After all the All-Star weekend festivities, the NBA will be back in action Feb. 21 as teams jockey for either playoff positioning or the draft lottery. There is still much to be sorted out. Will Golden State three-peat? Who can challenge the mighty Warriors? Is James Harden a shoo-in for the MVP? And will the Lakers make the postseason? All this and more will be decided over the last 25 games of the regular season.
The Race in the East The Milwaukee Bucks (43-14) have the best record in the NBA and the advantage in gaining the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Bucks lead second-place Toronto by two games and won the season series over the Raptors. Milwaukee has the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA.
After Toronto, Indiana, Boston, and Philadelphia are all separated by one game. The final stretch of the season will make for some interesting playoff matchups, especially in the conference semifinals.
Out West The race in the Western Conference is one to avoid the fourth, fifth, and eighth seeds. Golden State (41-16) will likely earn the No. 1 seed meaning they would play No. 8 in Round 1. In the second round, the Warriors would face the winner of the No. 4-No. 5 matchup. Currently, Portland and Houston are jockeying for the fourth and fifth spots with Utah and San Antonio just a game behind.
The Thunder sits in third place with a three-game lead over Portland, but Oklahoma City has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. Only three games separate eighth from fourth place meaning that the Western Conference standings will probably fluctuate daily from now until the end of the season.
The Lakers in the Playoffs? It’s not happening. Los Angeles is currently 10th in the West three games behind the eighth-place Clippers. The Lakers are a game under .500, 28-29, and have 25 games left to play. Unfortunately for them, they have the fourth-toughest remaining schedule in the league. To make the postseason, the Lakers would have to make up the three games on the Clippers (who have the 19th-toughest remaining schedule) before they get to April.
Why you ask? The Lakers’ final five games are brutal. They must travel to Oklahoma City before back-to-back home games with Golden State and the Clippers. Then, they finish with home games against Utah and Portland. Sixteen of their final 25 games will come against likely playoff teams. Simply put, the Lakers will not be in the postseason in 2018-19.
The MVP Race With 31 consecutive 30-points-plus games and a ridiculous 36.6 points per game scoring average, Houston’s James Harden should be a lock for the league’s MVP. But, he isn’t. Despite the lofty scoring average, 7.7 assists a game, and 6.7 rebounds; Harden has both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George to contend with.
Antetokounmpo’s numbers are nearly as ridiculous as Harden’s – 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.4 steals. He is the leader of the team with the best record in the NBA and he’s doing it without another bona fide superstar as a teammate.
George has played his way into the conversation by averaging 28.7 points and 8.0 rebounds a game in Oklahoma City. George will likely be the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year and, in terms of value, consider that the Thunder are 22 points per 100 possessions better when George is on the floor. What happens the remainder of the season will most certainly decide who walks away with the NBA MVP in June.