NBA Playoff Picture 2021: Lakers, Warriors in Mix for Play-In Tournament Seeds
LeBron James made headlines recently when he told reporters that the creator of the NBA's play-in tournament format "needs to be fired." And it's becoming a more realistic possibility that his Los Angeles Lakers could be one of the four Western Conference teams playing in it.
On Thursday night, the Lakers fell to the Los Angeles Clippers 118-94, marking their seventh loss in the past nine games. James didn't play, as he's continuing to deal with an ankle injury that has limited him to 43 games this season. And without him, the Lakers are trending in the wrong direction with the end of the regular season a little more than a week away.
While the top six teams will secure a spot in the first round of the playoffs, there's the potential for plenty of star power in the play-in tournament considering the teams that could end up featuring. The Golden State Warriors are likely going to be one of the four Western Conference teams, which will mark a return to the playoffs for them after going an NBA-worst 15-50 last season.
Here's a look at the NBA playoff picture, followed by more on some of the key storylines to follow late in the regular season.
Latest Playoff Bracket
1. x-Philadelphia 76ers vs. play-in tournament runner-up
2. x-Brooklyn Nets vs. play-in tournament winner
3. y-Milwaukee Bucks vs. 6. Boston Celtics
4. New York Knicks vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks
Play-in tournament field: 7. Miami Heat, 8. Charlotte Hornets, 9. Indiana Pacers, 10. Washington Wizards
1. x-Utah Jazz vs. play-in tournament runner-up
2 x-Phoenix Suns vs. play-in tournament winner
3. x-Los Angeles Clippers vs. 6. Los Angeles Lakers
4. x-Denver Nuggets vs. 5. Dallas Mavericks
Play-in tournament field: 7. Portland Trail Blazers, 8. Golden State Warriors, 9. Memphis Grizzlies, 10. San Antonio Spurs
*x: clinched playoff berth; y: clinched division
Can Lakers Get Back on Track and Stay in Top Six?
The Lakers' quest to repeat as NBA champions may have to start in the play-in tournament. They are the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, but they have the same record (37-29) as the No. 7-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. And the two teams are set to play in Portland on Friday night.
But Los Angeles will likely again be without James, as Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported that James is "aiming to return" next week, probably on either Tuesday or Wednesday. That means he could miss games against the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks, the highest-ranked remaining opponents on the Lakers' schedule after Friday's game.
After that tough stretch, the Lakers end the regular season with games against the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans, so there's the potential for them to get back on track, build some momentum and avoid the play-in tournament. Los Angeles could still move up to the No. 5 seed as well because it's only one game back of the Dallas Mavericks.
James has made it clear how he feels about the play-in tournament, and no top team is going to want to have to play an extra game or two to get into the playoffs. But if the Lakers don't improve, that could be their fate.
Curry Keeps Powering Warriors Toward Postseason
Even though the Warriors are 34-33 and in eighth in the Western Conference, they have the potential to be a dangerous team in the postseason. And that's because they have Stephen Curry.
As expected, Curry is leading Golden State's charge to get back into the playoffs. He dropped 34 points on 11-of-21 shooting in a 118-97 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night, and he's scored 30 or more points in each of his past five games, raising his season average to an NBA-best 31.6 points per game.
"Any time you step on the floor with Steph Curry, there's an advantage there," Warriors forward Draymond Green recently said, per Jon Becker of the Mercury News. "So, teams are terrified of him. And everywhere he runs on the floor, with or without the ball, teams are terrified. That type of gravity, he pulls a lot of weight."
Golden State has opened May with three wins in four games, and it has a half-game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed. That's an important battle, as the winner of the play-in tourney game between the No. 7 and No. 8 seed will move on to the first round of the playoffs, while the winner of the No. 9-No. 10 game will then have to play the loser of the former matchup for the final spot in the opening round.
Wizards Closing In on Securing Play-In Tourney Berth
Over the past month, the Washington Wizards have won 14 of their 18 games. And they are consequently moving closer to securing a spot in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, especially after their 131-129 overtime win over the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night.
Washington has a 3.5-game advantage over the Chicago Bulls and a four-game lead over Toronto, the only teams that still have a chance to move up into the play-in tournament picture. Meanwhile, the Wizards could still improve their seeding, as they are only a half-game back of the No. 9 Indiana Pacers and 1.5 games back of the Charlotte Hornets, who are in eighth.
Russell Westbrook continues to be a key reason for Washington's success. On Thursday, he tallied 13 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists for his 180th career triple-double, only one behind Oscar Robertson for the most in NBA history.
With Westbrook and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, the Wizards could be a team to watch in the postseason, as they could emerge from the play-in tournament with a chance to pull off a first-round upset. But they will have to keep playing as well as they have in recent weeks.