The final spot in the NBA's postseason will be decided on its final night of regular season action. With 81 games down, the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers will play for the playoffs Wednesday night in a pair of nationally televised games.
The Jazz, who are a game behind the Lakers, but hold the tiebreaker thanks to an advantage in the head-to-head series, will play the Memphis Grizzlies on the road at 8 p.m. ET. If they lose, their season is over. If they win, the Lakers' 10:30 ET matchup with the Houston Rockets becomes must-win. And all four teams will have something to play for: Memphis will be playing for home-court advantage in its series against the Los Angeles Clippers, and Houston is fighting for the sixth spot with the Golden State Warriors. It should make for a thrilling night of basketball, although it could turn anticlimactic with a Jazz loss.
At this point, all the momentum rests with the Jazz. They've won nine of 11, with Al Jefferson and Mo Williams each playing their best ball of the season as the playoffs loom. They've been here before. Utah needed some late wins last year to get the eighth seed, and although that didn't pan out too well -- they were swept by the Spurs -- it made it. SLC Dunk was pretty thrilled with Monday night's win.
The Lakers are on a four-game win streak, but only one of those wins came without Kobe Bryant. If you haven't heard, his Achilles tear puts him out through part of next season. For large swaths of the season, it seemed as if Bryant was the only Laker capable of earning his team a win, whether by ridiculous scoring outings or passing, as this was his best career season in terms of assisting. They got a win over a semi-resting Spurs squad Sunday night behind arguably Dwight Howard's best game of the season -- 26 points and 17 boards, and a few successful free throws after the Spurs resorted to Hack-A-Dwight. He'll have another chance to redeem a disappointing season if the Lakers do indeed need a win Wednesday night. As Silver Screen and Roll writes, the Lakers finally need him.
Meanwhile, the rest of the playoff picture has generally snapped into place. Regardless of whether the Lakers or Jazz makes it, their opponent is set, as the Thunder sealed the top seed -- and home-court advantage through the Western Conference playoffs -- with a win against Sacramento. That locked San Antonio into the two seed, and the Nuggets' 112-111 win over the Bucks on a Ty Lawson jumper in the lane gave them the No. 3 seed.
The Clippers have already sealed the No. 4 seed on a technicality -- they won their division -- but who gets home-court advantage in the first round against the Grizzlies is still up for grabs. Los Angeles is a half game behind Memphis, but can tie with a win Tuesday night against the scuttling Trail Blazers. Memphis is in the pivotal game against Utah Wednesday night, while the Clippers will play on the second night of a back-to-back against Sacramento.
The Rockets are in a similar situation to the Jazz in the fight for the sixth seed -- one game back, with the tiebreaker. It's not clear one would rather play the third-seeded Nuggets than the second-seeded Spurs. Stealing Denver's home-court advantage will be a toughie, and San Antonio is injured, but they'll still try to move up on the playoff bracket. As noted, they play the Lakers, while the Warriors will try to secure the sixth seed with a game against Portland.
Here's how the standings look with almost every team one game away from finishing their season:
|1||z - Oklahoma City||60||21||.741||-||Won 4||8-2|
|2||y - San Antonio||58||23||.716||2||Lost 2||4-6|
|3||x - Denver||56||25||.691||4||Won 2||7-3|
|4||y - LA Clippers||54||26||.675||5 ½||Won 5||6-4|
|5||x - Memphis||55||26||.679||5||Won 1||8-2|
|6||x - Golden State||46||35||.568||14||Won 1||6-4|
|7||x - Houston||45||36||.556||15||Lost 1||6-4|
|8||LA Lakers||44||37||.543||16||Won 4||8-2|
|Portland||33||47||.413||26 ½||Lost 11||0-10|
|New Orleans||27||54||.333||33||Lost 4||2-8|