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With the addition of play-in games to the 2021 NBA playoffs, the scramble for seeding is wilder — and more important — than ever, with almost every game down the stretch having significant postseason implications.
Here’s a breakdown of all the key games from Friday night and what the results mean for the seedings, plus a look at what the play-in matchups would be if the season ended today:
What it means for the Sixers: Ugly wins count just the same as pretty ones in the NBA — which is a good thing for the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers, who beat the New Orleans Pelicans in about the ugliest possible fashion Friday night.
But that won’t bother the Sixers — or their fans — too much, as the win moved Philadelphia one win closer to securing the top overall seed in the East playoffs.
Philadelphia now has a magic number of three to clinch the No. 1 seed, pending the result of Friday night’s game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. Any combination of two Philly wins and Brooklyn losses will allow the Sixers to clinch by finishing ahead of the Nets, while any combination of three Philly wins and Milwaukee losses will allow the Sixers to finish ahead of the Bucks.
Losing to the Pelicans would’ve been a potentially disastrous own goal for Philly, given New Orleans was without Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Ultimately, though, another dominant performance from Joel Embiid (37 points and 13 rebounds) was just enough to secure a 46th win of this season for the Sixers and move them one step closer to sending the path to winning the Eastern Conference through Wells Fargo Center. — Tim Bontemps
What it means for the Pelicans: The biggest takeaway for the Pelicans’ playoff hopes happened hours before tipoff on Friday night. Shortly before the game started, New Orleans announced Williamson was going to be out indefinitely because a fractured ring finger on his left hand — his shooting hand.
But once the game started, it was obvious the Pelicans were missing their two leaders, as Ingram was out with a sprained left ankle.
The loss places the Pelicans in the West’s 10th seed and makes the play-in tournament much harder to make. They fell two back of the Spurs (who play Sacramento later Friday) with five games to go. New Orleans has four more games on this road trip before finishing with the Los Angeles Lakers.
If Friday’s game is any indication, the Pelicans could be in trouble in close games without their closers. Also, it would help if they could get guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker back from an ankle sprain. He was questionable heading into Friday’s game before being scratched prior to tipoff. — Andrew Lopez
What it means for both teams: After a disastrous performance in Chicago on Friday night, the Boston Celtics are staring at potentially being in the play-in tournament in 10 days.
Boston’s loss to the Bulls dropped the Celtics into seventh place in the East, and it only adds to the drama of what are a critical pair of games in Boston against the Miami Heat — now one game ahead of the Celtics — on Sunday and Tuesday. The Celtics won the first meeting of the season between the two teams, meaning that a win in one of those two games would give them the tiebreaker over Miami.
The Celtics will have to be much better than they were Friday, however, if they want to have any chance in those games. While it was good to see Evan Fournier get going (17 points on 7-for-11 shooting), the Celtics besides Fournier and Kemba Walker (33 points) looked lifeless. Playing without Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams III hurts — Brown, out with a sprained ankle, should be back for Sunday’s game; Williams, out with turf toe, is less certain — but this team should’ve had enough to beat a Bulls team on tired legs without them.
Chicago’s win, meanwhile, pulled the Bulls within three games of the Washington Wizards with five to play. While Chicago holds the tiebreaker, giving it some semblance of a chance, anything less than running the table will all but certainly mark the end of the Bulls’ playoff chances. — Bontemps
Play-in matchups following Thursday’s games
Play-in games to be held May 18-21
Game 1: No. 8 Charlotte at No. 7 Miami — winner is No. 7 seed in playoffs
Game 2: No. 10 Washington at No. 9 Indiana — winner moves on in play-in; loser is eliminated
Game 3: Indiana/Washington winner at Miami/Charlotte loser — winner is No. 8 seed in playoffs
Game 1: No. 8 Golden State at No. 7 Portland — winner is No. 7 seed in playoffs
Game 2: No. 10 San Antonio at No. 9 Memphis — winner moves on in play-in; loser is eliminated
Game 3: Memphis/San Antonio winner at Portland/Golden State loser — winner is No. 8 seed in playoffs
Saturday’s key games to watch
Nets at Nuggets, 10 p.m. ET
Wizards at Pacers, 7 p.m. ET
Pistons at Sixers, 7 p.m. ET
Thunder at Warriors, 10 p.m. ET
Spurs at Blazers, 10 p.m. ET