NBA Playoff Picture 2021: Standings, Bracket and Key Storylines Down the Stretch
After winning the NBA title last season, the Los Angeles Lakers are in a bit of trouble as this year's playoffs draws closer. And if they don't turn things around soon, their appearance in the 2020-21 postseason could be brief.
The Lakers fell to the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night, marking their eighth loss in the past 10 games. It also dropped them to the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. In recent years, that meant Los Angeles would be lined up to play the No. 2 seed in the first round of the playoffs. But this year, it would be forced to participate in the play-in tournament featuring the Nos. 7-10 seeds.
If the Lakers stay at No. 7, their playoff run could end after two games should they lose both. They could still get into the first round by winning either their first game or their potential second game, but every team would rather get into the top six in the conference and not have to play extra games to reach the opening round.
Here's a look at the full NBA playoff picture, followed by some key storylines to watch over the final week of the regular season.
Current Playoff Picture
1. Philadelphia 76ers (47-21, clinched playoff berth)
2. Brooklyn Nets (44-24, clinched playoff berth)
3. Milwaukee Bucks (43-24, clinched division)
4. New York Knicks (37-30)
5. Atlanta Hawks (37-31)
6. Miami Heat (36-31)
7. Boston Celtics (35-32)
8. Charlotte Hornets (33-34)
9. Washington Wizards (32-36)
10. Indiana Pacers (31-36)
11. Chicago Bulls (28-39)
12. Toronto Raptors (27-41)
13. Orlando Magic (21-46, eliminated)
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (21-46, eliminated)
15. Detroit Pistons (20-48, eliminated)
No. 1 76ers vs. play-in tournament runner-up
No. 2 Nets vs. play-in tournament winner
No. 3 Bucks vs. No. 6 Heat
No. 4 Knicks vs. No. 5 Hawks
Play-in tournament field: No. 7 Celtics, No. 8 Hornets, No. 9 Wizards, No. 10 Pacers
1. Utah Jazz (50-18, clinched division)
2. Phoenix Suns (48-19, clinched playoff berth)
3. Los Angeles Clippers (45-22, clinched playoff berth)
4. Denver Nuggets (44-24, clinched playoff berth)
5. Dallas Mavericks (39-28, clinched division)
6. Portland Trail Blazers (39-29)
7. Los Angeles Lakers (37-30)
8. Golden State Warriors (35-33)
9. Memphis Grizzlies (34-33)
10. San Antonio Spurs (32-35)
11. New Orleans Pelicans (30-37)
12. Sacramento Kings (29-38)
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (21-47, eliminated)
14. Minnesota Timberwolves (20-47, eliminated)
15. Houston Rockets (16-52, eliminated)
No. 1 Jazz vs. play-in tournament runner-up
No. 2 Suns vs. play-in tournament winner
No. 3 Clippers vs. No. 6 Trail Blazers
No. 4 Nuggets vs. No. 5 Mavericks
Play-in tournament field: No. 7 Lakers, No. 8 Warriors, No. 9 Grizzlies, No. 10 Spurs
Lakers Looking to Get Back on Track, Avoid Play-In Tourney
As the Lakers look to climb back up the standings, they have got a pair of challenging matchups over the next three days. They host the Suns on Sunday and then face the New York Knicks at home Tuesday. If they win those games, they would set themselves up to finish the regular season strong.
Los Angeles' final three games are against the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans, each of which is 10th or lower in its conference. That presents an opportunity for the Lakers to reestablish momentum and potentially avoid having to participate in the play-in tournament.
But nothing's been going easy for the Lakers of late. And a real possibility that the champions will have some extra work to do before reaching the first round of the playoffs.
"Wherever we land, we're confident," Los Angeles coach Frank Vogel said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "Obviously we still want to finish in the top six. We still have five games to make up some ground if that's possible."
Not only do the Lakers need to play well, but they also need the Trail Blazers to stumble. But Portland has won seven of its past eight games and appears to be surging at the right time with four regular-season games remaining.
Heat, Celtics Battling for No. 6 Seed in East
Last year, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics met in the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, they are battling for the No. 6 seed to avoid having to participate in the play-in tournament.
Miami is in the No. 6 seed, but Boston is only one game back at No. 7. Of course, it's still possible that both make it into the top six, as No. 4 New York and/or the No. 5 Atlanta Hawks could still slide down into the play-in tournament berths if either team struggles over the next week.
But it could come down to the Heat and Celtics battling for No. 6 (as they have been of late), with one of those two heading to the play-in tournament. Each team has five regular-season games remaining, and the next two are head-to-head matchups, which could be huge for seeding.
While Miami has won eight of its past 11 games, Boston has lost six of its past 10. If things keep trending in that direction, then the Celtics may not be heading to the first round of the playoffs (if at all). However, there's still time for that to change.
Can Jazz, 76ers Hold On to No. 1 Seeds?
The Philadelphia 76ers haven't been the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference since 2001. The Utah Jazz haven't been the top seed in the Western Conference since 1998. But if the regular season ended today, that's where both of those teams would be for the playoffs.
Philadelphia is in great position to hold on to the No. 1 seed, as it has a three-game advantage over the Brooklyn Nets with four regular-season games still to play. The 76ers are on an eight-game winning streak, and their final two games are home matchups against the Orlando Magic, who have long been eliminated from postseason contention.
Utah's lead in the West isn't as firm, as Phoenix is making things interesting heading into the final week of the regular season. The Jazz have a 1.5-game lead with four games remaining, two of which are against teams eliminated from playoff contention. The Suns have five games still to play, but all of them are against teams that are likely to make at least the play-in tournament.
Even if either falls to the No. 2 seed, Philadelphia and Utah will still be teams to watch when the playoffs get underway. But it's always nice to have home-court advantage deep into the postseason, which is what these two teams are playing for.