The Eastern Conference play-in tournament matchups are set, as are the top four seeds in the Western Conference.
Also apparently decided: The NBA’s scoring race.
Brooklyn sealed the No. 6 seed in the East on Friday night, which locked Miami into No. 7 and the play-in tournament. The Nets will play Philadelphia in Round 1 of the playoffs — meaning Brooklyn will be up against a soon-to-be two-time scoring champion.
Philadelphia center Joel Embiid — he didn’t play in Friday’s overtime win over Atlanta and there’s no need for him to in the 76ers’ regular-season finale on Sunday, either — will almost certainly finish the season averaging 33.1 points.
The only player who had a realistic chance entering Friday to catch him was Dallas’ Luka Doncic. But he played sparingly Friday, changed into street clothes at halftime of the Mavericks’ loss to Chicago — one that eliminated Dallas from postseason contention and assured Oklahoma City the No. 10 spot in the play-in tournament. Mavs coach Jason Kidd said Doncic won’t play Sunday in the finale against San Antonio, so his season is over.
“Decisions, sometimes, are hard in this business,” Kidd said.
Doncic played Friday for only the first quarter and the first 35 seconds of the second quarter. He scored 13 points, his average falling to 32.4.
Barring something mathematically improbable in the season’s final two days, Embiid will become the 13th player to win back-to-back scoring crowns — with the most recent name on that list being his 76ers teammate James Harden, who did it with Houston. Embiid won it last year by holding off Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo by 0.7 points per game and is now poised to edge Doncic this year by the same margin.
Portland’s Damian Lillard will finish with an average of 32.2 points per game; Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is currently fourth at 31.4 per game. For him to catch Embiid, assuming Embiid doesn’t play Sunday against Brooklyn, Gilgeous-Alexander would need to play and score 148 points in the Thunder’s regular season finale against Memphis — so it’s probably safe to start engraving the trophy.
Doncic likely only made any appearance Friday because it was Slovenia Night at Dallas; the first 3,500 fans in the building got a scarf that said “I Feel Slovenia” in an obvious nod to Doncic’s homeland.
Dallas was in an uphill spot for the last play-in berth in the West anyway. It needed to win Friday and Sunday, and hope that Oklahoma City would lose to Memphis on Sunday — just to get the No. 10 spot and still need two more road wins to make it to a Round 1 series against Denver.
“We were fighting for our lives and this is the situation we’re in,” Kidd said. “The organization has made a decision to change and we have to go by that.”
Not making the play-in tournament helps Dallas’ chances of claiming no worse than the No. 10 pick in this summer’s draft — which is important — and provide at least a tiny chance of winning the lottery and the chance to draft French phenom Victor Wembanyama.
If the Mavs’ pick is between No. 1 and No. 10, Dallas keeps it. If it is No. 11 or deeper in the draft, it conveys to New York as part of the compensation agreed to as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade in 2019.
So while the West play-in field and first-round matchups remain unsettled and won’t be totally finalized until Sunday’s regular season finales, the East is set.
No. 7 Miami will play host to No. 8 Atlanta on Tuesday night, while No. 9 Toronto will get a visit from No. 10 Chicago on Wednesday night in the first two games of the East play-in.
Miami still had an outside shot at reaching No. 6 entering Friday, but now knows the play-in round awaits.
“This is our reality and you have to embrace that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is a totally new experience for all of us. It’s not exactly where we wanted to be heading into this season if you go back to training camp, but that is totally irrelevant. We have this in front of us, and it’s competition, and it’s great competition with a lot at stake. That is something to look forward to.”
The Miami-Atlanta winner will face No. 2 Boston in Round 1; the Miami-Atlanta loser will play host to the Toronto-Chicago winner on Friday to see who meets No. 1 Milwaukee in the opening round.
The East’s other Round 1 matchups: Philadelphia-Brooklyn and Cleveland-New York. Those series will begin either April 15 or 16, when the playoffs officially open.
Denver had previously clinched No. 1 in the West, and Phoenix was locked into No. 4 already. Memphis beat Milwaukee on Friday to earn the West’s No. 2 seed, which means Sacramento — a franchise about to play its first playoff game since 2006 — will be No. 3 on the West bracket.
The other six teams assured of no worse than a play-in berth out West are the Los Angeles Clippers, defending champion Golden State, New Orleans, the Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota and the Thunder. ___
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