The NBA playoff picture is taking its sweet time to crystallize.
With four days left to the regular season, not a single postseason matchup is known. As of Sunday morning, only each conference's top two teams have clinched a specific seed.
While the other six Eastern Conference squads are simply jockeying for positioning, five spots remain available for six Western Conference teams. There's only a 1.5-game difference between the No. 4 Utah Jazz—currently hosting a first-round tilt—and the No. 9-seeded Denver Nuggets.
All six of those teams will close the season on Wednesday night, so NBA fans must keep waiting for postseason details. For now, here's a look at each round's projected start date before diving deep into the wild West's playoff scramble.
NBA Playoff Start Dates:
April 14: First Round
April 30-May 1: Conference Semifinals
May 15-16: Conference Finals
May 31: NBA Finals
The Nuggets aren't going away quietly. Saturday's fifth-straight victory vaulted them into a tie with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the No. 8 seed while eliminating the Los Angeles Clippers.
Led by 25.4 points, 12.0 rebounds and 7.6 assists from Nikola Jokic, their offense is rolling with 119.0 points per game over those five victories. This stretch included a pivotal triumph over the Timberwolves, who still hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Yet Denver, who has not made the playoffs since 2012-13, could make that stalemate scenario moot by topping Minnesota on Wednesday night.
The Timberwolves' hopes of halting a 14-year postseason drought improved considerably on Friday, when Jimmy Butler returned to register 18 points in his first game since Feb. 23. Per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk, head coach Tom Thibodeau liked what he saw from his All-Star, who missed 17 games with a knee injury:
"I was pleasantly surprised at how well he played. Usually when a guy is out that amount of time, there is going to be some rust. But I thought his timing was terrific. His free throw shooting [4-of-8] was not typical of who he is, but overall very good and he was chomping at the bit to go in and that is a good sign also."
While Monday's matchup against the lottery-bound Memphis Grizzlies looks like an easy victory, Minnesota has already dropped both of their meetings, one of which included a healthy Butler. Competing for the No. 3 seed before he went down, the Timberwolves aren't a team the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors should want to encounter in the opening round.
Perceived as a postseason lock, the Thunder can't take that outcome for granted. Following a six-game winning streak earlier in March, they succumbed to a rough schedule with losses to the Boston Celtics, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Nuggets (in overtime) and Warriors by a combined 13 points.
Another defeat on Saturday night would have booted them to the No. 9 seed by virtue of a three-way tie with Denver and Minnesota. They are instead even with the Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans for the No. 5-7 spots after attaining an 108-102 triumph over the Rockets.
At 16.3 points per game, Carmelo Anthony is about to average fewer than 20 for the first time in his 16-year career. The 33-year-old is also setting personal nadirs in field-goal percentage (40.5) and assists (1.3) per game. On Saturday, however, he turned back the clock by scoring 14 of his 22 points in the first quarter.
Entering the game with a 28.9 three-point percentage in 20 previous second-half games, Paul George also drained three of this seven attempts from behind the arc. The Thunder must hope the former Pacers star has reversed his shooting woes in time to lead them into the playoffs.
After improving to 20-20 on the road, the Thunder will face the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on Monday. Yet, as noted by ESPN.com's Royce Young, they can avoid a collapse by handling a more favorable matchup to conclude the season:
Their latest victory showed why they're a dangerous first-round adversary despite a disappointing season.
The Spurs and Pelicans also picked up big wins to keep pace on Saturday night. That sets up a high-stakes showdown on Wednesday night that could break the No. 5-seed tie or even determine the No. 4 slot if the Jazz lose two of their final three games.
It could also expel the loser from the playoffs altogether. San Antonio has not missed the postseason since 1996-97, its last season before drafting Tim Duncan. Monday's game against the Sacramento Kings should preserve a spot for Gregg Popovich's squad, but the NBA fixture will fall short of 50 wins in an 82-game season for the first time in Duncan's career.
Of course, none of these battles may matter when it comes time to face the Warriors or Rockets. While the NBA has forced fans to accept such nihilistic truths, they can at least relish a thrilling few days of meaningful contests without any obvious outcomes.