2021 NBA playoff picture, standings with four days left: Can Lakers avoid play-in?

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
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There are just four days left in the NBA regular season, yet a lot is still undecided when it comes to seeding — or even who is in the Play-in Tournament.

There are a lot of moving parts; let’s break it down team by team.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

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1. Philadelphia 76ers (47-22)

Despite an Embiid-less loss to the Pacers, Philly is still fully in control of getting the No. 1 seed: It is 1.5 games up on Brooklyn (2 in the loss column) with three games to play. And two of the Sixers remaining games are against the tanking Magic. Getting the top seed matters because the 76ers are 27-7 at home this season, plus it lets Brooklyn and Milwaukee beat each other up on the other side of the bracket.

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2. Brooklyn Nets (44-24)

James Harden is back and that is huge for Brooklyn — The Nets are 28-7 when he plays and 11-11 when he does not. Of course, now Kyrie Irving is out (facial contusion) because that just the way this season has gone in Brooklyn. Nothing is locked in, but the Nets appear headed for the two seed — 1.5 games behind the 76ers and 1.5 games ahead of the No. 3 seed Bucks. The real question with the Nets is not seeding but health.

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3. Milwaukee Bucks (44-25)

The Bucks appear destined for the No. 3 seed, but they are just one game back of Brooklyn in the loss column. Milwaukee closes the season at Indiana, home to Miami, then at Chicago. The more interesting thing for the Bucks may be seeing which team of the Hawks, Knicks, and Heat fall to sixth and becomes their first-round opponent.

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4. Atlanta Hawks (39-31)

With Wednesday’s 120-116 win over the Wizards, the Hawks secured their first playoff trip since 2017. Now the focus is on getting the four seed and hosting a first-round series. Atlanta is in essentially a three-way tie with New York and Miami (all three have 31 losses), and the Hawks’ final two games are against the tanking Magic and Rockets. If all three of the Hawks/Heat/Knicks remain tied, Atlanta has the tiebreaker and gets to be the four seed.

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5. Miami Heat (38-31)

Miami has a playoff spot secured, the focus now turns to getting the fourth or fifth seed and avoiding the Bucks or Nets in the first round. It means the Heat need wins, but that will be a challenge with the 76ers and Bucks the next two teams on the schedule (the Heat finish with the Pistons Sunday). Of the three teams bunched up at 4/5/6 in the East, the Heat have the toughest schedule by far.

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6. New York Knicks (38-31)

The New York Knicks are officially back in the playoffs, having secured a spot without having to take the court on Tuesday (Boston’s loss gave the Knicks the spot). Now it becomes about seeding, and specifically avoiding the No. 6 seed and (likely) the Bucks in the first round. New York needs wins to get ahead of Atlanta and/or Miami (the tiebreakers are generally not good for New York). The Knicks have three games left: Spurs, Hornets, Celtics.

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7. Boston Celtics (35-35)

The Celtics are headed to the play-in tournament and are even stumbling into that with back-to-back losses to the Heat, followed by an ugly defeat at the hands of the tanking Cavaliers. Part of the reason for the loss to the Cavaliers is Kemba WalkerMarcus SmartJaylen Brown and Robert Williams were all out with injuries — Boston has to get healthy before the play-in games and, hopefully, the playoffs beyond that. The Celtics could fall to the No. 8 seed and need one more win to be sure. They close against the Timberwolves and Knicks.

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8. Charlotte Hornets (33-36)

The Hornets are tied with the Pacers for the 8/9 seed, but Charlotte has the tiebreaker. Getting the eighth seed is huge: Whoever is eighth needs to win one of two play-in games to advance to the playoffs, but the nine seed has to win two games to advance out of the play-in. Not an easy closing stretch for the Hornets with the Clippers, Knicks, and Wizards — that Sunday game against Washington could decide the eighth seed.

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9. Indiana Pacers (33-36)

Indiana is headed to the play-in, a spot secured with the surprising win against Philadelphia Tuesday. Now the goal for the Pacers becomes securing the No. 8 seed and an easier path out of the play-in, but the Pacers need wins and their next two games are the Bucks and Lakers (in the game where LeBron is expected to return). Indy closes with Toronto but needs an upset win before that.

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9. Washington Wizards (32-38)

A couple of losses in a row without Bradley Beal (hamstring) has the Wizards back to the 10th seed, but they still could climb all the way to eighth. Washington’s final three games are Atlanta, Cleveland, and Charlotte: Win one of those and lock up the play-in tournament’s final spot. Win out and there’s a chance the Wizards play the Hornets with the eighth seed on the line on Sunday.

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11. Chicago Bulls (29-40)

Mathematically alive, realistically not. The Bulls have to win out and hope the Wizards lose out to get the 10 seed.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

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1. Utah Jazz (50-20)

A couple of losses down the stretch has kept the door open for Phoenix to take the top seed — the Suns do have the tiebreaker and are just 1.5 games back (one in the loss column). The Jazz still control their own destiny: win out and they get the top seed. Utah’s final two games are on the road but winnable: at Oklahoma City and Sacramento. The No. 1 seed matters in the West beyond home court; it likely means avoiding the Lakers in the first round (assuming they win the 7/8 play-in game), and it keeps the Clippers on the other side of the bracket.

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2. Phoenix Suns (48-21)

If the Suns win out they have a shot at the No. 1 seed, but that will not be easy with Portland up first, followed by two games at San Antonio. Most likely, Phoenix is headed to the No. 2 seed. While all the talk around the Suns will be about Chris Paul and Devin Booker in the playoffs, the real key to success may be Mikal Bridges — he has had an All-Defensive Team level season, and in a season when the Suns could see LeBron and the Lakers in the first round, his defense will be critical.

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3. Los Angeles Clippers (46-23)

Kawhi Leonard and company still need wins down the stretch to hold off the Nuggets and keep the three seed — Denver is one game back and has the tiebreaker. However, with the Hornets, Rockets, and Thunder their final three opponents, the Clippers should hold on. The banged-up Clippers really could use those 5 – 6 days off during the play-in tournament.

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4. Denver Nuggets (45-24)

The Nuggets remain just one game back of the Clippers for the three seed — and Denver has the tiebreaker — but they will need help to get there. First, the Nuggets would need to win at least two and likely all three of their final games: At the Timberwolves, Pistons, and Trail Blazers. Denver has secured a top-four seed; they will host a first-round series, but who will be their guests could be up the air until the final day (and the game against Portland could have a big say in it.

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5. Portland Trail Blazers (41-29)

It was a critical win for Portland over Utah on Tuesday — the Blazers have gone 9-1 in their last 10 and now control their own destiny for securing the five seed. Portland just needs to win out, but with games against Phoenix and Denver that is far easier said than done. If Portland loses out it still could fall behind the Lakers (if LA wins out)
all the way to the No. 7 seed and the play-in tournament.

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6. Dallas Mavericks (41-29)

Tuesday’s win over New Orleans mattered, and not just because it knocked the Pelicans out of play-in contention — Kristaps Porzingis returned after missing seven games and had 19 points. Dallas is tied with Portland for the No. 5 seed, but the Trail Blazers have the tiebreaker. The Mavericks’ advantage in that race is a much easier closing schedule, taking on the Raptors and Timberwolves. If the Mavericks were to stumble down the stretch and lose both, the Lakers could still pass them and drop Dallas to the play-in games.

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7. Los Angeles Lakers (40-30)

Picking up a win Tuesday over Houston without LeBron James or Anthony Davis was critical for Los Angeles — and LeBron reportedly will return to the court Saturday. The Lakers will need help from the teams above them stumbling down the stretch (Portland is the most likely due to a tough closing schedule), but the Lakers need to win out this weekend against Indiana and New Orleans to even have a chance. Most likely, the Lakers are headed to the 7/8 play-in game.

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8. Golden State Warriors (37-33)

Back-to-back wins against the Jazz and Suns is impressive, and it keeps the Warriors on track for a 7/8 showdown with the Lakers. If the Warriors can beat the Zion-less Pelicans on Friday, it sets up a Sunday showdown with the Grizzlies that could decide the No. 8 seed out West. (Getting the No. 8 seed is huge: It only has to win one of two play-in games to advance to the playoffs, fall to No. 9 and the team has to win two games to move on.)

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9. Memphis Grizzlies (36-33)

Memphis has secured a play-in spot, which is an accomplishment worth celebrating for a young roster that dealt with a lot of injuries this season. Now the focus turns to trying to get the No. 8 seed: Memphis has a back-to-back against shorthanded Sacramento and likely needs to win both to set up a Sunday showdown with Golden State for eighth.

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10. San Antonio (33-36)

Wednesday’s loss to the Nets in Harden’s return — unlucky timing for the Spurs — essentially locks San Antonio into the 10 seed. San Antonio’s magic number is one: If the Spurs can win one of their final three games — the Knicks and two against the Suns — or get one Sacramento loss, the Spurs are in the play-in tournament.

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12. Sacramento Kings (30-38)

Mathematically alive, realistically not. The Kings need to win out — two against Memphis, one against the Jazz — and have the Spurs lose out to get up to the 10 seed.