Eight biggest questions heading into final week of NBA season

As the NBA regular season nears its completion here in the next week, there’s still a lot that has yet to be decided. Sure Golden State has now clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs by virtue of its current 13-game winning streak. But who will the Warriors take on in the first round?

The same question can be asked back east where Cleveland now controls its own destiny for the top spot after Wednesday’s win over Boston. There are currently four teams battling for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Each of those squads could provide LeBron and Co. a difficult matchup in the first round.

From an individual standpoint, we’re really no closer to drawing a conclusion about who the NBA MVP will be. While we do know Stephen Curry is unlikely to win it for a third consecutive season, Isaiah Thomas is making an otherwise two-man race that much more interesting.

These are among the eight biggest questions heading into the final week of the 2016-17 NBA regular season.

1. Who wins the tanking race out west?

The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t do themselves any favors by defeating San Antonio on the road Wednesday night. That’s a sad comment, but it couldn’t be any more true. Los Angeles is now 1.5 games ahead of Phoenix in the race for the bottom spot out west. That came after the Suns dropped a home game against Golden State on Wednesday.

What exactly does this mean? If the Lakers finish outside of the top-three in this year’s lottery, they convey their first-round pick in 2017 to the Philadelphia 76ers. Not only that, this scenario would also force Los Angeles to give up its 2019 first-round pick to Orlando.

Needless to say, finishing with a worst record than Phoenix would go a long way in new personnel head Magic Johnson actually building something of substance in Southern California.

As of right now, Phoenix boasts the second-worst record in the NBA with Brooklyn taking the cake for ineptitude. If this were to play out, the Lakers would have a better than 50 percent chance of having to yield their first-round pick to Philly. That’s how big Wednesday’s win over San Antonio was.

With home games coming up against Sacramento, Minnesota and New Orleans before heading to Oakland for their season finale, the Lakers are not in a great position to continue tanking.

Meanwhile, Phoenix takes on Oklahoma City and Dallas at home before traveling to Sacramento for its season finale. Get your popcorn ready, this sad race for a worst record will surely get interesting in the final week.

2. How will Kevin Durant perform in return?

It looks like Durant will return for Saturday’s game against New Orleans. This will represent the former MVP’s first game since late February. This means that Durant, who is returning from an MCL injury, will have three outings to get his proverbial sea legs under him before the playoffs.

With Golden State having already clinched the top seed out west, it will be interesting to see how Steve Kerr utilizes Durant for the final three games. He will surely want to give Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson some rest after sitting Draymond Green Wednesday night. How will that factor into Durant’s ability to mesh in on a team that’s in the midst of a 13-game late-season winning streak?

It is also important to note that Durant is expected to be on a minutes limitation until the start of the postseason. Again, what impact will this have on his ability to break from what promises to be some rust?

The former MVP was averaging 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists at the time of the injury. He was also putting up his most efficient performance from both a shooting (54 percent) and defensive standpoint in what is already a Hall of Fame worthy career.

With all that said, Golden State has been on an absolute roll with Durant sidelined. How he returns and mixes in with that the team has done will play a huge role in determining whether the Warriors win their third consecutive conference title.

After all, the sole reason for signing Durant in the offseason was to return to the game’s grandest stage. It will be interesting to see if he actually acts as a detriment to that ultimate goal. Based on what we’ve seen from Durant in a Warriors uniform this season, that’s highly unlikely.

3. Who grabs the final three spots back east?

Jimmy Butler

A total of 1.5 games separate the Atlanta Hawks at No. 6 back east and the Indiana Pacers as the ninth seed. In between those two teams are the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat, both of whom are in playoff positioning. It’s most definitely going to be a drama-filled final week of the season as these four teams battle for the final three spots in the Eastern Conference.

It’s also intriguing in that the Cleveland Cavaliers — currently in possession of the No. 1 seed — are much more vulnerable than they have been in each of the past two seasons. Depending on the matchup, there’s a decent chance LeBron and Co. could be given a difficult initial series come playoff time.

Most objective observers would like to see LeBron take on his former Heat team in the first round. Miami has put up a 27-10 record since an 11-30 start to the season. For comparison’s sake, Cleveland is 22-17 during that very same span. This would certainly be an intriguing first-round matchup.

On the same note, who wouldn’t love to see Lance Stephenson and his Pacers take on the Toronto Raptors in the first round? Currently tied with Chicago and Miami for the final two seeds back east, that’s a distinct possibility.

Indiana would have to finish with a better record than those two while overcoming a 1.5-game deficit to Atlanta for the sixth spot. With Atlanta set to take on Cleveland in a back-to-back this upcoming weekend, that team is surely in a difficult spot.

Just imagine Stephenson and P.J. Tucker going at it in the playoffs after Tuesday night’s skirmish — one that was started by Stephenson himself going all bush league in just his second game back as a member of the Pacers (more on that here).

Either way we spin it, four teams battling for three spots within a seven-day period. That’s what the NBA is all about. And in reality, it could play a large role in what happens early in the playoffs.

4. MVP favorite?

At this point, most would draw the conclusion that the race is between Russell Westbrook and James Harden. This might very well be true. But there’s a lot of narrative to that. Neither Oklahoma City nor Houston can be seen as top conference title contenders out west.

Despite tying Oscar Robertson’s record for the most triple-doubles in single-season NBA history, Russ has his Thunder as the sixth seed.

This will likely lead to a first-round matchup with Harden and the Rockets with the winner taking on Golden State or San Antonio in the following round. That’s definitely not a recipe for playoff success. And while the MVP is an individual honor that’s voted on with the regular season in mind, this should be taken into account.

Sure Russ is averaging a triple-double. What he’s done statistically this season is absolutely amazing. Even then, Oklahoma City is nothing more than a bottom-three seed out west. As it relates to Harden, he has overseen a dramatic improvement in Houston. He’s also taken it on the chin a couple times recently against two-time reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry. Again, that should be taken into account here.

Earlier in the week, we focused on Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics as a potential top-end MVP candidate. Said candidacy may have taken a hit in Boston’s blowout home loss to Cleveland on Wednesday. Should the Celtics fail to earn that top seed back east, the primary motivation for voters going in Thomas’ direction will be thrown out the window.

The final week of the regular season will be interesting in that neither Harden or Westbrook have much more to prove. Their teams are pretty much entrenched in at their current seeding. Instead, it might be all about Thomas’ ability to find a way to help Boston earn that top seed in the Eastern Conference. Either way, it’s rather annoying that we will now have to wait longer to hear the MVP announcement (more on that here).

5. Can the Cavaliers get it right?

Cleveland may have already answered this question with its 23-point blowout win over the Celtics in Boston Wednesday night. That equated to a must-win for a Cavaliers team that headed into the game with a 9-10 mark since March 1st. Now one game ahead of Boston for the top seed back east, LeBron James and Co. will be looking to continue getting it right heading into the playoffs.

The Cavaliers have now won four consecutive games. It’s the team’s best stretch of action since a five-game winning streak in late December. Though, not everything is perfect for the defending NBA champions.

Tristan Thompson missed his first game in five-plus years with a sprained thumb on Wednesday. His status moving forward is not yet known. Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving continues to struggle from the field and is shooting at just 41 percent over the past seven games. These are two big questions heading into the playoffs.

More than that, Cleveland has four games remaining, all against playoff contenders. In addition to a home-and-home against Atlanta, the Cavaliers must take on Miami and Toronto to wrap up the season.

Even if Cleveland were to grab the top seed back east, that first-round playoff matchup might not be a walk in the park. LeBron and Co. boast a 5-8 record against the four teams battling for the final three playoff spots, including an 0-4 mark against the Chicago Bulls.

6. Home court for the Jazz or Clippers?

This will have some wide-ranging ramifications out west. One would normally draw the conclusion that any team slated to take on Golden State in the conference semifinals is already dead in the water.

That’s until we realize that Utah provides a mismatch of epic proportions against the Warriors. They are an elite-level defensive team with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Rudy Gobert manning the center position. He’s been a difficult matchup for Steve Kerr’s squad recently.

On the other hand, Los Angeles has lost 10 consecutive games to the Warriors by an average of 12.4 points per outing. Depending on the outcome of Golden State’s first-round series, the objective fan might be rooting for Utah to take on the defending conference champs in the second round.

As of right now, Utah boasts a half game lead over Los Angeles for the fourth seed. Though, the Clippers themselves hold the tie-breaker with a 3-1 series win over the Jazz this season.

Including back-to-back games against San Antonio and Houston in the final week, Los Angeles has three dates remaining on the regular season calendar. Meanwhile, Utah is tasked with taking on Portland, Golden State and San Antonio to end the season after meeting up with Minnesota on Friday.

It will certainly be interesting to see if either the Warriors or Jazz play their starters in that second-to-final regular season game in Oakland this upcoming Monday.

7. Who captures the eighth spot out west?

Things were certainly looking up for Portland just a few short days ago. Here’s a team that entered this week’s action with a 14-3 mark over the past 17 games. It was also coming off a splashy high-scoring win over the Denver Nuggets, a squad the Blazers are battling with for the final playoff spot out west.

Now in the midst of a two-game losing streak, the Blazers are just one game ahead of Denver for the eighth spot. They will also have to go to battle without recent acquisition Jusuf Nurkic, who had been dominating in the Pacific Northwest since being acquired from Denver at the trade deadline. Nurkic is out for the remainder of the regular season with a fracture in his right eg.

By virtue of Denver’s narrow loss to Houston Wednesday night, it is behind the proverbial eight-ball heading into the final week of the season. Portland boasts the tie-breaker after winning the season series, meaning the Nuggets will have to pick up two games on the Blazers over the next seven days.

As to where Portland closes out the season with four consecutive home dates, the Nuggets have to take on Oklahoma City in two of their final three games. Either way we spin it, whoever comes out on top here might be a difficult out for the Warriors. At the very least, it will be more competitive than most people think. That’s what makes this battle so intriguing.

8. Will the Celtics hold off the Cavs for No. 1 seed?

Boston’s chances of earning the top seed back east took a major hit when it was blown out by LeBron and the Cavaliers Wednesday at home. That was a game head coach Brad Stevens and Co. marked on their calendar. And in reality, they blew a golden opportunity against what had been a struggling Cavaliers team.

In no way does this mean Boston is dead in the water. It has lost the season series to Cleveland, but still has four games remaining to pick up two games on the two-time defending conference champs. With two of their final four games coming against Charlotte and Brooklyn, the Celtics are sitting in fine position to finish the season strong.

On the other hand, Cleveland faces four playoff contenders to close out the season, including a home-and-home against an Atlanta Hawks squad in desperate need of finishing strong to earn a postseason spot. Outside of that, the Cavaliers have dates with Miami and Toronto.

Despite Boston failing to show up on a grand stage Wednesday night, there’s still a chance this team could steal the top seed from Cleveland. It will certainly take a lot of work in the final week of the season.