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

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

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.


Sixers small icon

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.

Nets small icon

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.

Bucks small icon

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.

Hawks small icon

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.

Heat small icon

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.

Knicks small icon

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.

Celtics small icon

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.

Hornets small icon

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.

Pacers small icon

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.

Wizards small icon

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.

Bulls small icon

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.


Jazz small icon

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.

Suns small icon

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.

Clippers small icon

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.

Nuggets small icon

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.

Blazers small icon

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.

Mavericks small icon

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.

Lakers small icon

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.

Warriors small icon

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.)

Grizzlies small icon

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.

Spurs small icon

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.

Kings small icon

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.

Three things to watch, with betting tips, as Miami tries to slow Jokić, Denver offense


MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra, Michael Malone, and their staffs have been pouring over film and losing sleep, trying to come up with adjustments. Everyone is looking for that little edge.

But four games into a series, there are not a lot of secrets left. Everyone knows what is coming. It can be more about execution and effort over adjustments.

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” the Heat’s Haywood Highsmith said. “It’s definitely some things we can adjust on, and then it’s also about a little bit more effort and just doing more. You always need more, always can do more… we definitely have to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor, but you know, we’ll figure it out.”

The Heat need to figure it out before Game 4 on Friday night, because they can’t afford to go down 3-1 to the Nuggets in this series. Game 4 is as close as it gets to must-win for Jimmy Butler and the Heat.

Here are two things worth watching in Game 4, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) Miami has to slow the Jokic/Murray two-man game. Somehow.

Denver’s defense has been impressive in these Finals, holding Miami to a 111.1 offensive rating through three games (for comparison, that is 7.2 below their offensive rating against Boston).

Part of the reason is that Nikola Jokić can be a better rim protector and defensive player than people give him credit for. Another key is Malone has been able to lean hard into more defensive-based lineups because the two-man game of Jamal Murray and Jokić has been all the offense the Nuggets need.

The Murray/Jokic pick-and-roll has been a masterclass in this series. In Game 3, the Denver stars ran 32 pick-and-rolls, and those plays were the foundation of each of them getting a 30-point triple-double (the first teammates to have a 30+ point triple-double in any NBA game).

“I mean, the Murray/Jokic two-man game is a pretty hard action to stop,” Haywood Highsmith said. “But we got great defensive players, got some of the great two-way players in this game, Jimmy [Butler] and Bam [Adebayo], so we’re gonna figure it out. We got a lot of different bodies we can throw at Murray as well.”

Miami may need to sell out to stop Jokić and Murray and force any other Nugget to beat them. The Heat did blitz the pick-and-roll more in the fourth quarter of Game 3, but that led to Christian Braun cuts to the basket and Denver buckets. Miami may have to live with some of that, they have to keep Murray in particular in check (it feels like Jokić will get his no matter what).

“Whatever you do, you just can’t do it all the time,” Spoelstra said of defending the Nuggets duo. “There’s no absolutes when you get to this level. It’s the highest level of competition. You’re getting the highest level of execution. Understanding what they’re trying to get to, and we try to get them out of their comfort zones as much as possible.

“The first half, they really got to that two-man action quite a bit. They were getting a lot of traction, so they didn’t need to go to any other part of their playbook.”

Miami needs to see the rest of that playbook.

2) Miami has to make shots, rebound, set defense

The best way for Miami to limit the Jokic/Murray action and the Denver offense in general is to slow the game down. Make them go against a set defense every time down. That didn’t happen enough in Game 3 — Denver was free-flowing on offense when Miami needs the game played in the mud.

For the Heat to change that dynamic two key things need to happen.

First, Miami has to make shots. It’s simplistic but it’s true. Denver isn’t going to run if they are taking the ball out of the net.

That starts with 3-pointers, because as has been noted everywhere the Heat are 6-1 when they shoot 45% or better from 3 this postseason, and unreasonably hot shooting has sustained their run to the Finals. The Heat starters were 5-of-19 (26.3%) from beyond the arc in Game 3, which is simply not good enough — Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and the role players must step up and knock down shots. However, the bigger concern in Game 3 was the Heat shooting 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. The Nuggets’ size is clearly bothering the Heat. Jimmy Butler needs to get downhill and then make the shots, Bam Adebayo has to get the floater to fall.

Second, the Heat can’t let the Nuggets win the rebounding battle by 25. Denver’s size advantage has played out in this series in many ways (including how they contested 3s in Game 3), but it is most clearly on the glass. Miami is getting one shot and they’re done, but the Nuggets grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.1% of their missed shots in Game 3, and if you give them that many second chances you will pay.

It will take gang rebounding and effort, but the Heat must be stronger on the glass.

3) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations

Over/Under: The total continues to drop from game-by-game starting at 219.5 then going from 216.5 to 214.5 and now 210.5 for Game 4. Denver and Miami have struggled with consistency when it comes to scoring, Miami a little more than Denver. The Nuggets are shooting 51% to Miami’s 41% from the field and averaging 10 more free-throw attempts per game. The pace and tempo of this series has barely changed through three games and if it wasn’t for Miami’s 38-point fourth quarter in Game 2, the Under would be 3-0 in this NBA Finals. I will keep riding the Under.

Player Props: In this series there have been four players worth betting overs; Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. On the other hand, there have been some very good fade prospects for unders such as Kevin Love, Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who are all shooting 31% or worse from the field. When betting player props in the NBA Finals, keep it simple stupid (KISS).

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)

PBT Podcast: Heat vs. Nuggets NBA Finals talk, Vogel to Suns


After three games of the NBA Finals, there are still so many questions. Can the Heat stop the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokić pick-and-roll? Will Miami find 3-point shot again and will that be enough? Is Denver the team that does not wilt under the pressure Miami puts on them? Is there a better player on the planet than Nikola Jokić?

Corey Robinson and Kurt Helin from NBC Sports get into all of that, then talk coaching hires. Is Frank Vogel a good hire in Phoenix? speaking of coach talk, Corey’s Jukebox talks Monty Williams and how a classic Aretha Franklin song sums him up.

Finally, the conversation turns to Team USA and the roster headed to the Philippines for the World Cup this summer — a lot of young, athletic talent, but will any of the American NBA elites join them? Also, who is your favorite NBA mascot?

You can watch the video of some of the podcast above or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Miami has thrived in adversity all playoffs. They have plenty of it in Game 4.


MIAMI — Throughout the Heat’s playoff run, Erik Spoelstra has been confiding in and getting encouragement from another Miami coach — and it’s not Pat Riley.

Dolphins’ coach Mike McDaniel and Spoelstra have become friends.

“We’ve been texting back and forth,” Spoelstra said. “We share very similar thoughts about finding strength in adversity and using those as lessons to help you grow.”

Through that prism, the Heat have a real growth opportunity Friday night.

Miami trails Denver 2-1 in the NBA Finals heading into Game 4, and while that game is not technically must win for the Heat, it is in practice.

Getting that win means Miami finding some way to slow the Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray two-man game. Which is what every team has tried to do all playoffs long with no success, but Game 3 was the peak of their two-man game. The Nuggets stars ran 32 pick-and-rolls in Game 3, and those plays were the heart of both getting a 30+ point triple-double — the first teammates ever to have a 30+ point triple-double in any NBA game, ever. Murray and Jokić played 40 minutes together in Game 2 and the Nuggets were +14 in those minutes (in a game they won by 15).

“I mean, the Murray/Jokic two-man game is a pretty hard action to stop,” Haywood Highsmith said. “But we got great defensive players, got some of the great two-way players in this game, Jimmy [Butler] and Bam [Adebayo], so we’re gonna figure it out. We got a lot of different bodies we can throw at Murray as well.”

That might be the best adjustment the Heat can make —throw a lot of bodies at it, sell out to stop the Murray/Jokic two-man game and dare any other Nugget to beat them. Force them to diversify the offense. Denver coach Mike Malone has been able to lean into defensive lineups because Murray and Jokić provide enough offense, it’s time for the Heat to challenge that practice.

“Whatever you do, you just can’t do it all the time,” Spoelstra said of defending the Nuggets duo. “There’s no absolutes when you get to this level. It’s the highest level of competition. You’re getting the highest level of execution. Understanding what they’re trying to get to, and we try to get them out of their comfort zones as much as possible.

“The first half, they really got to that two-man action quite a bit. They were getting a lot of traction, so they didn’t need to go to any other part of their playbook.”

The Heat need to make adjustments, too.

One adjustment they will not make is playing Tyler Herro, he has been officially ruled out for Game 4. Herro went through a brief part of the fake practice/shootaround in front of the media on Thursday, but didn’t speak to the press. Spoelstra said Herro has not yet been cleared for a game, and while there were not a lot of details it didn’t sound like Herro was all that close.

Another thing the Heat need to do is less adjustment and more effort and luck — they simply have to shoot better.

Denver’s size bothered the Heat in the paint and Miami shot just 38.2% within eight feet of the basket. The Heat also got up 35 attempts from 3 but only hit 31.4% of that. Credit Denver’s size in the paint and they’re staying home with shooters for some of that, but Miami can — and Friday night must — do better.

Which brings up an interesting question: This deep into a playoff series, is it more about strategic adjustments, or effort and just playing better?

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Highsmith said. “It’s definitely some things we can adjust on, and then it’s also about a little bit more effort and just doing more. You always need more, always can do more… we definitely have to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor, but you know, we’ll figure it out.”

Whatever Miami does defensively, Denver will score, they have an elite offense led by a two-time MVP in Jokić. If the Heat are going to even this series headed back to the Rocky Mountains, they must find more offense.

“I mean, they, they have a really good defensive scheme. They have good defensive players,” Duncan Robinson said. “You know, for us offensively, it’s going to be about creating advantages and really putting pressure on their schemes and their players to scramble and kind of get them a motion and a lot of that happens when we’re moving the ball attacking, playing to our identity.

“We had stretches last night, and definitely stretches in this series where we’ve done it. And, we’ve definitely had stretches where we haven’t gotten to that as much as we’d like to, so we’ll continue to work through it.”

They have to work through it fast because time is running out.

Bucks’ Middleton reportedly has knee scoped, should be ready for camp

2023 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The Bucks said an MRI of Khris Middleton‘s knee just before the start of the playoffs was clean even if his play made observers question that news.

Turns out, maybe it wasn’t totally clean.

Middleton had his knee scoped after the playoffs, but he will return to his offseason training in July, reports Shams Charania and Eric Nehm of The Athletic.

The report said the surgery was to clean up “an issue that plagued him this past season,” and it was scheduled before the Bucks’ playoff run began. So, they knew, as did most anyone who watched Middleton and didn’t see the same burst as he had in the past, especially on the defensive end. He looked a step slow.

This minor surgery shouldn’t change Middleton’s or the Bucks’ off-season plans. Whatever those may be. Middleton has a $40.4 million player option, something he reportedly is considering opting out of to re-sign a longer deal with Milwaukee — or elsewhere — likely at a lower per-season salary but with more total dollars (the team may also reach an extension with him). At age 31, Middleton may want the security of years.

Milwaukee needs Middleton and his shot creation, plus his two-way play, if they are going to compete at the highest levels. However, they need the healthy Middleton who was an All-Star and All-NBA player, not the one that only played in 33 games last season due to wrist surgery and knee issues.

It will be an interesting offseason in Milwaukee with 35-year-old Brook Lopez a free agent and Jrue Holiday becoming extension eligible in the fall. The Bucks had the best record in the NBA last season, but the roster is getting old and expensive fast, and a pivot is coming. At some point. But maybe not this summer.