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10 biggest games between playoff contenders this week

Examining 10 interconference matchups loaded with postseason implications in the final week of the regular season.

The Suns and Clippers face off twice in the final week of 2023-24 with both teams vying for positioning in the tough Western Conference.

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Ten teams times two conferences, that’s all set. But there’s so much more to be determined in the final week of the NBA’s 2023-24 regular season: Who finishes first out West? Who nails down those coveted No. 6 spots, earning a well-deserved breather before things get serious? And who plays whom in what order in the scramble to survive that is the SoFi NBA Play-In tournament?

That’s a lot of drama crammed into six days’ worth of games. Of the 57 matchups that remain – that’s just 4.63% of the schedule, if you’re into analytics – here are 10 pitting teams in the same conference, with positioning and postseason implications most at stake.

Tuesday, April 9

1. Celtics vs. Bucks (7:30 p.m., ET, TNT)

Just because Boston is locked in as the East’s and the league’s top seed, earning home-court advantage in every series it plays, doesn’t mean its remaining schedule lacks significance. This trip to Milwaukee is the Celtics’ last road game – they won’t travel again until Game 3 of the first round. The Bucks have lost four in a row and six of their last seven, the opposite of “peaking for the playoffs.”  

Why it matters: This wraps the season series — anything more will come in May in a series many fans have imagined since the Damian Lillard-Jrue Holiday maneuvers upped the rivalry. Boston, which might not sweat this one, already leads 2-1. The Bucks, 15-17 since Doc Rivers was hired, are desperate to stop the bleeding.

2. Kings vs. Thunder (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass)

Sacramento’s next three games are against playoff contenders, starting with Oklahoma City. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (quad) and Jalen Williams (ankle) have been out for OKC lately, as have Sacramento’s Malik Monk (MCL sprain) and Kevin Huerter (shoulder surgery).

Why it matters: Everything is fluid out West. Conceivably, the defending champion Nuggets could slide to fourth or the eighth-place Kings rise to fifth. Oklahoma City is assured of its best record in eight years (55-27 in 2015-16) but can’t blink with the conference’s top seed still TBD.

3. Warriors vs. Lakers (10 p.m. ET, TNT)

It wasn’t that long ago that an early April game pitting Nos. 9-10 in a conference would induce yawns. Golden State has a 2-1 edge in the series and, worth remembering, has had more success on the road (23-16) than at home (20-19).

Why it matters: Sure, the Warriors can drag the Lakers even in the loss column and snag the possible head-to-head tiebreaker, while L.A. can get closer to escaping the Play-In pot. But these veteran-driven teams can’t be sure which lower seed will earn them the best first-round matchup, given the West’s jockeying up top. Golden State is 1-10 vs. the current Top 3, while the Lakers are 3-1 vs. OKC, 1-6 vs. the others.

4. Clippers vs. Suns (10 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass)

A grueling final-week challenge for both teams: They play in Phoenix Tuesday, then in L.A. Wednesday. Will stars play both ends of the back-to-back, with so much on the line? Through the Clippers’ two victories so far, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden have combined for 73 points per game. Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal? A cumulative 75.5.

Why it matters: The Suns woke up clinging to sixth (via tiebreaker on New Orleans) after losing Sunday to the Pelicans. But they easily could slip back into the Play-In; after two games vs. the Clippers, they finish at Sacramento and Minnesota. LA is hot but might opt to settle into the 4-5 slot and ease workloads from here.

Wednesday, April 10

The Magic have a chance to take the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

5. Magic vs. Bucks (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass)

Don’t look now but Orlando has a chance to steal the East’s No. 2 seed, thanks to facing Milwaukee twice in the final five days. Both teams will be playing on the tail end of a back-to-back (Bucks are 9-4 in such games, the Magic 5-9). 

Why it matters: Imagine the Game No. 82 suspense if Orlando can beat out Milwaukee in the seeding. If the Bucks don’t stop their swoon, a team that began with championship aspirations could be playing from down under just to claw out of the first round.

6. Timberwolves vs. Nuggets (10 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Arguably the most intriguing and pivotal matchup this week, with the West’s No. 1 seed up for grabs. It is the only game left on either team’s schedule guaranteed to demand its attention. Minnesota has won two of three, winning by 21 (on Nov. 1) and 13 points (on March 29). 

Why it matters: The Timberwolves are one of six teams to have won in Denver this season, though Jamal Murray missed that one. The Nuggets learned how valuable that No. 1 seed can be, having ridden it to the championship last June. Don’t forget all the teams in Play-In contention eyeballing their potential first-round matchups.

Thursday, April 11

7. Knicks vs. Celtics (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT)

These teams will be facing each other for the fifth time, thanks to some In-Season Tournament re-scheduling. Normally that wouldn’t be good news for New York – it has gone 0-4 so far and three of its top four scorers are hurt (Julius Randle) or traded (RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley). They have met just once since Dec. 8.

Why it matters: The Knicks would like to secure a top-four seed and certainly avoid slippage into the second tier. But they’re banged up, relying too heavily on Jalen Brunson and scrambling to find out how much they can count on Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks in coach Tom Thibodeau’s tight playoff rotation. This is the Celtics’ last legit foe before hosting non-playoff teams from Charlotte and Washington.

8. Pelicans vs. Kings (10 p.m. ET, TNT)

Finishing kick or finishing gauntlet? The Pelicans stopped a 1-5 skid by beating Phoenix on Sunday but still have a rough final week, out West and on the road before a home finale against the Lakers. It’s worth noting that, as the week began, New Orleans’ road record (25-14) was better than the Kings’ home record (23-15).

Why it matters: Counting this one, these guys play six of their final eight games against teams sitting sixth through 10th in the West. Every outcome could throw projected Play-In matchups and first-round series into a blender. With so many rivals playing Twister, the big beneficiary might be Dallas, ducking this by playing three of its last four against East teams.

Friday, April 12

9. Pelicans vs. Warriors (10 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass)

New Orleans wraps up its late-season West Coast trip by playing Golden State 24 hours after facing Sacramento. The teams have split two games and haven’t met since Jan. 10.

Why it matters: If nothing is clinched for these teams by now, a Pelicans victory would keep Golden State in their rear-view mirror. The Warriors held Zion Williamson in check (19.0 ppg) in their first two encounters, but they haven’t seen him lately; the wide-body forward has been on a tear since March 8, with 25.8 ppg on 59% shooting.

10. Suns vs. Kings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV)

This is another one of those season series heading to a fifth game, courtesy of the In-Season Tournament. It is tied 2-2, with 936 points so far and the Kings scoring at least 114 each night. 

Why it matters: High-octane offense generally isn’t the key to deep postseason success, but neither of these clubs will be inclined to go into a defensive shell at this point. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis have outscored Durant and Booker, 57.3 ppg to 51.0 so far, and the Kings have four more guys who have topped Beal (9.0 in two appearances).

Sunday, April 14

By Matinee Sunday, we should know a lot, assuming all the tumblers fall one way in the games that precede it. If they fall another way, however, we might know little or nothing about final seeding, Play-In opponents or first-round series. With Detroit at San Antonio as the only cross-conference clash on the 15-game slate, several others will count double in boosting, dropping or otherwise defining the East and West standings.

Commissioner Adam Silver, the league’s other execs and their broadcast partners couldn’t have planned it better.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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