NBA

NBA playoff picture, standings, magic numbers: Lakers projected for top-four seed; Warriors grip play-in spot

We’re under a month out from the close of the 2020-21 NBA regular season. The last day of games is May 16. So far, the Utah Jazz are the only team to have clinched a true playoff spot, meaning a top-six seed, while the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves are the first two teams to have been officially eliminated from postseason contention

Quick reminder on this season’s new playoff format: The top six seeds in each conference are in, with the final two seeds up for grabs via two play-in tournament series. In each conference, No. 7 will play No. 8, with the higher seed having to win one game while the lower seed would have to win two. The winner of that 7 vs. 8 series gets the No. 7 spot, with the loser awaiting the winner of the 9 vs. 10 play-in series to decide the No. 8 seed. 

Below is what the playoff picture looks like entering play on Monday, April 26. Teams are listed in order of current seed along with the SportsLine projected finishing seed and different magic number scenarios. A “playoff spot” means a top-six seed. This post will continue to update for the remainder of the season as we keep track of these races down to the wire. 

NOTE: Our SportsLine model, developed by predictive data engineer Stephen Oh, simulates the entire season 10,000 times to produce the most unbiased and precise projections possible.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(Current playoff teams)

Utah Jazz (No. 1 seed)

As stated above, the Jazz became the first team to clinch a playoff spot, thanks to Portland’s loss vs. Memphis on Sunday. Utah has the league’s best record at 44-16 and the sixth-easiest remaining schedule. It also currently holds a two-game lead over No. 2 Phoenix in the loss column. 

  • Magic number to clinch top-four seed: 3
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 24th
  • Projected seed: No. 1

The Suns fell to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night, but maintain a one-game lead over the Clippers (in the loss column) for the No. 2 seed. Catching Utah for the No. 1 seed is within range. The Suns play the Jazz on Friday, and they have already clinched the tiebreaker having won the first two head-to-head meetings against Utah this season. Phoenix cannot finish outside the second play-in series at worst. 

  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 2
  • Magic number to clinch top-four seed: 6
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 8th
  • Projected seed: No. 2

Los Angeles Clippers (No. 3 seed)

The Clippers have won four straight and nine of their last 10. They’re on Phoenix’s heels for the No. 2 seed, just one game back in the loss column with the tiebreaker clinched via a 2-0 lead on the three-game season series. The Clippers play the Suns this Wednesday in a game that will go a long way toward determining the potential No. 2 seed. The Clippers have also clinched at least a spot in a play-in series. 

  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 1
  • Magic number to clinch top-four seed: 4
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 19th
  • Projected seed: No. 3

The Nuggets, who have also clinched a spot in at least a play-in series, are four games up on the No. 5 Los Angeles Lakers in the loss column and lead the season series 1-0. Denver has one game left against the Lakers. It also has one more matchup on Saturday with the Clippers, who hold a two-game lead in the loss column over the Nuggets. The Clippers-Nuggets season series is currently tied 1-1, meaning that final head-to-head will determine the tiebreaker. As you’ll see below, our SportsLine projection actually has the Nuggets falling behind the Lakers to the No. 5 seed. 

  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 5
  • Magic number to clinch top-four seed: 8
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 10th
  • Projected seed: No. 5

Los Angeles Lakers (No. 5 seed)

Anthony Davis is back and LeBron James should follow relatively soon. The Lakers have a soft schedule over the last week and our SportsLine projections have them going on a run to end the season and jumping Denver for the No. 4 spot, which would give the Lakers home-court advantage in a 4-5 first-round series vs. the Nuggets. The Lakers and Nuggets play next Monday, which will decide the tiebreaker with the season series currently tied 1-1. 

That said, there’s a lot of speculation built into that forecast. For the time being, the Lakers have lost three straight and sit in fifth place  in the West. They hold just a one-game lead over No. 6 Dallas in the loss column and are three games in the loss column from falling into a play-in series. Technically, they do not control their own destiny for a top-four seed. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in series: 4
  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 9
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 18th
  • Projected seed: No. 4

Dallas has made a move of late, winning three straight to jump the Portland Trail Blazers for the current No. 6 seed. Two of those wins came vs. the Lakers, narrowing the gap, as mentioned above, to two games in the loss column for the No. 5 seed. Dallas also owns the tiebreaker over the Lakers via a 2-1 edge in the head-to-head season series. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in series: 5
  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 12
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 29th
  • Projected seed: No. 6

(Current play-in teams)

Portland Trail Blazers (No. 7 seed)

The Blazers have lost five straight and eight of their last 10 to fall below Dallas and into the current play-in picture. As you’ll see below, our SportsLine projections have them falling even lower. The Blazers do not control their own destiny for a top-six seed as they trail the Mavericks by two games in the loss column. The good news if they do own the tiebreaker over the Mavs via a 2-1 season-series advantage with no head-to-head matchups remaining. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in series: 6
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 6th
  • Projected seed: No. 9

The Grizzlies are tied with No. 7 Portland in the loss column but have played one fewer game to this point, which is why they trail in the standings by percentage points. Memphis has won two straight, and it just so happens both those wins were over Portland. That gives Memphis the tiebreaker with one more game remaining between the two teams set for Wednesday. Our SportsLine projections have the Grizzlies rising by season’s end. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in series: 8
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 28th
  • Projected seed: No. 7

In the loss column, the Spurs are one game back of No. 8 Memphis and one game up on the No. 10 Warriors. San Antonio has no remaining games against either of those teams and has lost the tiebreaker to both via head-to-head. The Spurs also have the league’s toughest remaining schedule according to opponent win percentage. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in series: 9
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 1st
  • Projected seed: No. 10

Golden State Warriors (No. 10 seed)

The Warriors have won seven of their last 10 to strengthen their grip on a play-in spot. Entering play on Monday, Golden State has a four-game lead in the loss column over No. 11 New Orleans and a six-game lead over the No. 11 Kings, whom they beat on Sunday night. The Warriors have a back-to-back against the Pelicans next Monday and Tuesday and can pretty much seal their play-in spot with a sweep. As you’ll see below, our SportsLine projections have the Warriors moving up to the No. 8 seed and playing Memphis in the first play-in series. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in series: 6
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 25th
  • Projected seed: No. 8

(Clinging to play-in life)

  • New Orleans Pelicans (No. 11 seed) — Four losses back of Golden State
  • Sacramento Kings (No. 12 seed) — Six losses back of Golden State
The Warriors have their sights set on a play-in spot.
Getty Images

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(Current playoff teams)

Brooklyn Nets (No. 1 seed)

The Nets have Kevin Durant back and have won two straight to jump Philly for the East’s current No. 1 seed. But that lead is tenuous — just one game in the loss column and the Sixers own the tiebreaker. Brooklyn has clinched at least a spot in the first play-in series and is one win from clinching a top-six seed. Our SportsLine projections have Brooklyn ultimately securing the top seed, which would almost certainly allow it to avoid Milwaukee in the second round. 

  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 1
  • Magic number to clinch top-four seed: 4
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 13th
  • Projected seed: No. 1

The Sixers have lost four straight. They have gone from what looked like a relatively comfortable lead over Brooklyn for the No. 1 seed to leading the No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks by just two games in the loss column. As mentioned above, falling out of that top seed is a big deal. If current seeds hold, the East’s No. 1 seed would get the winner of Atlanta/Boston in the second round while the No. 2 seed would most likely have to play the Bucks in the conference semis. The good news is Philly has the league’s softest slate from here to May 16. 

  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 3
  • Magic number to clinch top-four seed: 5
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 30th
  • Projected seed: No. 2

Milwaukee Bucks (No. 3 seed)

The Bucks have a real shot at jumping Philly for the No. 2 seed, which would mean home-court advantage in a potential second-round matchup. The Bucks are two losses back of Philly and own the tiebreaker via a 3-0 season-series sweep. Milwaukee also has the league’s fifth-easiest schedule down the stretch. 

  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 5
  • Magic number to clinch top-four seed: 8
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 26th
  • Projected seed: No. 3

Knicks fever is in full force. They’ve won nine straight, their longest streak since 2014, and if the playoffs were to start today they would be hosting a first-round series at the Garden. The Knicks are tied with the No. 5 Hawks record wise, but sit above them because they have swept the season series 3-0. The bad news is the SportsLine projection has New York dropping two spots by season’s end in part due to its tough remaining schedule. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in spot: 3
  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 9
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 5th
  • Projected seed: No. 6

Atlanta Hawks (No. 5 seed)

The Hawks are flying high. They’ve won seven of their last 10 and are 20-7 under Nate McMillan. Chances are Atlanta isn’t going to catch Milwaukee for the No. 3 seed, but a top-four seed is right there and is, in fact, expected to be obtained via SportsLine projections. As mentioned, the Hawks are tied with the No. 4 Knicks, who hold the current edge by owning the tiebreaker having swept the Hawks 3-0 on the season. Atlanta’s lead on No. 5 Boston is two games according to record, but it’s effectively three games because Atlanta owns the tiebreaker over Boston via a 2-1 season-series mark. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in spot: 4
  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 8
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 23rd
  • Projected seed: No. 4

The Celtics are two losses back of the No. 4 Knicks and No. 5 Hawks entering play on Monday. Boston has a 1-1 head-to-head record against the Knicks, and the two teams play on the final day of the regular season. That’s the upside. The downside is the Celtics are tied with the No. 7 Heat, whom they play twice over the season’s final week. Those two games could very well determine who secures a top-six seed and who has to battle through at least one play-in series. Our SportsLine projections have Boston finishing at No. 4 and facing the Hawks in the first round. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in spot: 6
  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 9
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 23rd
  • Projected seed: No. 5

Miami Heat (No. 7 seed)

The Heat are relatively secure to end up with at least the No. 9 seed, as they’re four losses up on the No. 10 Washington Wizards. They’d obviously like to stay at No. 7, which carries with it the advantage of only having to win one play-in game to secure a playoff berth. It’ll be tight. Miami holds a one-loss lead over the No. 8 Charlotte Hornets, who have already sealed the tiebreaker. The two teams play once more this Sunday. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in spot: 6
  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 10
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 22nd
  • Projected seed: No. 7

Charlotte Hornets (No. 8 seed)

As mentioned above, the Hornets control their own destiny to pass Miami for the No. 7 seed. They trail the Heat by one loss and have one more head-to-head matchup to make up that ground with the tiebreaker already in their pocket. SportsLine projection has the Hornets sticking at No. 8 and having to beat Miami twice in the first play-in series to secure a postseason berth. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in spot: 8
  • Magic number to clinch playoff spot: 12
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 21st
  • Projected seed: No. 8

The Pacers have won three straight and are still within range of avoiding a play-in series, just two losses back of No. 6 Boston. First things first, the Pacers would like to pass Charlotte for No. 8, which would keep them from having to win two play-in series. They only trail the Hornets by one loss, but SportsLine doesn’t see it happening, largely because Charlotte owns the tiebreaker with a 2-1 head-to-head advantage, which equates to an effective two-game gap in the standings. Indiana does not control its own destiny for a top-six seed. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in spot: 8
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 15th
  • Projected seed: No. 9

Washington Wizards (No. 10 seed)

The Wizards have won eight straight to crawl into the bottom of the play-in picture. They hold a two-loss lead over the No. 11 Chicago Bulls, but Chicago owns the tiebreaker. They also hold a two-loss lead over the Toronto Raptors, who also own the tiebreaker with one head-to-head matchup remaining. The Wizards have one game left against Indiana. If they have designs on moving up to No. 9, that game is probably a must-win, but the more pressing concern is holding off Chicago and Toronto. 

  • Magic number to clinch play-in spot: 11
  • Strength of remaining schedule: 16th
  • Projected seed: No. 10

(Outside looking in)

  • Chicago Bulls (No. 11 seed) — Two losses back of No. 10 Washington
  • Toronto Raptors (No. 12 seed) — Two losses back of No. 10 Washington


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