suns took on the Portland Trail Blazers, a staggering six teams were directly impacted. The Utah Jazz at No. 1 are watching their backs as Phoenix pushes for home-court advantage, and the No. 3-seeded Los Angeles Clippers have a chance to catch the Suns if they lose at least two more games. Portland, meanwhile, is trying to fend off the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 5 seed, so with the enormous implications of that battle in mind, let's dive into where things stand with three days left on the slate.
The play-in plot thickens
The universe seems to sorely want the Lakers and Clippers to do battle in the most anticipated first-round series in NBA history. Entering Thursday, the two were separated on the bracket, as the Lakers were No. 7 and the Clippers were No. 3. Here's the problem: Phoenix vs. Portland presented a sort of catch-22.
Had the Suns lost, they would have led the Clippers by only a single game with two remaining. Considering Phoenix had lost three of its past four entering this game, that appeared distinctly possible, especially if the Suns wanted to intentionally avoid the Lakers in the first round (a sensible strategy considering how badly Anthony Davis dominated them on Sunday). In other words, it would have been highly possible that the Clippers could have jumped up to No. 2 and set themselves up for the Lakers. However, now that the Suns have won, the Lakers and Blazers are now tied in the loss column. Portland has the tiebreaker, but their final game of the season is against the Denver Nuggets. If they lose that game and the Lakers win their final two against the Pacers and Pelicans, they'd jump up to No. 6, setting up a No. 3 vs. No. 6 first-round matchup. There was no favorable outcome to this game as far as avoiding a first-round Lakers-Clippers series goes. Phoenix's win, in some ways, made it likelier.
It also put the Blazers in a complicated situation. Unlike the Lakers, they aren't about to welcome a four-time MVP back into their lineup. If Portland is in the play-in, it's DEFCON 1. Their season is fully on the line against opponents that are roughly at their level. Portland can avoid this by beating the Nuggets, but Denver still has a chance to jump up to No. 3, so they should still be playing whoever is healthy in that game.
Oh, and we should probably talk about the basketball side of the equation here. It's no secret that Terry Stotts is on the hot seat, and he might have made it harder with his fourth-quarter game management. Trailing by one, this controversial foul sent Devin Booker to the free-throw line with a chance to win the game.
Here's where things get difficult for Stotts: he decided to challenge the foul call. In a vacuum, that wasn't a terrible decision. This is hardly a clear foul. The problem was that losing the challenge cost Portland its final timeout, so when Phoenix took the lead back, Portland couldn't advance the ball or draw up a play for Damian Lillard. Hindsight is 20-20, but if the Blazers do wind up losing in the play-in round, that is a decision that is going to draw scrutiny for a coach that is already under a microscope.
History in Sacramento
The Sacramento Kings lost to the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday. That's a sentence that has been typed plenty of times over the past decade-and-a-half, but tonight was a special occasion. The Grizzlies eliminated the Kings from playoff contention with the win, making 2021 the 15th straight season in which the Kings will miss the postseason. That ties the NBA record set by the 1977-91 Los Angeles Clippers for the longest in NBA history. Donald Sterling is never company an NBA team should want to keep. Let's take a closer look at some of this streak's lowlights:
- The Kings have had 10 head coaches during the drought. George Karl made the NBA Finals in Seattle, but couldn't make the playoffs in Sacramento. Mike Malone got fired by the Kings and is now leading a contender in Denver. Dave Joerger gave them their best season of the drought, a highly entertaining 39-43 campaign that maximized De'Aaron Fox by letting him run in transition. His reward? A pink slip.
- Some notable draft decisions from this period: Tyreke Evans over Stephen Curry, Bismack Biyombo over Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker, Thomas Robinson over Damian Lillard, Ben McLemore over Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nik Stauskas over Zach LaVine, Willie Cauley-Stein over Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss over Domantas Sabonis, Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic, and what the hey, let's list Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic a second time because it was absolutely inexplicable even at the moment. In 2015, they gave up an unprotected first-round pick and swap rights on another first-round pick to dump enough salary to sign Monta Ellis in free agency. Ellis declined their offer, reportedly bigger than Indiana's at the time, but the Kings had already made the trade. The player picked with the selection they swapped with Philadelphia? Jayson Tatum. Suffice it to say there were many, many opportunities to turn this around.
- Only one King has made an All-Star Game during the drought: DeMarcus Cousins. Only three years before the streak began, the Kings had two All-Stars in a single season as Brad Miller and Peja Stojakovic both made it.
We may never see a stretch of failure like this again in NBA history. You could even argue that it's more embarrassing than the Clippers streak because the Clippers never had the chance to sneak in through the play-in round. Sacramento couldn't even do that. The Kings are on the right path at this point. Fox and Tyrese Haliburton will likely get them out of the lottery eventually. But for now? Gawk and marvel at this streak all you want. The Kings have earned it.
Philly can't blow this... right?
The 76ers are as close to clinching home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference postseason as a team can come. One win, or one loss by both the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks. That's all it will take. They're so close. But they were that close last Sunday, and they haven't sealed the deal. Now, Joel Embiid is playing through a non-COVID illness and the 76ers have lost their last two games. The Nets and Bucks continue to win. All of the pressure is now on Philadelphia.
Now, before you panic, remember: the schedule-makers are on Philly's side. Their last two games are both at home and are both against the tanking Orlando Magic. The Sixers have the best home record in the East, and even if he was compromised, Embiid played on Thursday. The Magic played too. None of their starters scored more than 12 points.
It would be very, very hard for the Sixers to botch the No. 1 seed. It's waiting for them on a silver platter. But they're cutting it kind of close here. If Embiid isn't feeling well this weekend, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that they fall down to No. 2 or 3. The Sixers will already be underdogs against Brooklyn or Milwaukee. Playing a Game 7 on the road against either would be a nightmare. They need to take care of business against the Magic now so they don't have to face an extra road game in Brooklyn or Milwaukee later.