With just one day remaining in the NBA regular season, the race to either avoid the dreaded play-in tournament or jockey for a more favorable playoff position has been all the rage.
And it’s put the NBA on the tip of every sports’ fan tongue. Especially those fans fascinated with trying to figure out how everything will play itself out during Sunday’s regular season finales when all 30 teams hit the court.
“Look, it’s great for our league,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s consumed social media, it’s consumed the Internet, the league’s getting amazing attention with how close and competitive it is. Those are all great things.
“The way I look at it is we’ve all got to embrace the competitiveness of this. It does get nerve-wracking for everyone, but these are the moments that you really learn how to focus and block things out and that’s how we’re going to have to proceed.”
The Mavs will be proceeding to the playoffs after they eked out a 114-110 victory over the Toronto Raptors Friday to clinch their 17th postseason appearance during the last 21 years. But who will be the Mavs’ first-round playoff opponent is still a mystery.
They will open postseason play either May 22 or May 23 against either the Los Angeles Clippers or Denver Nuggets.
Who that opponent will be hinges on what happens Sunday when the Mavs play at the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Nuggets play at the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Los Angeles Lakers play at the New Orleans Pelicans. All three games tip off at 8 p.m. CT, which means scoreboard watching will be at a premium.
The Mavs (42-29) are currently sitting in the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference, the Blazers (41-30) are sixth and the Lakers (41-30) are seventh. The top six teams will avoid the play-in tournament, which starts Tuesday.
So it would behoove the Lakers to try and defeat the Pelicans so they can be in position to skip the play-in tournament, especially since superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis could use the extra rest after they recently experienced injuries that kept them off the court for weeks.
Also, the Blazers don’t want to be in the play-in tournament, either, which heightens their desire to defeat the Nuggets. The Blazers own the tiebreaker over both the Mavs and the Lakers.
There are more races to watch in the West. Utah (51-20) and Phoenix (50-21) are fighting for seeds one and two, Denver (47-24) and the Clippers (47-24) are fighting for seeds three and four, in addition to the Mavs, Blazers and Lakers jockeying for Nos. 5, 6 and 7. Golden State and Memphis are mired in a dogfight for the eighth spot.
All of that means Sunday will be one of the most riveting and topsy-turvy days in NBA history.
In the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets (47-24) and Milwaukee Bucks (46-25) are fighting for the second and third seeds, and the New York Knicks (40-31), Atlanta Hawks (40-31) and Miami Heat (39-32) are in a tussle for seeds four, five and six. Also in the East, the Charlotte Hornets (33-38), Washington Wizards (33-38) and Indiana Pacers (33-38) are in a fight for seeds eight, nine and 10.
“You can look at the games on any given night and you can analyze everything six ways to Sunday about how this affects this and that,” Carlisle said. “But really, you’ve got to control what you can control.”
If nothing else, the Mavs are just delighted they’ll at least go into Sunday with a guaranteed playoff spot.
“It’s awesome being able to clinch that,” guard Jalen Brunson said. “Especially the way we started out when it was rocky.”
Brunson, of course, missed out on last year’s playoff experience in the bubble because he underwent season-ending surgery to repair a labral injury in his right shoulder. As of now, Brunson said:
“I’m ready to go. Nothing else to be said. Let’s just go.”
Entering this season, the drama included a short offseason, a truncated 72-game schedule, and trying to play a bunch of games in a short period of time in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. That has taken its toll on the fortunate and also the not so fortunate NBA teams.
“Every team’s gone through really unique challenges on some level,” Carlisle said. “The density of games has been so different.”
Carlisle compared this season to the NBA lockouts following the 1997-98 and 2010-11 seasons.
“I coached after both lockouts and you get into a high density of games there, but it wasn’t the same duration,” he said. “So this is different.
“And then you add all the anxiety of COVID into it and all the unknowns and it really feels like we’re getting toward the other side of that, which is great news. But we still can’t let our guard down.”
Especially with the NBA’s crème de la crème – the playoffs – set to start next weekend.
“There’s so many things that have been different about this year, but I think every team has done a good job of getting through it in their situations, and everybody’s situation is different,” Carlisle said. “It’s been hard for the guys not to be able to go to dinner at restaurants (due to COVID-19) and be together socially that way. Every team has experienced the same thing.
“We’re together in hotels, but it’s not the same. There’s a lot of things like that, that don’t get talked about or mentioned or considered that have made this really challenging.”
And it’s given everybody a different way of looking at the way things used to be, and hopefully will be again, with an 82-game NBA season.
“When things get back on a normal schedule and the world trends back to where we believe it’s going to be, we’re going to have such a unique perspective on how sane a normal NBA season is compared to what we just went through for the last 11 or 12 months,” Carlisle said. “We’ll find the good in this.
“Every team has had to soldier forward.”
And while the Mavs have done so, they’re anxious for the day when they’ll be able to play with an arena packed with fans again. Or at least more than the 4,500 that were allowed inside American Airlines Center during the final weeks of the regular season.
“It’ll be special,” Brunson said. “It’ll be very interesting. I think that playoff atmosphere is a start to getting back to normalcy, so I’m excited and ready to go.”