A long, arduous road that has been the winter pro sport season is finally reaching its last lap. The NBA regular season has been particularly exciting and unpredictable, and as the final week of play began last night a heavy schedule of games yielded some true excitement, some degree of conclusion and set up still more excitement for tonight and beyond.
The Eastern Conference has some distance and clarity at last, as my colleague Mr. Devani’s beloved Bulls finally cinched their coveted post-season berth last night as Washington fell to Atlanta. So the top ten in the East is settled, but the order isn’t quite yet.
The Sixers reignited their quest for relevance, and Joel Embiid his candidacy for MVP, last night with a resounding win over the Celtics courtesy of 52 points and 13 rebounds from the center, who almost single-handedly beat down their arch-rivals. The Nets and Heat will battle for the final secured playoff berth, and a week off, while the Hawks and Raptors, essentially locked into the play-in tournament, will play for the crucial upper tier slot that will allow them two cracks at the play-off apple.
Out West, things are way crazier.
No bigger matchup will occur tonight at Crypto.com Center, far and away the most crucial “hallway series” battle between the Lakers and Clippers. The Lakers have played themselves into relevancy with a spirited charge in the last two weeks, with both Lebron James and Anthony Davis finally healthy, and eked out a crucial road win in overtime last night in Utah to set up this nationally televised showdown. As CBS Sports’ Sam Quinn wrote:
Nobody’s lying down for this one. Assuming the Lakers pick up an expected victory over the Jazz on Tuesday, they will be tied with the Clippers at 41-38 when they battle on Wednesday. The winner will control their destiny for the No. 5 seed. The loser could easily tumble into the play-in round. This is, without hyperbole, thethe Lakers and Clippers have ever played against one another.
And that’s before we factor in Westbrook facing off with his old team. The Lakers traded Westbrook in February and have looked like championship contenders ever since. The Clippers picked him up soon after, and the results have been mixed. Westbrook would love to knock the Lakers out of the top six once and for all. The Lakers would love to prove that he was the player holding them back all along by knocking the Clippers down to No. 7. There are games with emotional stakes this week, there are games with practical stakes this week, and there are games with historical stakes this week. Lakers vs. Clippers is the only game to check all three boxes.
And at the bottom, for that #10 spot and at least another road game, there’s the battle of the tankers–the overachieving Oklahoma City Thunder, the completely melted down Dallas Mavericks and yes, the Jazz. Oke City does have a half-game edge and desire, but at this point, you never know.
In a sprint, anything is possible. And we will be watching.