The race for eighth in the Western Conference remains up for grabs, but the rest of the NBA playoff picture became clear Wednesday.
All the postseason matchups in both conferences were set following Wednesday’s games with the exception of who will face the West’s top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. The Portland Trail Blazers (34-39), Memphis Grizzlies (33-39), Phoenix Suns (33-39) and San Antonio Spurs (32-38) all still have a chance to compete in the play-in series to determine the eighth spot in the West entering Thursday’s pivotal slate of games.
The LA Clippers clinched the West’s second seed with a 124-111 win over the Denver Nuggets, who are locked into the third seed. The Clippers (48-23) will face the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks (43-31) as expected, setting up an intriguing matchup between one of the stingiest defenses in the league anchored by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George against the most efficient offense in NBA history powered by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The Mavericks score 116.1 points per 100 possessions.
The Clippers beat the Mavericks all three times they faced each other this season.
“Right now, it doesn’t seem like seeds matter,” said Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals MVP who will try to win a second consecutive championship but with a different team.
Leonard added, “I mean, just like tonight, we played Denver. We’re not traveling there or pushing through that altitude that they’re used to playing to at home. Also fans. But the little things like that, you know, just traveling to that different city and trying to establish yourself and see what routine you can make out there, those are pretty much the difficulties of ballgames in the playoffs [that aren’t in the bubble].”
Minus their home altitude advantage, the Nuggets (46-26) will face the sixth-seeded Utah Jazz (43-28) in the first round, pitting the best passing big man in Nikola Jokic against one of the best defensive centers in the league in Rudy Gobert.
“I think it’s a really good matchup with Utah,” said Jokic, whose Nuggets are 3-0 against the Jazz this season but are waiting for the return of injured starters Gary Harris and Will Barton. “I didn’t have one easy game against them, so it’s going to be a very interesting series.”
The series in the West with the most potential for drama and plot twists is between the Oklahoma City Thunder (44-27) and Houston Rockets (44-27). Rockets guard Russell Westbrook, whose status for the start of the playoffs is uncertain because of a strained muscle in his right quadriceps, will face the Thunder, his former team, if he can play, and OKC guard Chris Paul will be reunited with his ex-Rockets teammates. The Thunder lead the season series 2-1.
In the East, Giannis Antetokounmpo has waited more than a year to get back to the postseason for a chance to reach the NBA Finals. His top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks (56-16) begin their run against the Orlando Magic (32-40).
Like in the West, the juiciest series in the East could be in the 4-5 matchup between the Miami Heat (44-28) and Indiana Pacers (44-28). The NBA now gets a best-of-seven series involving Jimmy Butler and T.J. Warren, one of the most impressive players in the bubble. The two went at it during a January meeting, with Warren ejected and Butler labeling Warren as “soft.” Miami is 3-0 against Indiana this season entering the final regular-season meeting against each other on Friday.
The third-seeded Boston Celtics (48-23) will play the reeling Philadelphia 76ers (42-30). The Sixers lead the season series 3-1 but have lost three straight in the bubble and are without Ben Simmons (knee) for the rest of the season. Joel Embiid left Wednesday’s 125-121 loss to Toronto after being hit in the right wrist but X-rays were negative.
Of course, with the playing field neutral in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, there’s the chance for this postseason to be unpredictable.
“It’s a lot of unknowns here,” George said. “But I’m confident. I think our group is confident. There’s nothing to be unconfident about. It’s an even playing field.”