MIAMI – The end has arrived.
Actually, for Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas and Charlotte, the end came in their season finales Tuesday. There are nine teams that know Wednesday is the last day of their season. And 15 teams already have clinched playoff berths.
Then there are Minnesota and Denver.
Game 82 for both teams will have a Game 7-of-the-playoffs feel, which is a fitting way to transition from the regular season to the postseason. Nuggets at Timberwolves, winner to the playoffs, loser to the offseason. It’s the first time since 1997 – and only the third time since the NBA went to this postseason format in 1983 – that two teams will play on the season’s final day in such a situation.
“It’s bigger than all of us,” Wolves star Karl-Anthony Towns said.
Minnesota is trying to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2004 – the longest current drought in the NBA. Denver – winner of six straight to give itself this chance – is trying to get to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
So there’s only one spot left in the 16-team tournament that will decide whose fingerprints get to put the smudge of a championship celebration on the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.
Much like the race between Minnesota and Denver, the entire tournament bracket itself is going down to the wire. There will be eight first-round matchups, and every single one of those pairings will be decided on Wednesday. So, too, will 11 of the 16 seeds. Portland and Utah will play for the No. 3 seed in the West, in one of the few cut-and-dry matchups.
The only order of business that was cleared up Tuesday was the No. 2 overall seed, with Toronto now assured of finishing with the NBA’s second-best record.
Here’s some other things to note going into the last day of the regular season:
A first for LeBron
It’s really, really, really hard to find something that LeBron James hasn’t done in his career. But if he appears for Cleveland against New York on Wednesday night, it will mark the first time in James’ 15 seasons that he plays in all 82 regular-season games. He will lead the NBA in minutes played, field goals made and total points this season – at 33 years old.
Philadelphia would be the No. 3 seed in the East if it beats Milwaukee, and a franchise that knew nothing but losing (OK, “process” losing) in recent years will set a record – for winning. If the 76ers prevail, it would be their 16th consecutive victory and that would top the record for longest winning streak to end any NBA season.
Houston’s James Harden has the scoring crown wrapped up. He’ll be the first player to win back-to-back scoring titles since his former Oklahoma City teammate Kevin Durant won three straight from 2009-10 through 2011-12.
Once again, the NBA will see more points than ever (in terms of total, not average per game). There were 259,753 points in the regular season a year ago; that will be surpassed Wednesday night, and the league is on pace to reach somewhere around 261,000 by the time the final whistle blows.
A little cash
As if getting to the playoffs wasn’t enough, there’s a bit of a financial stake at play for Minnesota and Denver in their finale – the winning team splits $298,485, as part of the NBA’s $20 million playoff pool this season.
Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook needs 16 rebounds against Memphis to average exactly 10.0 per game this season. If he gets there, he’ll average a triple-double for the second consecutive year. Westbrook has six games this season with at least 16 rebounds, including a season-high, 18-board effort at Miami on Monday night. Westbrook will also lead the NBA in assists per game.
Golden State lost 10 of its final 17 games this season. The Warriors’ regular season ended Tuesday with a blowout loss at Utah. Klay Thompson isn’t worried, and he knows the defending champions – who have dealt with many injuries, most recently Stephen Curry out with a knee issue – have plenty of doubters. “We’re ready to prove people wrong,” Thompson said.
The field-goal percentage race between Houston’s Clint Capela and the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan might look closer than it really is. Capela is shooting 65.3 percent, Jordan 64.3 percent – but if Jordan is going to catch Capela, he’ll have to shoot 15 for 15 on Wednesday (assuming Capela doesn’t take any shots). Jordan was trying to be the first player to lead the league in shooting for six straight seasons, but it seems like he’ll merely have to settle for tying Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal with five straight crowns.
Here’s another category where Jordan will finish second. Detroit’s Andre Drummond will lead the league’s rebounding race for the second time in three years.
The Northwest Division this season will go down as the most competitive in the current six-division format – and it’s not even close. The team that finishes last in the Northwest will be only three games behind the team that wins the division crown. There’s never been a last-place team within less than 11 games of the winner in this current format, which has been in play for 14 seasons.
There have been 116 rookies in the NBA this season, up 28 from last season, and the latest addition is noteworthy. Andre Ingram is a 32-year-old who debuted Tuesday for the Los Angeles Lakers against Houston. He’s the oldest rookie this season and he more than paid his dues, having logged 384 games in what’s now called the G League – where he’s the career leader in 3-pointers (713). This year’s rookie class is the largest since 1949-50, when 120 players made their debuts.
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