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.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
63

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,325

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors
Feb. 13 at Trail Blazers

When is LeBron projected to break the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 9 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, although a hot game on Feb. 7 against the Thunder could make that game a possibility.

How long has Kareem held the scoring record?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the all-time scoring record — to far less fanfare than is happening with LeBron — on April 5, 1984, when he scored his 31,420th point, breaking the record which had been held by Wilt Chamberlain. This was the height of the Showtime Lakers era and the team made the Finals that season but lost in seven games to Larry Bird and the Celtics. The Lakers would win the NBA title three of the next four years and Kareem would keep adding to that point total and his legacy until he retired after the 1989 season.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron scored 26 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists on Thursday night. He also gave the Lakers their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 2:35 left, and the Lakers held on to beat the Pacers 112-111. LeBron shot 11-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-5 from 3 for the game.

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Watch altercation that leads to Donovan Mitchell, Dillon Brooks ejections

Memphis Grizzlies v Cleveland Cavaliers
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Donovan Mitchell was already having a rough night — six points on 2-of-11 shooting — but at the end of the third quarter it got worse.

With a little less than six minutes left in the third quarter, the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks drove the lane and went right into the body of Michell, knocking him back. Brooks went up to shoot, but the Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley slid in for the block and knocked Brooks to the ground. The ball bounced to Mitchell, who started to go the other way when Brooks swung his arm and — it looked like intentionally — hit Mitchel in the, um, family jewels. Mitchell fell to the ground, threw the ball at Brooks, and then the two had to be separated.

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

While Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff complained that what Mitchell did was a justified reaction — and it was the reaction most of us would have had — throwing the ball at another player then trying to go at him is an ejection every time. After the game, Mitchell said he would appeal the flagrant and any fine, saying he should be able to defend himself.

Both Mitchell and Brooks can expect to hand over some of their next paychecks to the league.

The incident initially sparked a little run from Ja Morant, but then the Cavaliers picked up their offense and Cleveland pulled away for a 128-113 win behind 32 from Darius Garland.

 

Embiid, Morant, Lillard headline list of All-Star Game reserves

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers
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Joel Embiid was a lock. Few others were.

The fans made their voice heard and selected the five All-Star game starters from each conference. Embiid was the odd man out in the East frontcourt (there was going to be a snub no matter who was left off), and we can debate if Zion Williamson has played enough games to deserve being named a starter, but there were no egregious choices.

The brutal selections are always the last couple of reserves — there are more deserving players than spots — and that choice falls to the league’s coaches, who vote to pick the seven bench players from each conference (three frontcourt players, two guards, and two wildcards).

Here are the 2023 All-Star Game reserves.

WEST

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento Kings)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Lauri Markkanen (Utah Jazz)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis Grizzlies)

West Biggest Snubs: Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox, Anthony Edwards

EAST

Joel Embiid (Philadephia 76ers)
DeMar DeRozan (Chicago Bulls)
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee Bucks)
Julius Randle (New York Knicks)
Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers)

East Biggest Snubs: Trae Young, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Jalen Brunson

Here are some thoughts and notes on the selections:

• This is the first All-Star game for Gilgeous-Alexander, Jackson and Haliburton — and they all deserved it.

• For my money, the biggest snub is Pascal Siakam of the Raptors. While the team has disappointed, Siakam has played not just at an All-Star level but at an All-NBA level averaging 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a game, plus solid defense. He is a top 15 player in the league, let alone top 24.

• Davis and Booker not making the roster must be solely a matter of games missed for the coaches, because both are deserving.

• Jaren Jackson Jr. making it may be the biggest surprise — he’s an elite defender and solid offensive player, but he also missed the first 14 games of the season and defense-first players have a hard time getting the nod for a fan exhibition. The coaches voting in Adebayo from the Heat over Butler was thinking along the same lines, the coaches appreciate the defense and well-rounded game of the Miami big man.

• The coaches put one Heat player and one Knick on the team, balancing the scales for two teams who could have made a case for two players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) and LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) will be the team captains this season (as voted by the fans), who will select their starters from a pool consisting of Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets), Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), and Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks).

• In a change to the format this year, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams on the court — playground style — just before the All-Star Game. They will choose from a pool of starters, and then the backups from the group of reserves above.

• The Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis, while the Nuggets’ Michael Malone will coach Team LeBron.

• The All-Star Game will take place Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City. The entire weekend of events will be broadcast on TNT.

• As it has been the past few years, teams will play the first three quarters somewhat traditionally (although the winner of each quarter individually raises money for its team charity). Then the clock will be turned off for the fourth quarter and the first team to reach a target score — 24 points (in honor of Kobe) higher than the total of the team leading after three quarters. Meaning simply, if team Giannis leads 100-99 after three quarters, the first team to get to 124 wins.

Anunoby hottest name at trade deadline… or would be if Raptors decide to trade him

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
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The Knicks are standing at the front of the line, but if the door opens Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans will be among the teams trying to push their way through the door.

O.G. Anunoby trade rumors are maybe the hottest topic around the league in the run-up to the trade deadline, something sources have told NBC Sports but is not breaking news at this point, recent reporting by both Zach Lowe of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have detailed exactly that. Lowe said on his podcast that the “entire league” is interested in the young wing. Teams are calling Massai Ujiri about Anunoby, but the Raptors have yet to tip their hand about whether they will be sellers at the deadline, stand pat, or become buyers.

Anunoby has not publicly or privately asked for a trade, but would “embrace a change of scenery” Haynes said on the podcast (it should be noted there are similar rumblings about a number of dispirited Raptors this season, the losing has worn on them). Haynes added that part of the motivation for the Grizzlies and Pelicans in this case is to keep the other team from landing him.

The Knicks are reportedly offering three first-round picks for Anunoby, and while it’s up for debate which of the seven first-round picks they control are in the mix — and how protected they are — that is now the floor for an offer to interest the Raptors. Lowe said Anunoby could draw a Donovan Mitchellsized trade package.

There are obvious reasons the league is calling, Anunoby is an All-Defensive Team level wing averaging 16.9 points per game, can finish at the rim and hit threes. It doesn’t hurt that he is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million.

Everybody wants to talk about Anunoby, but it’s all moot until Ujiri and the Raptors do.