The NBA playoffs are right around the corner and that usually means it’s time to start breaking down matchups and figuring out every squad’s path to a championship.

However, that can’t happen with a majority of teams still not sure where they’ll land ahead of the playoffs, despite there being just one day of regular season hoops remaining.

Only five squads are locked into a seed ahead of Sunday. The Boston Celtics at one, the Chicago Bulls at nine, and Atlanta Hawks at 10 in the East. Out West, the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks have secured the fourth and fifth spots, respectively. That means 15 of the 20 playoff-eligible teams are still trying to figure out where they’ll seed and how their post-season pathway will kick off.

Talk about drama waiting to unfold.

On Sunday all 30 teams will be in action, and 11 of the 15 games will have playoff implications. It gives plenty of teams some control over their fate as the chase for a Larry O’Brien trophy begins.

Complete clinching scenarios for the East and West are rather lengthy.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the action:

Top of the East

At the very top of the conference, Boston is 14 games clear of the next closest team (Milwaukee), as they’re the only team to reach 60-plus wins this season, but the No. 2 spot is still up for grabs. As things stand, the Bucks are in the driver’s seat as they own the head-to-head record against the Knicks, despite the two teams currently tied with a 49-32 record. So for them, it’s simple, win and the two seed is yours. However, not much has seemed all that easy for Milwaukee as of late, with the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo up in the air heading into the post-season and them losing seven of their last 10 games.

If the Bucks don’t win on Sunday, the only way they stay at No. 2 is if both the Knicks and Cavaliers (who are one game behind) also lose. If either team wins, the Bucks would automatically drop. In the event of a three-way tie, once the dust settles, it would be Cleveland that vaults into the two spot. They’d end up winning the Central Division, and the division title is the first tie-breaker in events of a three-way tie.

It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out, as the Bucks are a more veteran squad and hold most of the control, but seem as weak as they’ve been all season. Meanwhile, the Knicks and Cavaliers are in unfamiliar territory as neither squad has seeded as high as the two-spot in quite some time.

Cleveland hasn’t done it since the second departure of LeBron James, and the Knicks are a decade removed from their last two-seed entrance into the playoffs

Log jam in the middle

Below them, the Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, and Philadelphia 76ers are all tied with a 46-35 record, and the Miami Heat just behind by one game, currently occupying spots 5-8. There are a plethora of scenarios that could turn into reality after Sunday, 16 to be exact. All four teams have an opportunity to finish as high as fifth or as low as eighth, meaning the tie-breaking rules that could be invoked are pretty hard to keep up with.

The main scenarios to keep in mind are if Orlando, Indiana, and Philadelphia all win, it won’t matter what Miami does and the teams would stay in the same order. Inversely if all three of those squads lose and the Heat win (meaning a four-way tie), Miami would jump from eighth all the way to fifth as the division winner, followed by the 76ers, the Pacers, and then the Magic.

Head scratching, to say the le ast.

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Squads like Orlando and Philadelphia had been as high as the two-seed this season but could find themselves battling it out in the Play-In if things don’t go their way. It’s a lot to keep up with, but we’ll get our answers by the end of Sunday.

East Play-In

Outside of that, things are pretty subdued in the East when it comes to the Play-In. The Bulls and Hawks are locked into the nine and 10 spots — two teams that have mastered the art of being in no-man’s land when it comes to post-season contention.

Chicago will be in the Play-In for their second year in a row, while Atlanta makes their third consecutive trip.


Top six in the West

The top of the West is a much murkier picture as any of the top three teams (Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Denver Nuggets) can still grab the No. 1 spot. It’s the first time in NBA history that three teams atop a conference have an identical record after 81 games and a chance to secure the No. 1 seed.

Oklahoma City is currently in the driver’s seat, as they’d take the top spot in the event of a three-way tie. All three squads are in the same division, so identical records wouldn’t invoke a division title tie-breaker, instead it would be based on head-to-head win-loss percentage between all three teams. Minnesota would get No. 2 in that case and Denver would stay in third.

The Nuggets have the easiest final opponent of the three, taking on the Memphis Grizzlies, who are 13th in the West and have nothing to play for, but arguably the hardest path to the top spot. The only way they can get back to No. 1 is if both the Thunder and the Timberwolves lose. In a tie-breaking scenario with either team, Denver comes out as the loser based on head-to-head or division record, so a win plus two losses would be their only path.

Meanwhile, Minnesota needs to win in order to snag the one seed. In the event of a two-way tie with Oklahoma City, the Timberwolves would be the team to jump up based on having a better conference record. The Timberwolves will have some added incentive as they can secure the No. 1 seed for just the second time in franchise history. It’ll also be the first time since 2004 that they’ll finish higher than the seventh spot.

With seeds four and five locked up, all eyes fall on the final playoff spot in the West. Currently, the New Orleans Pelicans occupy the sixth seed as they’re one game ahead of the Suns. So, they do have the most control as a win would mean they stick with the six seed. However, if they lose to a Los Angeles Lakers team vying for their own positioning, then New Orleans drops into the Play-In and Phoenix jumps up.

Essentially, one of the Pelicans and the Suns will avoid the Play-In while the other will have to host the eighth-seed in order to earn their way into the playoffs.

West Play-In

When the Play-In concept was introduced it was meant to incentivize teams on the periphery of the playoffs to avoid tanking, therefore providing late-season intrigue. No one expected it would turn into a gauntlet that features the likes of James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and a handful of other All-Stars.

Outside of the seventh spot going to the lesser of the Pelicans and Suns, the Sacramento Kings, Lakers, and Golden State Warriors are all locked into the Play-In in spots 8-10. The order in which the three teams fall into for the Play-In is yet to be determined.

The Lakers are currently one game ahead of the other two with a 46-35 record, so if they win on Sunday they’ll hold onto the eighth spot. However, if they lose, things get interesting quickly. If Los Angeles ends up in a two-way tie with either Sacramento or Golden State, they drop down as they lost the season series to both squads.

In the event of a three-way tie (Lakers lose, Kings and Warriors win) Sacramento jumps to No. 8 based on head-to-head win-loss percentage between the three teams, dropping the Golden State to ninth and Los Angeles into 10th.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ only path to the 8th seed is for them to win and have both the Kings and Lakers lose on Sunday. That outcome would result in a two-way tie between Golden State and Los Angeles, and the Warriors would jump up thanks to a 3-1 season series lead.

Finishing higher in the Play-In seeding matters, not just for hosting purposes, but the seventh and eighth seeds get two opportunities to secure their post-season spot, win or lose. For nine and 10, a loss means their season is over.


All this uncertainty is a welcomed change for most basketball fans. Much of the talk over the last couple of seasons has revolved around the NBA season feeling too long and how games turn meaningless toward the closing stretch.

This year, the final stretch doesn’t have any of that dragged-out feeling or the risk of players sitting out to rest for the playoffs. With seeding, matchups, and home-court advantage still up for grabs all over the board, the action ought to be non-stop.

Last season we saw the idea of the Play-In tournament finally bear fruit as the seventh-seed Lakers made an unexpected conference finals run out West and the Miami Heat, as the No. 8 seed, became the first team to get out of the Play-In and go all the way to an NBA Finals.

With how much movement and shuffling has gone on throughout the season, things feel ripe for another underdog run, setting up an NBA post-season full of intrigue.





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