NBA Playoff race: Must-see games and how to watch them in Australia
Just 11 days until the regular season is over, but which teams are headed for the play-in remains a mystery.
The Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers will be fighting right to the end to avoid the seven seed and NBA play-in tournament. At the time of writing the trio are separated by just one game in the Western Conference standings.
Then there are the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies currently tied with a .500 record. Both know they're stuck in the play-in tournament, but the benefit of finishing as an eight seed over nine is huge.
In the East it looks inevitable that the 10 play-in eligible teams are locked in. The Toronto Raptors have now slipped to 3.5 games back of the Washington Wizards. After playing out of Tampa, Florida all year the Raps will be praying to the draft lottery gods for the first time since 2012.
The order of the 10 teams though is up in the air. Right now the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards are seeded 6 through to 10. Though that may very well change with the Hornets, Pacers and Wizards sporting fairly similar records the much more favourable eight seed is still up for grabs. Miami and Boston meanwhile are separated by 0.5 of a game and a date with the play-in.
Must-watch games for the NBA Playoff race
- Mavericks vs Nets: Friday 7 May, 9:30am AEST
As mentioned at the top the Mavs are fighting to get some extra rest by avoiding the play-in tournament. Brooklyn on the other hand are sitting second in the East, but would love to catch Philadelphia and claim the one seed to avoid a likely second-round match-up with Milwaukee or Miami. Luka vs KD and Kyrie is also enough of a drawcard too.
- Clippers vs Lakers: Friday 7 May, 12pm AEST
LeBron James is a confirmed out for the battle of LA. That doesn't take away from the importance of this contest though. The Lakers can't afford to lose any games. A Lakers win also keeps the Clips closer to the four seed and increases the chance of them matching up in the first round of the playoffs. Something both franchises ideally want to avoid.
- Trail Blazers vs Lakers: Saturday 8 May, 12pm AEST
Although LeBron will miss the previous day's contest he's a chance to play in this one. A win for either side is a full game swing in the standings. At this point a loss for the Blazers could send them straight to the play-in. While a win ensures they'd be just about even with LA in the standings.
Watch Portland vs LA on NBA League Pass
- Pacers vs Wizards: Sunday 9 May, 9am AEST
As of right now the Pacers (30-34) and Wizards (30-35) are separated by just 1 loss. Indiana are experiencing coaching dramas and Russell Westbrook is setting records for the Wiz. The loser is almost guaranteed to finish 9th or 10th, while the winner would stay in touch with the Hornets and the desired 8th seed.
Watch Indiana vs Washington on NBA League Pass
- Trail Blazers vs Spurs: Sunday 9 May, 12pm AEST
San Antonio likely won't finish higher than 10th, but they still aren't a certainty of holding it with the Pelicans hot on their tale. We've touched already on Portland hoping to avoid extra games. A win could mean not finishing seventh giving Lillard some much needed rest.
Watch Portland vs San Antonio on NBA League Pass
- Lakers vs Suns: Monday 10 May, 12pm AEST
Three straight Lakers games, such is the difficulty of their schedule. They aren't likely to catch a break either with the Suns wanting to lock in first place in the West, which should mean Chris Paul and Devin Booker on deck. If the Lakers were to drop down to seven or eight the Suns could be their first-round opponent.
Watch LA vs Phoenix on SBS, NBA League Pass
- Celtics vs Heat: Monday 10 May, 3am AEST and Wednesday 12 May, 9am AEST
We're cheating with this one. Boston and Miami play each other back to back on the schedule and the ramifications couldn't be higher. Boston defeated Miami back in January. That's important as the Celtics need to win just one of these match-ups to hold the tie breaker between the two.
That means if they end up with the same record after 72 games the Celtics would automatically be the higher seeded team and avoid having to beat a nine or lower seed just to make the postseason. Alternatively if Miami win both they all but seal their fate as being six or higher and a playoff lock.
- Grizzlies vs Mavericks: Wednesday 12 May, 10am AEST
Memphis have dropped both contests with division rivals Dallas already this season. If they're any chance of getting to the eight seed a win over a team like the Mavs is required. Other than the Nets, the Grizzlies are the highest ranked team the Mavs face. Sweeping the season series with them will all but ensure they avoid seventh.
Watch Memphis vs Dallas on NBA League Pass
- Jazz vs Trail Blazers: Thursday 13 May, 11am AEST
This game is a very similar scenario to the Lakers vs Suns match-up. Utah are also fighting for first and Portland are fighting to avoid the play-in. There's also every chance that this could be a first-round postseason match-up.
- Every Spurs and Pelicans game
Alright, hear us out on this one. The Spurs continued to shock everyone in recent years by never really dropping off. That has been no different this year as San Antonio have continuously been in the West playoff picture.
Yet, they aren't a lock with eight games left on their schedule. Why? Seven of the eight games remaining on the Spurs' schedule are against teams currently in the playoffs. Other than a game against Sacramento the Spurs' lowest-ranked opponent is Portland who are fighting to avoid the play-in.
The Pelicans meanwhile have been disappointing largely all season, sporting the league's fourth worst defensive rating. However, they're still just 2.0 games back of San Antonio. They do have the same issue as San Antonio in that every team they face is currently a play-in team or higher.
But they still have the Zion factor. The stage is set for Williamson to go off in the final few games and narrowly pip the Spurs for the 10 seed.
Other Spurs and Pelicans fixtures through 6–15 May are exclusive to NBA League Pass.
Games with broadcast schedule yet to be released
The NBA is yet to confirm game times for games on 15 and 16 May. It is also yet to confirm the broadcast schedule. Neither of these facts are surprising. The NBA and its broadcast partners will both want the most important games showcased over the final days.
This should mean the match-ups we've featured below get a run given their importance on the standings.
What we do know is that TNT will feature 2 games per day on 12 and 14 May. ESPN and ABC are the other national broadcasters in the US. While it isn't yet announced we're expecting them to have games everyday from 11–16 May.
What we don't know is if SBS will host any more fixtures. The free-to-air broadcaster only broadcasts two games per week. For the final week it currently has Suns vs Lakers on Monday 10 May and Jazz vs Warriors on Tuesday 11 May.
That makes us think it won't have any more games. However, we've reached out to SBS to confirm if it'll have any other NBA games.
- Wizards vs Hornets: Sunday 16 May, TBD
The Wizards looked down and out a few months ago and ready to tank. They've since won 13 of their past 16 games and all but guaranteed a shot at the playoffs. A win over Charlotte could even catapult them into the eight seed for two bites at the cherry. How will the inexperienced, yet feisty Hornets respond to the pressure?
- Warriors vs Grizzlies: Sunday 16 May, TBD
Despite having six and eight games left respectively, it may all come down to the final day of the season for the West's eighth seeding. It's 1-1 between the Warriors and Grizz this year. That means if their records are tied the winner will own the tie breaker and the eight seed.
How does the NBA play-in tournament work?
Last season's NBA bubble was the first time a play-in format was trialled. Its format is different this year compared to the Disney World version. This season the seven and eight seed in each conference face off in a single game. The winner earns the seven seed.
The 9 and 10 seeds play a single elimination game. Then the winner of 9 vs 10 plays the loser of 7 vs 8 in their respective conferences. Finally the winning team of that game becomes the eight seeded team in the playoffs.
There's a risk that you go through a 72-game season just to then go into a college basketball March Madness-style tournament and get knocked out. LeBron James and Luka Dončić have both voiced their displeasure over a play-in tournament.
This is why teams are so desperate to finish sixth or higher. It's also why it's so important to at least finish seventh or eighth if the sixth seed is out of reach, so you've got two chances rather than one.
The play-in tournament is being jammed in over 4 days from 19–22 May (AEST). Yet again the Australian broadcast is yet to be confirmed, but we'd be shocked if every game wasn't broadcast via ESPN in Australia.