Welcome to game 72. It is the final day of regular season action for all 30 teams in the NBA. Game 72 underscores the most unprecedented season in NBA history. There is a play-in tournament for the first time ever. Teams’ playoff seedings have been affected by COVID-19 exposures on their rosters. The league finds itself with a 15-game slate on this fine Sunday. On the last day of the regular season, there is still so much left to be determined. So, let’s dive into what’s to be decided on the ultimate day of the NBA’s 2020-21 season.

I will break it down by conference and then by tiers. The first tier will be seeds 1-3. Tier 2 will be seeds 4-6. The third tier will be play-in teams. All teams currently sitting outside of the play-in seeds have been eliminated. So, no one is playing to avoid total elimination today. 

Eastern Conference

The East is much more packed in the middle than the West is, so that makes for an overloaded docket for your television pleasures today.

Seeds 1-3

Owning the tie-breaker over the Brooklyn Nets, who are 1 game behind them in the standings, Philadelphia has secured the 1-seed, beating the Magic on Friday night. There is one sneakily valuable benefit that the Sixers have left to play for tonight:

The Nets lead the 3-seed Bucks by 1 game, as well. But, Brooklyn is playing the Cavaliers today. So, they ostensibly have the 2-seed wrapped up. The Bucks are playing the Bulls, who are just looking to better their lottery odds at this point. If Milwaukee beats the Bulls and the Nets somehow lose to the Cavaliers, Milwaukee will get the 2-seed because they own the tie-breaker over Brooklyn.

Right now, the projected ordering for the top three in the East is:

1 — Philadelphia

2 — Brooklyn

3 — Milwaukee

Seeds 4-6

This is where things get a bit more ~ seedy. New York owns the tie-breaker over Atlanta, while the Hawks own the tie-breaker over Miami. The Heat own the tie-breaker over the Knicks. The Knicks and Hawks are separated by a tie-breaker, while the Heat trail both by 1 game. The Knicks play the Celtics today at 1 PM EST on ESPN. The Heat play the Pistons tonight at 8 PM EST. Atlanta plays Houston tonight at 7 PM EST.

If the Knicks beat the Celtics, they are locked into the 4-seed. If the Knicks lose to the Celtics, they’re praying the Heat lose to the Pistons. Because of the tie-breaker, finishing with identical records would drop the Knicks to the 6-seed. So, the Knicks–who are currently slated for a first round matchup with the Hawks–can avoid the Bucks or Nets in the first round by winning today. A Knicks win would lock Miami into the 6-seed.

Meanwhile, the Hawks can finish no lower than the 5-seed, as they own the tie-breaker over the Heat. Atlanta’s incentive to win tonight hinges on what the Knicks do today. If the Knicks win, Atlanta would ostensibly rest its featured players tonight, seeing as there is nothing to gain or lose with the outcome of their game against the Rockets tonight. So, in short, the Knicks would solve the riddle for seeds 4-6 by winning today.

Those paths through the playoffs could change dramatically if the Knicks lose. A New York loss and a Miami win would drop the Knicks to the 6-seed. Miami would be elevated to the 5-seed, which is the highest they can finish. If the Hawks lose as well, the 4-6 finish with identical records. But, none of them own both head-to-head tie-breakers over the others. So, the tie-breaker would default to elevating the team that has won its division, if there is one. The Hawks have clinched the Southeast Division, so they would get the 4-seed. That means, the Knicks and Heat would remain. Again, Miami has that head-to-head tie-breaker. So, Miami takes the 5-seed.

Right now, the projected ordering is:

4 — New York

5 — Atlanta

6 — Miami

I’ll be right back, I have to go unscramble my brain. 

Seeds 7-10

The Celtics are locked into the 7-seed. They’re hosting the play-in against whomever gets the 8-seed. 

This is where things get interesting, at least to basketball nerds. Charlotte, Washington, and Indiana have identical records. So, seeds 8-10 are very much in the air. The Hornets visit the Wizards today at 1 PM EST. The winner of that game gets the 8-seed. The Pacers, meanwhile, do not own either head-to-head tie-breaker over Charlotte or Washington. So, they have to beat Toronto to finish higher than the 10-seed. If they beat the Raptors, they finish with the 9-seed and the loser of the Charlotte-Washington game gets knocked down to the 10-seed. If they lose to the Raptors, they’re locked into the 10-seed. So, Indiana is playing for homecourt advantage in its play-in game.

Right now, the projected ordering is:

7 — Boston

8 — Charlotte

9 — Washington

10 — Indiana

Regarding the play-in games in both conferences, it’s a win-or-go-home format for the 9-versus-10 game. The winner of that game plays the loser of the 7-versus-8 game. The loser of the 9-versus-10 game goes home. The loser of the third game (loser of 7v8 versus winner of 9v10) goes home.

Western Conference

Things get a little less complicated out West, but there are still a number of games with implications today.

Seeds 1-3

The Jazz hold the 1-seed by 1 game over the Suns. However, the Suns own the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Jazz. A Jazz loss and a Suns win would switch their standings at the top of the West. The Jazz visit the Kings at 9 PM EST tonight. The Suns visit the Spurs at 2 PM EST today. 

The Nuggets cannot finish higher than the 3-seed. Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers share an identical record. But, the Nuggets own the head-to-head tie-breaker. The Nuggets, however, are playing the Blazers tonight at 9 PM EST. The Blazers and the Lakers have identical records, but Portland owns the head-to-head. So, a Nuggets victory over the Blazers could help the Lakers avoid the play-in and, thus, set up a first round matchup against LeBron James and Anthony Davis. If the Nuggets finish with the 4-seed, they still get homecourt advantage in the first round and their matchup would be the Dallas Mavericks. So, it seems to be in Denver’s best interest to rest everyone.

Right now, the projected ordering is:

1 — Utah

2 — Phoenix

3 — Denver

Seeds 4-6

The same applies to the Clippers, who visit the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight at 9 PM EST. The trick is going to be that the Nuggets and Clippers play at the same time, so it’s difficult for Los Angeles to strategize. One would imagine that the Clippers, given last season’s breakdown, are very sensitive to disappointment this season and would like to avoid a first round series with the Lakers. So, you could see both the Nuggets and Clippers tank tonight.

The Mavericks, who visit the Timberwolves tonight at 9 PM EST, cannot move higher than the 5-seed. They currently have a 1-game advantage over both the Blazers and the Lakers. Dallas lost their head-to-head with the Blazers (who currently sit at the 6-seed), so an identical record would switch their standings. The Mavericks won their head-to-head with the Lakers. So, Luka and company are going to avoid the play-in tournament.

The Blazers won their head-to-head with the Lakers and the Mavericks. So, identical records among seeds 5-7 would result in the Blazers taking the 5-seed. The Blazers have every incentive to treat tonight like a playoff game. Not only would a victory clear them of the play-in tournament, but it would also clear them of a potential date with the Golden State Warriors in the first play-in game. I would say that’s enough to inspire a Lillard 50-piece tonight.

Right now, the projected ordering is:

4 — Los Angeles Clippers

5 — Dallas

6 — Portland

Seeds 7-10

The Lakers, who visit New Orleans tonight at 9 PM EST, cannot finish any lower than the 7-seed. Because of their aforementioned tie-breaker disadvantage, they will need to win their game and hope for a Blazers loss to avoid the play-in tournament.

If the Lakers cannot avoid the play-in tournament, they’re best served to pray for a Memphis Grizzlies victory today. The Golden State Warriors are hosting the Memphis Grizzlies today at 3:30 PM EST. It will serve as the tie-breaker between the two teams. A Warriors victory sets up a Lakers-Warriors matchup for the 7-versus-8 play-in game. A Grizzlies victory would knock the Warriors down to the 9-seed. So, the 7-versus-8 would be the Lakers and Grizzlies, and the 9-versus-10 would be the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs, I might add, are locked into the 10-seed.

Right now, the projected ordering is:

7 — Los Angeles Lakers

8 — Golden State

9 — Memphis

10 — San Antonio

Whether you like the play-in tournament or not, it’s doing exactly what the NBA intended. There is a full slate of significant implications to watch on the last day of the season. The league wanted interest at the very end of the season, as interest means money. Fasten your seatbelts, we’re coming in for a landing.