Playoff races going down to final day of season
MIAMI—There's one day left in the NBA's truncated regular season, and only two of the eight first-round postseason matchups opening this weekend have all the particulars decided.
Indiana has home-court over Orlando, and San Antonio has it against Utah.
Just about everything else related to the playoff bracket -- plus the scoring race and Charlotte's quest to avoid becoming the NBA's worst team ever -- gets decided over the course of 13 games Thursday night. Anyone want to play the Chicago Bulls or Miami Heat? Who'll host Game 1s in the Celtics-Hawks and Clippers-Grizzlies series? Will Dallas open its title defense against Oklahoma City in a Western Conference finals rematch?
When the season's final whistle blows, all those answers will be known. The first-round schedules will come out Thursday night.
"When the playoffs begin and these teams have at it, people will look back and say, `Well, they got here,'" NBA Commissioner David Stern said Wednesday. "And we are glad they got here with a 66-game schedule rather than a 50-game schedule."
First, a look at the conference races, starting with the East:
--Chicago is the No. 1 seed, Miami is No. 2, and those teams will face either New York or Philadelphia in the first round.
For the Knicks, a win over Charlotte would lock up a first-round meeting with the Heat, one that would surely rekindle memories of New York's upset of Miami during the 1999 playoffs, the last season shortened by labor strife.
"In my mind, we're playing the Knicks," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said Wednesday. "That's the mindset I have."
The Knicks left for Charlotte on Wednesday night after beating the Los Angeles Clippers at home, with players told to pack for a few days on the road. The opponent is unclear, but Game 1 -- whether it's in Chicago or Miami -- is sometime Saturday.
"I'm ready to go on. I'm ready for the playoffs," Knicks center Tyson Chandler said. "This season has been long, long enough. It's time."
If the Knicks lose in Charlotte, that opens the door for Philadelphia to grab the No. 7 seed and a date with Miami. A Knicks loss and 76ers win in Detroit means Philadelphia would meet Miami for the second straight year in the first round. The 76ers -- 1-11 against the Heat since the start of last season -- are resting Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young.
No. 4 seed Boston will open against No. 5 Atlanta on Sunday. But if either the Hawks win on Thursday against Dallas or if the Celtics fall in their finale against Milwaukee, it'll be Atlanta with home-court advantage, despite having the lower seed.
Orlando wrapped up No. 6 by beating Charlotte on Wednesday. The Magic went 3-1 against Indiana this season, though all those games were before center Dwight Howard was lost for the season because of back surgery. Making matters worse, the Magic saw Glen Davis leave Wednesday's game with what the team said was a sprained right ankle.
--In the West, San Antonio and Utah will meet in the 1-versus-8 series starting Sunday. Much like in the East, everything else remains a bit muddled.
The Spurs stayed alive in the race with Chicago for the No. 1 overall record by beating Phoenix on Wednesday night, despite sending Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker home earlier in the day to rest. The Spurs will be without them Thursday at Golden State as well. Also missing: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who is tending to a personal matter.
The Clippers and Memphis will play in a 4-versus-5 matchup. If the Grizzlies beat Orlando on Thursday, they'll have home-court edge against the Clippers.
No. 2 Oklahoma City opens its postseason Saturday against Denver or Dallas. If the Nuggets beat Minnesota, that will pin the defending champion Mavericks to the No. 7 seed and a series with the Thunder.
So the Dallas-Atlanta game will be big on plenty of levels, since it may have implications for not only the Mavericks and Hawks, but the Celtics, Thunder, Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers as well.
Kobe Bryant's Lakers will be the No. 3 seed, and they'll face Denver if the Nuggets win or Mavericks lose.
--There's more on the docket than games with just playoff ramifications.
Charlotte is trying to avoid infamy.
Now losers of 22 straight after falling 102-95 at Orlando on Wednesday night, the Bobcats are 7-58 on the season. A victory over the Knicks on Thursday would lift their winning percentage for the season to .121 -- still terrible, but good enough to avoid finishing behind the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73, .110) as the worst team in league history. Another loss, and the Bobcats' final percentage would be .106.
--Then there's the other races, of the individual variety.
Kevin Durant scored 32 points for Oklahoma City on Wednesday, ending his season at 28.03 points per game. If Bryant plays Thursday in the Lakers' finale, he would need 38 points to claim his third scoring crown. Otherwise, Durant wins his third straight title.
Most of the other stat races are wrapped up. Howard will be the league's leading rebounder for the fourth time in five years. Boston's Rajon Rondo will be tops in assists per game, and Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka will easily claim the blocks-per-game crown.
--Finally, farewell to the "New Jersey" Nets. They visit Toronto on Thursday, the franchise's last game before moving to Brooklyn next season.
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