The four big questions that will decide the NBA playoff race

ByMicah Adams ESPN logo
Friday, March 30, 2018

With less than two weeks left in the regular season, there's postseason uncertainty throughout both conferences. A rash of injuries to stars and impact role players -- all with murky roads to resolution -- coupled with the usual jockeying for seeding makes for a compelling home stretch.

The bottom half of each conference's playoff picture is also littered with potential land mines that offer up enormous contrasts in style and personnel. It could make for a potentially wacky first round.

Let's roll through some of the key questions as we try to make some sense of it all, including a look at the games that could determine seeding and matchups.

Who wins the race for No. 3 in the East?

This might be the most important and impactful seeding race. Entering Friday, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers are separated by just a half-game. Why does this matter so much? If the Pacers come out on top, it would likely lead to a Cavaliers-Sixers opening series, and that could be a blockbuster ... if the injured Joel Embiid can make it back in time. (Cleveland holds the inside track to a home-court tiebreaker.) It would also present what's likely the most difficult path possible for LeBron James to reach his eighth straight NBA Finals.

In addition to facing a Sixers team that should only get stronger as benches shorten in the playoffs, the Cavaliers would then most likely face the Eastern-leading Toronto Raptors. Make it through them and there's a decent chance the Boston Celtics await in the conference finals -- and the longer you wait to face Boston, the more time Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart get to recover from injury.

ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) currently handicaps No. 3 heavily in the favor of either the Cavaliers or Sixers, mostly due to the remaining schedules. Indiana has the hardest remaining schedule in the entire NBA, per BPI. Each of the Pacers' next four games are against teams well over .500, with three of them on the road, including at Toronto on the second night of a back-to-back after playing at home against the Golden State Warriors -- presumably with Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson back in the lineup.

Meanwhile, the 76ers sport the league's second-easiest remaining schedule, with the Cavaliers closer to middle of the pack. If the Pacers can keep pace through this daunting stretch, the potential three-team tiebreaker works in their favor by virtue of a 5-2 record in games against Philly and Cleveland.

Of course, the severity of Embiid's face injury will be a huge factor here; the Sixers have posted a net rating of plus-11.6 with their All-Star center on the floor and minus-3.9 when he's off. Avoiding LeBron and the Cavs early becomes even more important for the Sixers if Embiid can't go in Game 1 of the postseason.

How will Toronto control its own destiny?

In all likelihood, the Raptors will be the No. 1 seed in the East, but that doesn't mean there's no suspense for the North. Typically, a three-game lead with seven to play for a team on pace to win 60 would be insurmountable. Then you realize the Raptors' next three games are at Boston, at Cleveland then home against Boston on the second night of a back-to-back.

Although unlikely, it's not unreasonable to think they could drop all three and suddenly find themselves tied with the Celtics with one week left. BPI still likes the Raptors to finish atop the East, giving them a 94.5 percent chance, a number that's probably too low since it doesn't fully weigh the injury to Irving. (On Monday,ESPN's Jeremias Engelmann projected Toronto to have a 98.2 percent chance at No. 1 using real plus-minus and factoring in injuries. The Raptors have snagged another win since then, while Boston has won twice.)

There's more for the Raptors to play for even if they wrap up the No. 1 seed. Their most likely first-round opponent is the Milwaukee Bucks. Though Toronto won the season series 2-1, two of the three games went to overtime, and Jabari Parker only played once.

Either the Bucks or Miami Heat will likely finish as the No. 8 seed; they're currently a half-game apart. The Heat swept the season series, thus awarding them any potential tiebreaker for the No. 7 seed. If the Raptors decide they would much rather play the Heat than the Bucks, the schedule works out so that on the final day of the season, they might be able to do something about it. Toronto closes out on the road in Miami and could have a hefty incentive to win that game.

Without Parker and Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks took the Raptors to six games in the playoffs last season and held a 2-1 lead. With both of them now in the mix -- plus an improved Giannis Antetokounmpo -- Milwaukee potentially presents an early challenge that Toronto likely didn't expect with what has been the best regular season in franchise history. On the same night as Heat-Raps, the Bucks face the Sixers. Those could become two enormous games to watch.

What team do the Warriors want?

Although Golden State is all but locked into the No. 2 seed, the Warriors' first-round matchup -- most likely without Stephen Curry -- is a total toss-up. According to BPI, there are five teams with between a 12 and 24 percent chance of facing the defending champs.

So, who might pose the biggest threat? At full strength, the New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves could all present some unique challenges. Yet with DeMarcus Cousins out and the status of both Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler in doubt, it's tough to peg just how dangerous each might be, especially since you can't simply assume Leonard or Butler would be themselves immediately upon return. We saw what happened last year with San Antonio once Leonard went down, and while Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have proven capable of trading blows in the regular season, neither have experienced the postseason.

For different reasons, both the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder could offer resistance if Golden State is short-handed.

Since the All-Star break, only the Houston Rockets have a better net rating than the Jazz, who have outscored teams by 8.6 points per 100 possessions. The defense has simply been on another planet, with a defensive rating of 95.6 -- nearly six points better than anyone else. The gap between Utah's defense and the second-best D since the break is larger than the gap between the No. 2 and No. 14 defenses. Without Curry on the floor, Golden State's offense has been merely average, scoring at a rate that would rank 15th leaguewide in offensive efficiency. If Utah can manufacture enough offense, it could be the team to give a Curry-less Warriors more resistance than they're accustomed to in early rounds.

Although the Thunder sit fifth in the West, they also have the NBA's second-hardest remaining schedule, which means a slide to No. 7 isn't out of the question. They've already beaten the Warriors twice this season, and Tuesday they can become the first team to knock the champs off three times in one regular season during the Golden State's run under Steve Kerr. Watch even a few minutes of Thunder-Warriors games and it's apparent Oklahoma City is not scared. OKC is 6-6 as an underdog this year -- best among West teams -- and as good a bet as anyone to knock off a heavy favorite early.

Can the Nuggets or Clippers crash the party?

The Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets sit at No. 9 and No. 10 in the West with 34 and 10 percent chances, respectively, of making the playoffs, per BPI. If that seems low given the compact standings, it's worth keeping in mind that both teams have tough roads ahead. Each of Denver's final seven games are against teams with winning records, while the Clippers' only game against a team with a losing record comes in the season finale against a Lakers squad that ranks 10th in net rating since the All-Star break (and has zero tanking incentive).

The good news: Both teams get several shots to knock off current playoff teams. Denver faces Minnesota twice in the final week of the season, while the Clippers have games against the Spurs, Jazz and Pelicans.

The term "must-win" is overplayed, but if you're looking to circle two big dates in the race for No. 8, look at next Thursday (April 5) and Saturday (April 7). On Thursday, the Nuggets play the Wolves and the Clippers play the Jazz with head-to-head tiebreakers at stake. Then on Saturday, the Nuggets and Clippers face off. If both take care of business leading into that matchup, this could essentially act as a de facto play-in game to determine who has a real shot to sneak into the postseason.

Since the Nuggets play the Timberwolves twice, including in the regular-season finale, if Denver makes a run it could come at Minnesota's expense. The Wolves are trying to end a 13-year playoff drought, the NBA's longest active streak and second-longest in league history. Unless Towns is going to erupt for 56 every night, Butler's return could give Minnesota the jolt it so desperately needs amid concerns of its tank running on empty with Tom Thibodeau's insistence on relying almost exclusively on his starters.

If the drought continues and the Wolves collapse with tired legs, it will be easy to point to the fact that the Butler-Towns-Wiggins-Taj Gibson-Jeff Teague lineup still leads all five-man lineups by more than 100 minutes, despite the fact Butler has been out since Feb. 23.

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