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NBA state of play: Stage set for LA battle

We’re just days away from the end of the NBA regular season and the battle across the Western Conference continues to rage.

The final two automatic spots in the playoffs remain up for grabs, while teams are still jostling for Play-In positions. 

There’s less to play for in the east, but as the playoff picture evolves across both conferences, it’s worth taking a look at some permutations and potential first-round matchups.

Wild West race continues

The Dallas Mavericks’ hopes of digging themselves out of a hole grew slimmer, thanks to the Minnesota Timberwolves' win in Brooklyn. 

The Mavs, who are 15/1 to make the playoffs can’t overtake the Timberwolves now, meaning they need either the Oklahoma City Thunder or New Orleans Pelicans to fall apart in their final games. 

The big race in the west is for the fifth and sixth seeds in the Playoffs. As it stands, the Golden State Warriors and LA Clippers will avoid the Play-In, but the LA Lakers are 0.5 of a game shy of the champions and level with their city rivals. 

Wednesday night’s LA showdown between the Lakers and Clippers is huge in the race for the top six, while it should allow the Warriors to pull clear of the chasing pack. 

Expect a tense Battle of LA clash, with the Lakers, 41/4 to not make the playoffs, heading in as the form side with four straight wins behind them.

East Play-In looks locked in

Minnesota’s win over the Nets has opened up the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, with the top five already locked in. 

There’s just a game between the Nets and the seventh-placed Miami Heat, but the Nets won the season series 3-1 and hold the tiebreaker. 

Miami, who are 80/1 for Outright NBA Championship glory, would need the Nets to lose all three remaining games to pip them to the post. However, Brooklyn finishes their season with a visit to the Detroit Pistons and then a home double-header against the Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. 

It’s hard to see them dropping enough games to give the Heat any chance. Erik Spoelstra’s side should be preparing for the Play-In, where they’re currently competing for positions with the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls. 

While the Bulls look doomed to 10th, the Hawks and Raptors are neck-and-neck. That battle for eighth rests on what the top seeds want from the run-in. 

The Hawks finish the season against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics, while the Raptors have a double-header against the Celtics and finish against the Milwaukee Bucks. Rotation will play a huge factor there, given the picture at the top of the east.

Sixers win gives Celtics a scare

Tuesday night saw the Philadelphia 76ers produce a huge 103-101 win over the Celtics, moving them within two games of the second seed. 

While that was a signal of intent from Philly, time is running out for them to climb the standings. The Sixers lost their season series with the Celtics, meaning they’d need to win all three remaining games and see Boston lose theirs. 

It’s hard to see the Celtics letting that happen. Just a year ago they went all out to secure second with an eye on a potential second-round clash with the Milwaukee Bucks, who are 14/5 to win the NBA Championship Outright.

While Boston, a 13/4 shot in the Outright market, are three games back from the Bucks, they shouldn’t take any risks when it comes to closing out their campaign. 

There is an argument that third is better for the Sixers, initially at least. They’d swerve a matchup with the Miami Heat side which eliminated them last year. 

Instead, they’d host a weakened Nets side that they’ve beaten three times this season. The Celtics and Bucks lie in wait for the first and second sides out of the Play-In. 

The standout tie in the east first round is set to be the fourth versus fifth matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks.

KD facing Warriors return?

The top four seeds in the west look basically wrapped up, with a comfortable cushion for the Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. 

The Kings are returning to the playoffs for the first time in 2006 with home advantage after a brilliant season. They are 50/1 to win the NBA Championship Outright. 

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However, the Warriors’ Draymond Green has already said the Kings are his preferred first-round matchup, so there’s a chance we see the Warriors tactically drop to sixth if they can. 

Especially considering the alternative is a first-round against the Suns and we could finally get the Western Conference final we expected last season.

However, that would also bring KD back to San Francisco after his deadline return to the west. That would easily be the standout first-round series, although the west is set to have a few interesting first-round matchups. 

The idea of a Pelicans Grizzlies series is exciting, especially after New Orleans nearly shocked the Suns a year ago.

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