With the addition of the play-in games to the 2021 NBA playoffs, the scramble for seeding is wilder — and more important — than ever, with almost every game down the stretch having significant postseason implications.
Here’s a breakdown of all the key games from Thursday night and what the results mean for the seedings, plus a look at what the play-in matchups would be if the season ended today:
The LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers met for the final time in the regular season, but the game was an afterthought.
Anthony Davis left the game in the first half to be evaluated before being ruled out because of back spasms, according to the Lakers. The superstar center played just nine minutes and had four points and one rebound before departing.
At this point, the Lakers need to put Davis and LeBron James in bubble wrap until the playoffs — or the play-in tournament. Already without James, Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton-Tucker, the Lakers were routed by the Clippers 118-94 at Staples Center.
Davis said his right ankle, which he appeared to tweak, is fine but that his back locked up.
“It feels better now that I got some work done,” said Davis, whose Lakers play the Blazers on Friday, “and I should be able to go tomorrow.”
The Lakers dropped into a tie with Portland at 37-29 for the No. 6 spot in the West, and the teams play each other in a critical game on Friday with the winner taking the tiebreaker. The loser, of course, falls into the dreaded No. 7 seed, which would mean being relegated to the play-in tournament. With Thursday’s loss, the Lakers’ odds of being in the play-in increased to 37% — from 31% — according to BPI.
But at this point, the Lakers’ fragile health is by far the biggest concern. Whether they are in the play-in or earn a top-six seed, the postseason will be a short one for the defending champs if Davis and James aren’t healthy.
On the other side, the Clippers enjoyed an easy night, but they still aren’t close to hitting their stride. While they are battling the Denver Nuggets (who own the tiebreaker between the teams) for third in the West, the Clippers’ bigger issue is developing their chemistry and rhythm entering the postseason.
Because of injuries to Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley and Serge Ibaka, the Clippers haven’t been at full strength for a long time, and coach Ty Lue has to not only develop continuity for his team but also figure out the best lineups and rotations before the playoffs begin. Leonard continues to slowly ramp up for the postseason. He finished with 15 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists while on a minutes restriction in his third game back from a foot issue.
If the Lakers and Clippers see each other again this season, it will be in the playoffs. But the Battle for L.A. won’t have the same sizzle if Davis and James aren’t healthy. — Ohm Youngmisuk
Other key games
Nets in danger of slipping to 3-seed — The Nets are in serious jeopardy of slipping to the East’s third seed after their 113-109 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday as Brooklyn has lost four straight games for the first time all season.
The Milwaukee Bucks are only a half-game behind Brooklyn and own the tiebreaker between the teams. The Nets’ reclaiming first place in the East appears exceedingly unlikely, as the Philadelphia 76ers have a 2½-game lead and are riding a six-game winning streak.
The Mavericks’ eighth win in an 11-game span — with all of the losses strangely to the lottery-bound Sacramento Kings — was another step toward avoiding the play-in tournament that Luka Doncic so strongly dislikes.
Dallas is alone in the fifth spot of the Western Conference standings. The Mavs moved a full game ahead of the seventh-place Portland Trail Blazers, who own the season tiebreaker over Dallas.
A fifth-place finish might get the Mavs a first-round rematch with the Clippers, who bounced them from the bubble in the first round last season. — Tim MacMahon
Curry, Warriors take care of business — The Golden State Warriors followed a tried-and-true strategy in their 118-97 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder: Give Stephen Curry the ball and let him go to work. Curry rattled off a cool 34 points in a game that vaulted the Warriors back into the eighth spot — by a half-game — in the Western Conference thanks in part to a surprising Pistons win over the Grizzlies.
Steph Curry pump-fakes, sending Moses Brown flying through the air, then knocks down the 3-pointer.
Aside from Curry’s usual brilliance, the key for the Warriors on Thursday was ball movement. They had 36 assists and were able to get clean looks throughout the night. Kerr and his players have said it repeatedly throughout the year — but they continue to be the beneficiaries of the space Curry demands from opposing defenses. The win came in the first of six straight games at home to end the season — and the better news for Curry & Co. is that they get to face the tanking Thunder again on Saturday night. — Nick Friedell
Wizards have Raptors on the ropes — In what was pretty much last call for Toronto, the Raptors lost to the Wizards 131-129 to fall four games behind Washington with five to play in the battle for the final play-in spot in the East. It didn’t come easy for the Wizards, who were pushed to overtime on a 3-pointer by Toronto’s Fred VanVleet with two seconds left in regulation.
Pacers cool off Hawks — The Pacers beat the Hawks 133-126 to hold on to their half-game edge on the Wizards for the ninth spot in the East, with the teams squaring off Saturday. Atlanta, which had a three-game winning streak snapped, sits a game behind the Knicks for the No. 4 seed in the East and a game ahead of the Celtics and Heat in the race to avoid the No. 7 seed.
Grizzlies can’t take advantage — Memphis entered the game with a half-game lead over Golden State for eighth place in the Western Conference, but couldn’t take advantage of a matchup with the lowly Pistons, losing 111-97.
Play-in matchups following Thursday’s games
Play-in games to be held May 18-21
• How the play-in tournament will work
• Current NBA standings
Game 1: No. 8 Charlotte at No. 7 Miami — winner is No. 7 seed in playoffs
Game 2: No. 10 Washington at No. 9 Indiana — winner moves on in play-in; loser is eliminated
Game 3: Indiana/Washington winner at Miami/Charlotte loser — winner is No. 8 seed in playoffs
Game 1: No. 8 Golden State at No. 7 Portland — winner is No. 7 seed in playoffs
Game 2: No. 10 San Antonio at No. 9 Memphis — winner moves on in play-in; loser is eliminated
Game 3: Memphis/San Antonio winner at Portland/Golden State loser — winner is No. 8 seed in playoffs
Highlight of the night
Dorian Finney-Smith hustles to save an unexpected pass from Luka Doncic and ends up flying into a cameraman.
Numbers that matter
180 — Russell Westbrook had the 180th triple-double of his career, leaving him one shy of tying Oscar Robertson for the most in NBA history. Westbrook had 13 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists, but he was 5-for-19 from the field, had seven turnovers and fouled out in overtime.
4-6 — The Nets are 4-6 since Jan. 16 when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play without James Harden.
Friday night’s key games
Pelicans at Sixers, 7 ET
Celtics at Bulls, 7:30 ET (ESPN)
Magic at Hornets, 8 ET
Timberwolves at Heat, 8 ET
Rockets at Bucks, 8 ET
Cavaliers at Mavericks, 8:30 ET
Nuggets at Jazz, 9 ET
Knicks at Suns, 10 ET
Lakers at Trail Blazers, 10 ET (ESPN)
Spurs at Kings, 10 ET