The 2020-21 NBA regular season is less than a week away from completion, but you wouldn't know it looking at the standings. Aside from the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 1 in the Eastern Conference, every other seed is in serious jeopardy. So with the jockeying in full swing and teams desperately trying to manipulate the bracket, here are the four most important takeaways from Monday's slate of games.
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1. History was made in Atlanta
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new triple-double king in the NBA. Russell Westbrook notched his 182nd triple-double on Monday with 28 points, 21 assists and 13 rebounds, passing Oscar Robertson for the most in NBA history. Afterward, congratulations came in from around the NBA for the historic achievement.
If you can believe it, this might not be the last triple-double achievement of the season for Westbrook. While the shortened 72-game schedule will prevent him from matching his NBA record 42 triple-doubles in a season, the fact that he has 36 gives him a chance to have the most efficient triple-double season ever. If he notches triple-doubles in his final three games, he will have done so in 39 of 72 total games, meaning he did so in 54 percent of all Wizards games. In his 42 triple-double season, he only did so in 51.2 percent of Oklahoma City's games. In other words, not only does Westbrook now have the all-time record, but this is turning into perhaps the greatest triple-double season ever.
2. The Bucks stop here
It should have been so easy. Beat four teams below .500 and defend their home court against the Miami Heat, and the Milwaukee Bucks would have been the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. That would've given them a play-in opponent in the first round and secured home-court advantage in the second against the Brooklyn Nets. What could go wrong?
How about an 87-point half by the San Antonio Spurs? Milwaukee's defense collapsed on Monday, and their hopes for the No. 2 seed might have gone with it. They now need the Nets to lose one of their next four games to get it back. All four of their remaining games are against sub-.500 opponents: those Spurs, the Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unless someone manages to stun Brooklyn, the Nets will host their second-round series against the Bucks.
That, in a nutshell, is not necessarily devastating. True, 80 percent of Game 7s are won by home teams, but the Bucks would still only need to win one road game to defeat the Nets. What's far more concerning is the state of their defense with so little time left in the season. Milwaukee has eschewed the drop-coverage scheme that gave it the No. 1 defense in basketball in each of the past two seasons in order to embrace a more playoff-centric style that has hurt them in the regular season. Growing pains were natural... in February and March. It is now May, and the Bucks have the NBA's 17th-ranked defense since April 1. It doesn't matter where they play the Nets if they can't stop them, and based on how they're looking right now, they can't.
3. Portland's season in a nutshell
The Portland Trail Blazers scored 50 points in the first quarter on Monday. It's a tremendous accomplishment, but not one entirely unexpected for the NBA's No. 4 offense. Portland has the firepower to shoot with anyone, but their porous defense is weak enough to supercharge even the worst opposing offenses. The Blazers were playing the worst team in the NBA on Monday, yet by the fourth quarter, their lead fell to only five points.
Only the Blazers could come so close to squandering a 50-point quarter. Had they done so, they likely would have resigned themselves to the play-in round. Their three remaining games are against the Jazz, Suns and Nuggets, and the Lakers need only two Portland losses to pass the Blazers. Unlike the Lakers, the concept of the play-in round should terrify Portland. They don't have LeBron James waiting in the wings. The defending champions can feel far more comfortable about the idea of winning one out of two games than a Portland team that still struggles this much defensively can. Portland, fortunately, managed to pull this one out, but if its defense doesn't step up against the three contenders left on their schedule, the Blazers are still in real danger of falling into the play-in round.
4. All that Jazz
The Blazers are trying to prevent the Lakers from passing them. The Jazz are trying to prevent the Lakers from playing against them. Right now, the Lakers are expected to finish No. 7 in the Western Conference. All the Jazz would need to avoid them in the first round would be for them to win their first play-in game against the No. 8 seed. But if the Jazz fall to No. 2? They're be directly in LeBron's warpath.
By losing to the Warriors on Monday, the Jazz gave up their margin for error. Phoenix has the tiebreaker, so a single loss would give the Suns control over the top seed. That Portland game will be Utah's greatest test. If they can get through the Blazers, they should be able to handle the Kings and Thunder.
Of course, the downside to remaining at No. 1 is that it might position the Jazz to face the player who destroyed them on Monday. Stephen Curry scored 36 in the Golden State victory. It was his seventh-straight 30-point game, and when you include his previous 11-game streak, he has the two longest streaks of 30-point games in basketball.
The Jazz still aren't healthy. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell remain out. But Curry's excellence suggests that there are no easy matchups available in the Western Conference. Utah would rather avoid the Lakers as long as possible, but that doesn't mean they're excited to face Curry.