THE National Basketball Association (NBA) will get what it wanted—drama to end the regular season.
All 30 teams will play their 82nd game of the season on Sunday, with four matchups—New Orleans at Minnesota, Utah at the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State at Portland and the Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix—set to decide how the Western Conference playoff and play-in bracket will look.
There are 16 possible seeding scenarios, based on the outcomes of those four games. And they’ll all be starting at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, with no games scheduled to play later, meaning it’s possible that the final shot of the regular season might be the one that fills out the bracket.
For the defending NBA champion Warriors and the Clippers, the math is easy: Win Sunday, and they’re in the playoffs and about to get a week off to get ready for Round 1 matchups against either Sacramento or Phoenix. Lose Sunday, and the play-in tournament—which starts Tuesday—might be the daunting consolation prize.
“It’s the only thing that we can control,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “There’s other games that can factor in, but it doesn’t matter to as long as we win. That’s a great position to be in and we’ve got to go do something about it.”
This much of the West is settled: Denver is the No. 1 seed, Memphis is No. 2, Sacramento is No. 3, Phoenix is No. 4, and Oklahoma City will be No. 10 for the play-in tournament.
The rest goes down to the wire.
The Clippers could be fifth, sixth or seventh. The Warriors could be fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. The Lakers could be sixth, seventh or eighth. The Timberwolves could be seventh, eighth or ninth—and the Pelicans, somehow, have all the bases covered. New Orleans could be No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8 or No. 9 in the West when the final whistle blows on Sunday.
“We’ve got one more game to handle our biness,” Pelicans coach Willie Green told his team Friday night.
There are some very simple possibilities Sunday:
— The loser of the New Orleans-Minnesota game will be the No. 9 seed and hosting Oklahoma City in an elimination game on Wednesday.
— The Clippers are the No. 5 seed with a win and will face the Suns in Round 1, after also seeing them in Sunday’s finale.
— New Orleans gets the No. 5 seed if it wins, combined with wins by Phoenix and Portland.
— The Lakers will be the No. 8 seed and on the road for a play-in game Tuesday if they lose to Utah. They would be No. 6 or No. 7 with a win, except if the Pelicans, Warriors and Suns all also win. That scenario would leave the Lakers No. 8.
— There is a chance for a Clippers-Lakers play-in game to happen on Tuesday night. New Orleans and Phoenix would both have to win as part of the formula, and then there would have to be Lakers-Warriors, Jazz-Warriors or Jazz-Blazers wins as well.
— The Warriors are the No. 5 seed (facing Phoenix) or the No. 6 seed (facing Sacramento in a matchup of teams separated by about 90 miles) with a win. If the Warriors and Clippers both win, Golden State is No. 6. Otherwise, a Warriors win clinches the No. 5 seed.
“Whatever team we play, I think we’ll be ready for,” Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo said.
THE Eastern Conference bracket is set, regardless of Sunday’s outcomes. No. 1 Milwaukee, No. 2 Boston, No. 3 Philadelphia, No. 4 Cleveland, No. 5 New York and No. 6 Brooklyn have playoff berths locked. No. 7 Miami will face No. 8 Atlanta in a play-in game Tuesday, No. 9 Toronto plays No. 10 Chicago in an elimination game Wednesday, and the Heat-Hawks loser faces the Raptors-Bulls winner on Friday.
The Heat-Hawks winner will play Boston in Round 1. The winner of the Friday game will play Milwaukee in Round 1.
PHILADELPHIA’S Joel Embiid will be the scoring champion for a second consecutive year, averaging 33.1 points per game. His closest pursuers—Dallas’s Luka Doncic (32.4) and Portland’s Damian Lillard (32.2)—are done for the season, and Embiid won’t play Sunday in a meaningless finale for Philadelphia.
Doncic and Lillard both did something this season that only one other player had pulled off in the last 59 seasons combined.
Before this season, only two players had ever averaged at least 32 points per game and not won the scoring crown. Allen Iverson (33.0) was second to the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant (35.4) in 2005-06, and Elgin Baylor (who averaged 34.0 points in 1962-63, 38.3 in 1961-62 and 34.8 in 1960-61) was the other player on that list.
Baylor lost the scoring race in all three of those seasons to Wilt Chamberlain.