What We Learned: Sunday's impact on playoff picture
Sunday’s slate of games cleared up one side of the NBA Playoffs picture while muddying up the other. Western Conference fans can already begin looking ahead to the first round, since every matchup is already locked in and decided.
The Eastern Conference? We might need to wait until everyone’s Game No. 82 is in the books. Here’s how Sunday’s events affected the upcoming playoff bracket:
The fallout from Russell Westbrook’s record-setting night was the fate of his opponent. The Nuggets, who lost by one on Westbrook’s buzzer-beating three, were officially eliminated from the playoff race.
Denver’s elimination means Portland is in and, furthermore, locked into the eighth seed in the West. They will face two-time conference champion Golden State in the first round.
The other Western Conference first-round matchups are also set. Second-seeded San Antonio will face Memphis. Houston and Oklahoma City will square off in a battle of MVP candidates (James Harden vs. Westbrook). The Clippers and Jazz will tangle in the four-five matchup, but homecourt advantage is not yet decided.
Cleveland appeared to be cruising toward victory before forfeiting a 26-point fourth-quarter lead to the Hawks. The result? The Cavs and Celtics are now tied for first in the East with two games remaining. Important to remember: Cleveland holds the tiebreaker over Boston due to winning the season series 3-1. The Celtics would need to win out AND hope the Cavs lose a game to earn the East No. 1 seed. Cleveland’s remaining games are against Miami and Toronto, while Boston still has to play Brooklyn and Milwaukee.
Toronto’s 110-97 victory over New York ensured that the Raptors will finish no lower than third in the Eastern Conference. Thanks to winning the season series over the Celtics, they could move up to second if Boston loses its final two games and Toronto wins its remaining contest (against Cleveland).
Atlanta might have just completed the most important three-game stretch of the playoff race. The Hawks beat Boston and Cleveland (twice) in a span of just four days, creating more chaos at the top of the standings while securing their own place in the middle. Atlanta remains one game ahead of Milwaukee for the fifth seed with two games remaining for both teams and the Hawks owning the tiebreaker. The Bucks would need to win out AND have Atlanta lose a game to move up to fifth.
The Raptors’ win also cemented Washington’s place as the fourth seed in the East.