The game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz tonight will begin the home stretch that determines Portland’s seeding in the race for the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The Blazers are neck-and-neck with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks to settle the 5th-7th positions in the NBA’s Western Conference. Each team has three games remaining; any of them could conceivably end up in any seed.
This year the seeding battle holds extra importance because of the Play-In Tournament. The team that finishes 7th will not be guaranteed a spot in the post-season, but will have to earn it by walking a single-game elimination tightrope next week.
This post gives the rundown on where the Blazers, Lakers, and Mavericks stand, what’s upcoming for each, and the scenarios Blazers fans will want to root for over the next five days. We also explain the Play-In for those who need a refresher, just in case the Blazers end up there.
The Blazers and Mavericks are currently tied with 40-29 records, sitting in 5th and 6th place respectively. The Lakers are a game behind at 39-30, in 7th place. None of the three teams can overtake the 4th seed, nor can any of them drop to 8th.
The Blazers play the Utah Jazz tonight, the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, then finish the regular season on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets. The first two games are on the road, the Denver game at home.
The Mavericks host the Pelicans tonight, the Toronto Raptors on Friday, then head to Minnesota to face the Timberwolves on Sunday.
Ease of Schedule
With Zion Williamson out for the Pelicans, the schedule for the Lakers and Mavericks looks far easier than Portland’s. Utah-Phoenix-Denver is a Murderer’s Row compared to what the Lakers and Mavericks will face. They barely have a playoffs-level opponent between them.
One of the questions facing the Blazers is how seriously their opponents will approach the late-season games.
The Suns currently sit two games behind the Jazz in the battle for the first seed, but Phoenix owns the tiebreaker in that matchup. That means Portland’s games in Salt Lake and Phoenix will matter to each opponent.
If the Jazz defeat the Blazers, it’s unlikely Phoenix can overtake them, as they’d need to win out, then see Utah to lose to the Thunder and Kings to catch up. If Utah wins tonight, it’s possible the Suns could change their rotation tomorrow accordingly. (That’s a thin hope with such a young team, though.) If the Blazers beat the Jazz tonight, Phoenix’s hopes will be all the way live on Thursday and one would expect them to go all out.
The bigger question will probably come on Sunday, as the Blazers face the Nuggets. Denver currently sits just one game behind the Los Angeles Clippers in the 4-5 positions. If Sunday’s game still matters to Denver in that race, it’ll be a whole different scenario than if the seeds are secured. Right now there’s no way to tell.
The Blazers own tiebreakers against the Mavericks and Lakers, by virtue of head-to-head record. Portland would earn the higher seed if they match records with either.
If all three teams end up tied, Dallas would earn the highest seed, as the first tiebreaker in three-team ties is “Division Winner”. Dallas has already clinched their division; the Blazers and Lakers cannot. After the three-team tie is broken, the remaining two teams resolve their tie by reverting to the two-team criteria. Portland would go over L.A. in that scenario.
In other words, all ties are good for Portland. The Blazers cannot tie anybody and end up in the 7th seed.
What’s At Stake—The Play-In
If the Blazers finish with the 5th or 6th seed, they will match up with the Clippers or the Nuggets, depending on who finishes where. After Sunday’s game against Denver, Portland will have the week to rest and prepare for their upcoming series as other teams engage in the Play-In.
If the Blazers finish 7th, they will be part of the Play-In Tournament.
As the 7th seed, Portland would first match up against the 8th-place team—either the Warriors or Grizzlies—in a single game. If the Blazers won that game, they’d slot into the 7th seed in the West and their tournament would be over.
If Portland lost their initial Play-In game, they’d need to play a second game against the winner of the 9th-10th place matchup. That would be the San Antonio Spurs or the other half of the Memphis-Golden State tandem. If the Blazers won that second game, they’d earn the 8th seed in the West. If they lost the second game, though, they’d be out of the playoffs.
If Portland emerged from the Play-In with the 7th or 8th seed, they’d face the Jazz or Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
What Blazers Fans Should Hope For
Obviously it would be far better for the Blazers to finish 5th or 6th than 7th. They make the playoffs automatically that way and they’ll draw a more beatable opponent in the first round.
Remember, to do that, Portland need only tie the Mavericks or the Lakers. The Blazers own all the tiebreakers.
The first thing to root for is Portland wins. If the Blazers win out, the worst they can do is tie Dallas, finish a game ahead of L.A., and earn the 5th seed.
The next-best scenario is Portland losing just once. They might end up tied with the Lakers or in a three-way, but either way they’d get the 6th seed by virtue of the tiebreaker, sending Los Angeles into the Play-In.
If the Blazers are going to lose twice, they need the Lakers to lose at least once. With the status of LeBron James and Anthony Davis currently up in the air, that’s certainly possible. The Pacers are the only Lakers opponent with anything left to play for, though, so the Blazers can’t count on anything. Still, rooting against the Lakers is a good bet for those wishing the Blazers well.
Obviously rooting against the Mavericks works too, but since Portland and Dallas are tied, the Blazers will need a Dallas loss for every Portland loss to make it work.
The Blazers earn the 5th or 6th seed and do not have to participate in the Play-In Tournament if...
They win the same number of games (or better) as Dallas over the last three games.
They win the same number of games the Lakers do minus 1. (If L.A. wins all 3, Portland has to win 2. If L.A. wins 2, Portland just has to win 1.)
The Blazers will finish in the 7th seed and have to play for the right to participate in the eight-team playoffs bracket.