What’s At Stake Over The Final Stretch Of The NBA Season?
With about three weeks left in the NBA regular season, not too much has been decided. One thing we do know is that, in all likelihood, LeBron James will miss the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, a disappointing start to his Lakers stint. Still, there’s plenty left undecided for the other superstars in the league and their playoff hopes.
The Top Seeds in Both Conferences
As they have all season, the Raptors and Bucks continue to battle it out for the East’s top seed. Toronto is just 2.5 games back of Milwaukee in the standings (all stats as of 3/15/19) and have the league’s second easiest remaining schedule with Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Brooklyn, as the only established playoff teams left on their schedule (Miami and Orlando are battling for the 8th seed). The Bucks don’t have the most difficult schedule going forward either, but they’ll have to fight off late season fatigue and close out the season strong to hold on to the top seed in the East.
Out West, the Denver Nuggets sit just one game back of the Golden State Warriors. Neither team can afford to take nights off with their remaining schedules out West and they still have one head-to-head matchup left on the schedule. The Warriors have also struggled as of late, which brings us to our next point…
The End of the Warriors’ Dynasty?
Despite sitting atop the Western Conference standings, the Warriors have had a couple rough stretches this season. Most recently going 5-6 over their past 11 games, including back-to-back losses against the Heat and Magic, and a recent loss to the last-place Phoenix Suns. It’s safe to say that’s not what’s expected with a team starting five All-Stars. Kevin Durant is a free agent after the season and showed some frustration after their loss to the Suns. DeMarcus Cousins will likely depart after one season in Golden State, regardless of how their season ends. After showing he’s healthy, Cousins is due for a big pay day this offseason.
The Warriors are the most talented team in the league and have proved to be unstoppable when they’re in rhythm. Over the next few weeks, they’ll need to show they can get back to gelling and playing championship-level basketball. Otherwise, their reign over the league, and possibly Durant’s tenure in the Bay, could come to an abrupt end.
The Rest of the Western Conference Playoff Picture
As per usual, the standings are extremely tight out West. Seeds 3-5 and 6-8 are separated by just half a game respectively. The Rockets, Trail Blazers, and Thunder are fighting for two home-court spots. Meanwhile, the Jazz, Spurs, and Clippers are likely playing to avoid facing the Warriors in the first round, as that could result in a quick exit for all three teams.
Led by reigning MVP James Harden, the Rockets have an easy remaining schedule, but depending on how both teams play over the next few weeks, the Rockets and Thunder could be playing for home-court on the last Tuesday of the regular season. There’s only 3.5 games between the 3 and 8 seeds, so the West is wide open and any lull for these teams could be devastating come playoff time.
The Battle for Home Court in the East
After Milwaukee and Toronto, the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Boston Celtics make up the second tier of playoff teams in the East. The Pacers (3rd) and Celtics (5th) are separated by just two games in the standings going into the final stretch of the season. Home-court advantage could be the deciding factor in a series between the Celtics and 76ers, but given their track record this season (Boston has won all three matchups this season), Philadelphia likely wants to move up into the 3-spot and avoid a first-round matchup with Boston altogether.
While they’ve won three of their last four, and are confident they can beat any team they play after seeing ups and downs all season, the Celtics would love to move up to the 3rd or 4th seed and get home-court advantage for at least a round given their road record this season (17-17). The Pacers have continued to fight despite losing their best player in Victor Oladipo, and aren’t to be taken lightly. They rank second in the league in defensive efficiency and could spring an upset if they make it out of the first round.
Harden’s Back-to-back MVP Case
James Harden’s MVP case may be cooling down a bit. He’s shooting just 27 percent from three in the month of March, but the Rockets have continued to win, going 5-1 in that stretch and 9-1 over their past 10 games. Harden also still leads the league in scoring at 36 points per game and has brought the Rockets to 3rd place in the West after their 11-14 start. He remains the favorite for MVP in some sportsbooks, but Giannis Antetokounmpo also has a very strong case for the award. Giannis’s stellar two-way season has led the Bucks to the league’s best record, and he continues to produce highlights each and every night.
If they keep playing like they have over the past couple weeks, the Rockets have a shot at taking the 1 or 2-seed in the West (they currently sit 4.5 games back). The award might already be his to lose, but if Harden could move the Rockets even further up in the standings out West, he’d all but confirm his spot as the first back-to-back MVP since Stephen Curry two years ago.