NCAA March Madness takes center stage again on Thursday night and pushes the NBA off the normal TNT prime-time slate, but there are two matchups on the schedule that could help decide the Western Conference playoff race.
The Lakers picked up a half-game on the idle Mavericks with a win on Wednesday, and they will have a chance to extend their 1.5-game lead on Dallas on Thursday even though the teams will not play each other.
The Lakers (37-35) will travel to Milwaukee for a meeting with the reeling Bucks (34-36) at 8 p.m. ET, who have lost four-straight games and five of their last seven overall. The Bucks are slipping farther out of the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference standings, and on Wednesday dropped a game to the Sixers. L.A. and Milwaukee will both be playing the second game of a back-to-back.
Dallas (35-36) will host No. 3 seed Indiana at 8:30 p.m. The Pacers (45-27) are just 16-19 on the road so far this season but are still a tough matchup for Mavericks. Indiana owns the top defensive unit in the NBA, and it will be tough for Dallas to extend its three-game winning streak on Thursday. At Mavs Moneyball, they have taken a look at the playoff odds and decided that the game against the Pacers could be pivotal:
Tomorrow the Mavs face off against the Pacers. A team with a better record who qualify for the "need to beat" category. Then we play the Bulls, who also qualify. But both have better records in the East and I would venture to say are not even any better than we are. The fact that both are extremely defensively oriented gives me pause against the gung-ho fire-away Mavs, but I still think that both are shockingly winnable games. And NEITHER the Lakers or Jazz face off against more than one Eastern Conference team with a better record for the rest of the season. Meaning that we have the schedule-based edge on being better-than-expected for the rest of season.
In the final game of the night at 10 p.m. ET, the Sacramento Kings (26-46) will take on the Phoenix Suns (23-49). The Kings picked up their seventh road win in 37 tries on Wednesday against the Warriors and could be in line to get another away from home. The Suns own the worst record in the Western Conference, at just 16-20 at home this season, and have lost four straight games.