No fewer than five Western Conference teams jostled for playoff position on the final day of the regular season Sunday, with the victorious Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors managing to stay out of the NBA’s precarious play-in round, which starts Tuesday with a pair of No. 7 seeds hosting No. 8 seeds.
The winners of those two games will advance to the playoffs, while the losers will face teams seeded either ninth of 10th in a pair of win-or-go-home games on Friday. Following is a breakdown of the first four matchups, along with relevant odds and lines (as of Sunday night) from America’s three leading mobile sportsbooks.
Atlanta Hawks (No. 8, 44-38) at Miami Heat (No. 7, 41-41)
Season series: Heat 3-1
DraftKings: Miami -5, o/u 226.5, -200/+170 moneyline
FanDuel: Miami -5, 226, -198/+166
BetMGM: Miami -4.5, 226.5, -210/+170
That the two best teams in the Southeastern Division are facing each other in the first of Tuesday’s play-in games is testament to how mediocre that division is. It’s fair to say that fans of the second-seeded Boston Celtics will be rooting for the Hawks, as the Heat have earned the title of “lower seed nobody wants to face in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.”
It’s easy to see why this is the case. Miami has a proven closer in Jimmy Butler, one of the league’s best two-way bigs in Bam Adebayo, a crafty coach in Erik Spoelstra, and a brash, talented perimeter scorer in Tyler Herro. But point guard Kyle Lowry’s regression this season has been concerning, to put it mildly.
Atlanta’s had a chaotic season, including a February coaching change (from Nate McMillan to Quin Snyder) and questions about whether its star player, Trae Young, is more concerned with his own fortunes than those of his team. In terms of raw talent, the Hawks have more than enough to compete with the Heat, and in a single-game scenario, they might be able to steal one on the road.
Minnesota Timberwolves (8, 42-40) at L.A. Lakers (7, 43-39)
Season series: T’Wolves 2-1
DraftKings: Lakers -6.5, o/u 230, -250/+210 moneyline
FanDuel: Lakers -7, 229.5, -275/+250
BetMGM: Lakers -6.5, 229.5, -250/+200
Both of these teams did all they could to avoid a play-in date with one another by defeating New Orleans and Utah, respectively, on Sunday, but wins by the Clippers and Lakers rendered those efforts moot. That Minnesota was able to defeat the Pelicans was something of a miracle, as center Rudy Gobert was sent home in the first half after punching teammate Kyle Anderson in the chest during a sideline argument, while the team’s best wing defender, Jaden McDaniels, is likely out for the remainder of the season after punching a wall and fracturing his hand in the first quarter.
Oh my Rudy Gobert just threw a punch at his own teammate Kyle Anderson pic.twitter.com/6GP5wwkCqW
— Kevin O’Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 9, 2023
It’s no wonder, then, that oddsmakers see the Lakers as a rather heavy favorite in this matchup, even though Minnesota won two of three games between the teams during the regular season. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka showed uncharacteristic competence at the trade deadline in landing Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, and former Timberwolf D’Angelo Russell, while Minnesota executed what so far looks like one of the worst trades in NBA history in its offseason acquisition of Gobert.
A couple of months ago, the Lakers looked like a team that couldn’t contend for a title even with a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Now, should Los Angeles advance out of the play-in, it might well be favored in a first-round matchup against a much higher seed.
Chicago Bulls (No. 10, 40-42) at Toronto Raptors (No. 9, 41-41)
Season series: Raptors 2-1
DraftKings: Raptors -5, o/u 216, -200/+170 moneyline
FanDuel: Raptors -5, 215.5, -188/+158
BetMGM: Raptors -4.5, 215.5, -200/+165
Just a year ago, both the Bulls and Raptors were seen as teams on the rise. But high expectations gave way to underachievement in Chicago and Toronto this season, as each team’s commitment to its veteran core was called into question by largely standing pat at the trade deadline.
The Bulls seemed to get a shot of life, however, after landing veteran disruptor Patrick Beverley in the buyout market. By pairing Pat-Bev with a truly elite perimeter defender in fellow ex-Laker Alex Caruso, the Bulls were able to reach a level of defensive respectability that had been lacking until that point.
Meanwhile, the Raptors could have blown things up and fetched some promising pieces in exchange for the likes of O.G. Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, but they instead chose to ride things out and hope things would finally click. They’re still waiting for that to happen, with their season on the line.
Oklahoma City Thunder (10, 40-42) at New Orleans Pelicans (9, 42-40)
Season series: Pelicans 3-1
DraftKings: Pelicans -4.5, o/u 229.5, -195/+165
FanDuel: Pelicans -5, 229, -210/+176
BetMGM: Pelicans -4.5, 229.5, -200/+165
Young, loaded, and long, the Thunder merely being here is a testament to the success of a rapid-fire rebuild that finds the team stocked with talent, flexibility, and draft capital as it looks to resume its winning ways. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the most dynamic two-way talents in the league, and he’s surrounded by do-it-all point forward Josh Giddey and a cast of athletic role players who’ve got nothing to lose.
Perhaps the only thing more disturbing than a handful of Timberwolves punching people and inanimate objects on Sunday was the fact that New Orleans found a way to lose to a seemingly self-destructing team with a lot at stake. Had the Pelicans won, they’d have had two chances to play their way into the playoffs instead of needing to run the table. Regardless of how their season ends, any long-term success for this franchise likely hinges on the health of the terminally hobbled Zion Williamson, a bet that gets shakier with each passing day.
Photo: David Berding/Getty Images