2021 NBA Playoffs

Regular season brings drama to very end

From solidifying the playoff bracket to settling the 2020-21 scoring race, there's still plenty to play for in Sunday's regular season finale.

Damian Lillard and the Blazers face off against Kia MVP candidate Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets with much on the line.

After six months, the moment has finally arrived: Happy 72nd game day!

The final day of the regular season, for the first time, is in May, and also for the first time in anyone’s memory, there’s drama here at the very end. Much has to do with positioning for the playoffs and the Play-In Tournament, where matchups are crucial and could help or hinder a team’s dreams of going deep into summer.

There is one scenario that will not happen: The Clippers and Lakers will not meet in the first round. This was assured once the Clippers sat their two stars and lost Friday to the Pistons. LA vs. L.A. would’ve been the greatest first-round matchup on paper, although anyone with a substantial stake in the playoffs — such as the TV networks — would’ve cringed at such an early showdown. Besides, that was a matchup neither team really wanted this early, either. In that situation, a Laker first-round loss would be embarrassing for the defending champs; a Clippers first-round loss would be doubly embarrassing for a team that limped out of the playoffs last season while their cross-hall rivals lifted another trophy.

Some playoff matchups are all but set: The top-seed Sixers will get the eighth-place team, and the Nets and Bucks will potentially meet in the second round. Everything else is tentative, depending on what happens Sunday.

A suspenseful ending to the regular season is precisely what the NBA wanted, especially with the Play-In Tournament making the situation even more fluid. With the exception of Cavs-Nets, Magic-Sixers, Bucks-Bulls and Clippers-Thunder, there’s plenty at stake on a final day where all 30 teams are active.

Here are the key Sunday situations:

Blazers vs. Nuggets and Lakers play-in

Play-In Tournament could benefit Lakers

The Lakers are No. 7 in the West and poised for the Play-In, which may help their hopes of repeating as champions.

It’s very simple. If the Blazers win in Portland, then the Lakers are in the Play-In Tournament. Should the Nuggets win — and the Lakers beat the Pelicans — the Blazers fall to the Play-In.

What’s more intriguing is the lack of incentive for the Nuggets to win and capture the No. 3 seed. That would mean a first-round series with the Lakers, assuming the defending champions beat the Pelicans Sunday. Does Denver really want LeBron James and Anthony Davis this early — and without Jamal Murray’s help? The better alternative is losing and getting the Mavericks in the first round instead. Therefore, it’ll be interesting to witness how the Nuggets approach this game, and if, as expected, they rest Nikola Jokic — who hasn’t missed a game all season — and other starters to (wink-wink) preserve them for the playoffs (which don’t start for another week, which is plenty of time for rest).

For the Blazers, it’s clear they’d rather win and avoid the Play-In. That’s why they’ll likely take a Game 7 approach against the Nuggets. Avoiding the Play-In means dodging the possibility of seeing a hot Steph Curry and being involved in a tournament where one off night could mean an early summer vacation.

Top seed in the West

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You see how aggressive the Suns were Saturday against the Spurs in a 37-point blowout win? They’ll bring the same energy Sunday, because that’s how badly the Suns want to get the top seed in the West.

There are two reasons to play Chris Paul and Devin Booker in a back-to-back for a must-win: Not only would it cap a remarkable rise for a Phoenix team that didn’t make the playoffs last season, but more important, it’ll get them out of the No. 2 spot that would all but assure the Suns will see the Lakers in the first round.

The problem for the Suns isn’t really the Spurs; it’s the Kings, who play the Jazz. A Utah win clinches the top seed for the Jazz. Sacramento has no reason to go full tilt except for pride; the Kings are already eliminated from the playoffs (that’s 15 straight years now). Anyway, the Jazz will know by tipoff if they need to use or rest their regulars, since the Suns-Spurs game is earlier in the afternoon. If the Suns lose, the Jazz-Kings game is meaningless.

By the way, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich missed Saturday’s loss to attend Tim Duncan’s Hall of Fame enshrinement; that perhaps was a factor in Phoenix’s lopsided win.

Eighth position in the East

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Eighth place is meaningful because you have a margin for error in the Play-In Tournament. If you lose against the seventh seed, you get to play once more, against the winner of 9 vs. 10. And so, how convenient is it for the Hornets and Wizards, tied in the standings, to meet Sunday for eighth?

These are teams streaking in opposite directions. The Hornets have lost four straight; at one point last month they were enjoying life in the top six. Now they’re trying to recover their mojo. Meanwhile, the Wizards have lost only five times since April 12 and Russell Westbrook is on a blistering and historic triple-double pace. Also: Bradley Beal was just upgraded to questionable after missing the last few games with a bad hammy. That’s crucial because Westbrook has burned 40 heavy-duty minutes a night this month trying to prevent Washington from plunging into the lottery. If anyone needs a rest, it’s him. But he’s not getting it Sunday.

Eighth position in the West

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Well, here’s Convenience, Part II: It just so happens the Warriors and Grizzlies, tied in the standings, play Sunday, and it also just so happens it’ll be for eighth place.

The stakes: The winner will most likely get the Lakers in the Play-In. Talk about a grand prize. The loser gets the slumping Spurs.

The Grizzlies are hoping Jaren Jackson Jr. goes next level after missing most of the season following knee surgery. He’ll help make it easier for Memphis if he does, but the key will be Ja Morant and his must-see matchup with Curry.

The scoring title

Both Curry and Beal will log significant minutes with seeding at stake in each of their games. Well, that also bodes well for a suspenseful down-the-wire scoring chase. Curry has the edge going in at 31.8 points per game to Beal’s 31.4 and will also have the advantage of playing in the latter game Sunday; he’ll know exactly how many points he’ll need for the title before tipoff. If he wins it, Curry at age 33 would become the second-oldest scoring champ, after Michael Jordan (35) in 1997-98.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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