With the addition of play-in games to the 2021 NBA playoffs, the scramble for seeding is wilder — and more important — than ever, with almost every game down the stretch having significant postseason implications.
Play-in matchups following Wednesday’s games
Play-in games to be held May 18-21
Game 1: No. 8 Charlotte at No. 7 Boston — winner is No. 7 seed in playoffs
Game 2: No. 10 Washington at No. 9 Indiana — winner moves on in play-in; loser is eliminated
Game 3: Washington/Indiana winner at Boston/Charlotte loser — winner is No. 8 seed in playoffs
Game 1: No. 8 Golden State at No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers — winner is No. 7 seed in playoffs
Game 2: No. 10 San Antonio at No. 9 Memphis — winner moves on in play-in; loser is eliminated
Game 3: Memphis/San Antonio winner at Lakers/Golden State loser — winner is No. 8 seed in playoffs
Teams that clinched Wednesday
Here’s a breakdown of the key games from Wednesday and what the results mean for the seedings:
The Atlanta Hawks took another step toward securing homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs with a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Washington Wizards.
Atlanta’s victory over Washington, which would have clinched a spot in the play-in tournament with a win of its own, officially secured a playoff berth for the Hawks for the first time since 2017. More importantly, it puts Atlanta in the driver’s seat to get the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
All Atlanta has to do is win a pair of home games against two of the league’s worst teams — the Orlando Magic Thursday and Houston Rockets Sunday — to clinch that fourth seed, as those victories would clinch the Southeast Division title.
Washington, on the other hand, will have to wait to try to clinch the final play-in tournament spot for either Toronto to beat Chicago on Thursday or for its home game against Cleveland on Friday. The Wizards are a game behind the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets in the battle to finish eighth in the East — and get two chances to win one game to make the playoff field. Washington owns the tiebreaker over Indiana, but does not against Charlotte.
If all three teams finish tied, Charlotte — which owns the tiebreaker over both Indiana and Washington — would finish eighth, while the Wizards would be ninth and the Pacers 10th. Charlotte and Washington play each other on the final day of the season, a game that could wind up deciding who gets the eighth seed in the East. — Tim Bontemps
The Boston Celtics are officially headed to the play-in tournament.
While there was very little chance of Boston escaping that fate after back-to-back home losses to the Miami Heat, a loss to the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers — with Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams all sitting out with injuries — officially sent Boston to the play-in. The Celtics need one more win, or one more loss for the Hornets and Pacers, to officially clinch the seventh seed in the East.
Boston owns the tiebreakers against Charlotte, Indiana and the Wizards, the three teams below them in the standings.
Boston’s loss also clinched a playoff berth for the New York Knicks, who are in the postseason for the first time since making the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2013.
CODY, WE DID IT.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) May 13, 2021
The more consequential result of this game, ironically, was Cleveland getting a rare victory. The Cavaliers, who had gone 4-21 in their last 25 games entering Wednesday, and had lost 11 games in a row dating to April 21, went from a three-way tie at 21 wins with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic for the third-fewest wins in the NBA into a tie with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the fifth-worst win total in the league.
Cleveland has had the fifth pick in the draft each of the past two years, and saw its lottery odds take a notable decline with Wednesday’s win. — Bontemps
Whether it is dazzling the crowd with cross-court bounce passes or shimmying after a 4-point play, one thing is certain: The Nets have proven to be winners with James Harden on the court. Rather than react to a double-digit late-season win over a likely play-in team like the Spurs (San Antonio missed a chance to wrap up the No. 10 seed in the West), look at the difference in big-picture numbers when Harden is on the court this season: With Harden, Brooklyn is now 28-7. Without him, they’re 11-11.
In his first game in more than a month, Harden finished with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 11 assists in 26 minutes. So, while the Nets are still not at full strength (Kyrie Irving missed Wednesday’s game with a facial contusion), they can take some solace in the numbers pointing to Brooklyn being just fine — so long as they have a healthy Harden. — Malika Andrews
On the verge of disaster, the Lakers barely kept their hopes alive to avoid the play-in round with a tight win over the woeful Rockets. It took a go-ahead layup by Kyle Kuzma with 6.9 seconds remaining, but the Lakers still are mathematically alive for a top-six slot, even if their chances to catch Portland or Dallas are slim. The Lakers need to win both of their remaining games — at Indiana, at New Orleans — and hope both the Blazers and Mavs finish 0-2.
Maybe more importantly, though, is the Lakers’ focus on health. Anthony Davis was a scratch against the Rockets — hence the closer-than-expected game — and LeBron James is targeting a return this week. Working out of the play-in would be ideal for the Lakers, but it’s an outcome that’s becoming less and less likely, so turning their attention to just being ready for the short turnaround could shift to the priority.
And if you’re looking for an upside to the play-in, being the 6-seed likely matches you up against the Clippers in the opening round. Not that the Suns or (potentially) the Jazz would be some kind of cakewalk, but the Lakers as an opening-round opponent isn’t the kind of reward a 1- or 2-seed expects after working all season to climb the standings. — Royce Young
After spending the last month battling their way out of a play-in spot, the Blazers, with a strong win on the road in Utah, are on the verge of securing a top-six spot in the postseason.
With their recent run, the Blazers actually have control of their bid for the West’s 5-seed. They have self-corrected following a five-game slump and have won nine of 10 to take control of the fifth spot with two games to go (at Phoenix, Denver). And playing in a 4-5 matchup against the Nuggets probably sounds quite a bit more appealing than a 3-6 series against the Clippers.
The Jazz, meanwhile, still have work to do to lock up the top seed in the West. Finishing 2-0 would guarantee the No. 1 spot, and Utah’s remaining games are against the Thunder and Kings. The Jazz are only one game up on the Suns for the 1-seed and don’t have the tiebreaker with Phoenix. The Suns have three games remaining — facing Portland once and the Spurs twice.
And it’s pretty obvious why having the top seed in the West is maybe as important as it’s ever been. Yeah, you get homecourt, and yeah, you get bragging rights. But you also don’t have to potentially play the Lakers as a 7-seed, and as an added bonus, you will likely be on the other side of the bracket from the Clippers too. — Young
The win puts Dallas back on track as Portland and the Lakers continue to rack up wins in a three-way battle to see who will stay out of the play-in tournament and who will earn the fifth and sixth seeds. If all three teams finish tied in the standings, Dallas would end up as the No. 5 seed by virtue of winning the Southwest Division. If the Mavericks finish in a tie with just the Blazers, Portland gets the leg up thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker, although the Mavs hold the tiebreaker over the Lakers.
Dallas also was able to work Kristaps Porzingis back into the rotation after he missed seven games in a row. Porzingis had 19 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes in his return.