The NBA regular season wraps up this week. What's at stake?

Monday, April 8, 2024

The NBA regular season has now entered the final week, but there's still plenty of play ahead of Sunday's last slate of games and the ensuing play-in tournament -- which goes from April 16 to 19.

Several teams are still fighting to clinch playoff spots and home-court advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs, which will begin April 20.

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics have long since secured the top spot. The Milwaukee Bucks are barely holding onto the No. 2 seed, while teams like the Philadelphia 76ers (and reigning MVP Joel Embiid) are trying to move up the standings.

Things couldn't be tighter in the Western Conference. Three teams -- the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Denver Nuggetsand the Oklahoma City Thunder -- are fighting for the top spot. Meanwhile, star-laden teams like the Los Angeles Lakers (led by LeBron James) and the Golden State Warriors (led by Stephen Curry) will likely have to emerge from the play-in tournament to make a postseason run.

Our NBA insiders look at the key games and big storylines to watch for as the NBA regular season wraps up.

1. What game this week are you keeping an eye on, and why?

Tim MacMahon: Timberwolves at Nuggets. The West's top seed could be decided Wednesday night in Denver, when these teams will both be on back-to-backs after playing lottery-bound teams the previous nights. Minnesota would claim the tiebreaker with a victory. The Timberwolves are already responsible for one of the Nuggets' eight home losses this season, winning March 29 -- a game that Denver guard Jamal Murray missed due a knee injury.

Jamal Collier: Not only could that Timberwolves-Nuggets game ultimately determine the No.1 seed in the West, it will give the teams in the bottom half of the bracket an idea where Denver will be seeded and set up a weekend of watching teams try to avoid a first-round matchup with the defending champions.

Kendra Andrews: Denver is the one team no one in the West wants to face in the first round. Not only will Tuesday's game against Minnesota possibly decide the No. 1 seed, it will determine who the teams fighting to make the play-in (including teams like the Lakers and the Warriors) could face in the first round.

Andrew Lopez: Wednesday's clash between the East's top two sides -- the Celtics and the Bucks -- will have some intrigue. Milwaukee has struggled as of late (losing four straight and six of their past seven) as they try to get into the playoffs with some sort of momentum. Boston has won two of three previous matchups this season including a 122-119 win March 20 when Bucks big man Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out with a hamstring injury. If Milwaukee wants to prove it is a legitimate threat to the Celtics in the playoffs, a win here would help.

Dave McMenamin: Lakers at the New Orleans Pelicans on the last day of the regular season. After L.A. dominated New Orleans in Las Vegas in the semifinals of the inaugural in-season tournament in December, it sparked a conversation about the career trajectory of Zion Williamson and what's gone wrong. Williamson has played some of his best ball since but will face a big test in Sunday's showdown against LeBron James & Co., with major seeding implications likely on the line.

2. What team has the MOST at stake in the final week of the season?

McMenamin: The Bucks are in an interesting spot. Milwaukee closes with games against the Celtics, the Thunder and two games against an Orlando Magic side right behind them in the standings. If the Bucks reach the conference finals and lose to the Celtics, it will be a disappointment but not a disaster. Anything less than conference finals run for Bucks coach Doc Rivers with this championship-hungry group would be an abject failure.

Collier: The 76ers. Sitting in seventh place, the Sixers could get back in the top-six of the standings and give reigning MVP Embiid an extra week to prepare and rest before the playoffs. If the Sixers avoid the play-in altogether, they could set themselves up for a deep playoff run.

Lopez: Just two weeks ago, the Pelicans were 17 games over .500 and up to No. 4 in the West. Now, they've tumbled into the No. 7 spot and will be hoping to avoid slipping further in the standings. New Orleans finishes with road games at Portland, Sacramento and Golden State before a home matchup against the Lakers -- which could end up being a massive game for seeding purposes. Failing in the play-in tournament for the second year in a row after holding home-court advantage just three weeks prior would be disastrous for the franchise.

Andrews: The Sacramento Kings' fall into the play-in bracket has been tough, and it's not going to get any easier. They have four games left, and three of them are against competitive West teams above them in the standings (Oklahoma City, New Orleans and the Phoenix Suns). If they can at least secure the No. 6 or No. 7 seed at this point, that would be considered a win.

MacMahon:As things stand, the Kings are in the No. 8 seed -- which means they would need to beat the Pelicans to advance into the playoffs. If they lost, they would likely play either the Warriors or the Lakers in a win-or-go-home matchup in the 9/10 game. It was Golden State which eliminated Sacramento in the first round of the playoffs with a Game 7 win last season. The Kings do own the tiebreaker over the Lakers, who are also stuck in the play-in bracket, after sweeping this season's series.

3. In the East, it's been the Celtics and everyone else. Which team should Boston fear most?

MacMahon: Fear is too strong of a word, but who wants to see Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat in the playoffs? Certainly not the Celtics, who have encountered that in three of the past four postseasons, getting eliminated by Miami twice and surviving a Game 7 on the other occasion. This is Boston's best team of this era after last summer's personnel upgrades, including Jrue Holiday, but Butler averaged 37.6 points while eliminating Holiday's Bucks in the first round last season.

Collier: The way the past two weeks in the Eastern Conference have gone, the Celtics really should not fear any team on their way to the NBA Finals. Milwaukee may still be poised to give Boston its best series, and Boston will surely be paying attention to where Philly winds up in the standings, considering how Embiid looked in his return last week after his two-month absence from a knee injury.

Andrews: With the Bucks sputtering right now, it feels as though the 76ers are most poised to give the Celtics a hard time. If Embiid can get into a good groove, the Sixers could make a competitive push in the playoffs.

McMenamin: Boston is still the class of the East, but I'd also give Philly a puncher's chance. Maybe this is putting too much faith in the reigning MVP's ability to manage his ailing left knee, but I have to think that Embiid didn't push to return when he did unless he had plans to make some noise. A recent big man who went up against Embiid following his return told me he was blown away by how fit the Sixers center stayed during his rehab. After coming up short against Boston in Game 7 of the conference semis last year, Embiid will have plenty of motivation if the teams play again.

Lopez: It may be slightly cliché, but the team the Celtics have to worry about the most are themselves. When you have a 15-game lead in the standings, it would be easy to get complacent heading into the playoffs against whoever might be the No. 8 seed. Some of those potential matchups -- especially if it's the Heat or the Sixers -- could be scary enough. But making sure everything is right within their own squad should be the priority.

4. Which of the West's top seeds should be most concerned about its potential first-round matchup?

MacMahon: The Oklahoma City Thunder, who probably prefer not to go against the Lakers -- a big, physical team that matches well against an undersized OKC squad. The Lakers went 3-1 against the Thunder this season, winning each of the past three meetings. The Thunder got bullied by bulky Lakers superstars LeBron James (who averaged 26.4 points and 9.3 rebounds) and Anthony Davis (27.0 ppg, 13.0 rpg) in those matchups. There is also quite a drastic difference in playoff experience. James has 282 games of playoff experience; the entire Thunder roster has 108.

McMenamin: Beyond the experience edge and regular-season success the Lakers have had against the Thunder, there's also the question of whether the formula for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's impact -- shooting 8.6 free throws per game, third most in the league -- would translate in playoff basketball.

Andrews: If it's not the Lakers for the Thunder, it could be another veteran-led team in the Warriors. OKC does hold the 3-1 regular-season series over Stephen Curry and Co., but don't count out the experience factor. If the Warriors want a chance at making a postseason run, the Thunder is their most favorable matchup.

Collier:The LA Clippers were one of the best teams in the conference a few months ago, but the Dallas Maverickshave seized that role since the All-Star break, setting up a potential third playoff meeting in five seasons. While the Clippers have advanced in both of those previous matchups despite stellar performances from Luka Doncic, the idea of going against him (along with Kyrie Irving) in a potential No. 4 vs. No. 5 seed matchup should give them reason to be concerned.

Lopez: The Timberwolves, but has more to do with the health of Karl-Anthony Towns than anything else. Minnesota is still 11-5 since Towns went out with his meniscus tear, but the playoffs are different. With the Warriors and Lakers still in play as possible matchups in the first round, that will be a big test for Anthony Edwards and the Wolves.

5. There will be eight play-in teams. Which one is poised to make a big postseason run or exceed expectations?

Lopez: The Western Conference play-in race shifts on a nightly basis. But one thing that looks certain is that it will contain the Warriors, as it's just hard to count out Curry in any race. As the Heat proved last season, it is possible for a team to reach the NBA Finals from the play-in tournament.

Andrews: The 76ers have the experience, championship aspirations and the reigning MVP. They were hurt during the regular season because of an onslaught of injuries, so if they build momentum during the play-in tournament, it could bode well for them.

Collier: I'll go with Philly as well, just because this is shaping up as the first postseason in recent Sixers history without much postseason expectations. But they could be getting healthy at the right time while the top of the East is faltering.

MacMahon: The team that wins the 7-8 game in the East play-in tournament -- whether that is the Heat, the Sixers or the Pacers -- and books a first-round series against the struggling Bucks. Since the beginning of March, the Bucks have been under .500 and have lost four straight games, including a three-game stretch to the Raptors, Grizzlies and Wizards -- all teams that will be in the top half of the lottery. The only reason the Bucks remain in second place is because the Cleveland Cavaliers have been even worse --10-16 (.385) since the All-Star break.

McMenamin: After making it to the conference finals as the No. 7 seed last season, there's no chance the Lakers can exceed external expectations this time around. The fanbase wants a trip to the NBA Finals. That said, they are a confident group with internal expectations to make a long run once again. I also think Philly is a team that could go deep in the postseason from the play-in tourney and actually be commended for it.

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