Final exams

It's the last day of the NBA "regular" season, and out here in the Western Conference, there's still a fair amount to be decided. Particularly for our own Portland Trail Blazers. By sunset tonight, the Blazers may be looking at a week's rest and a guaranteed first-round berth in the playoffs. But alternatively, they may be looking at a hideous "play-in tournament" in which they would have to take one game out of two to make the playoffs.

If the Blazers win tonight at home against Denver, they bask in the first scenario. The same is true if the Lakers lose in New Orleans this evening. But if the Lakers win and the Blazers lose, the Blazers get stuck in the "play-in" procedure, with a first game against the winner of this afternoon's Grizzlies-Warriors contest in San Francisco.

Winning tonight will not be easy for the Blazers. Denver has won three straight, albeit against weak teams, and they have had the Blazers' number this year. Denver is without one of its stars, Jamal Murray, who blew out his knee, but Michael Porter Jr. and potential MVP Nicola Jokic usually do a lot of damage. The bookies are favoring Portland, but I wouldn't be so sure.

The Nuggets still have a little something on the line here. If they lose and the Clippers win, Denver falls from the no. 3 seed in the West, where they woud play either Portland or the Lakers in the first round, to the no. 4 seed, where they would likely have to deal with Dallas. Denver has done better this year against Portland and the Lakers than it has against Dallas. 

But there are the regular-season Lakers and the playoff Lakers, and the consensus seems to be that the playoff Lakers are to be avoided for as long as possible. Some folks think the Clippers and Denver will both tank today to try to avoid even the possibility of a first-round series against the Lakers.

I think there's a way to see how hard Denver is trying to beat the Blazers tonight. The other night, the Noogies sat out guard Facundo Campazzo and were still able to beat lowly Detroit. If Campazzo isn't starting against the Blazers, or if he's disappearing, that's a good sign for the Blazers. But if Campazzo is in there and going strong, then I think Denver's heart is in it.

As for the Lakers, they took care of business yesterday in Indiana. The game saw the return of one of the Laker players you may have heard of, a fellow by the name of Lebron James. He had 24 points in 28 minutes. He's on a questionable ankle, and I'll bet he'd like the week off as opposed to a pressure-filled "play-in" game or two starting Tuesday. 

No wonder the Lakers are favored to beat New Orleans easily tonight. The Pelicans have collapsed since their main man, Zion Williamson, went out with a broken finger earlier this month. He almost certainly won't play this last game. New Orleans will have to rely on the likes of Wenyen Gabriel, a former Blazer who will have his hands full with L.A., again.

If the Blazers get sent to "play-in" purgatory, they'll face either San Francisco or Memphis in the first game, and if they lose that, they'll battle San Antonio, Memphis, or San Francisco in the second game. Both games would be played in Portland. The Blazers have done slightly better against Memphis than against San Francisco, and so I'll be rooting for Memphis today. 

If the Blazers win or the Lakers lose tonight, the Blazers will face either the Clippers or Denver in the first round of the real playoffs. The Clippers and Denver have identical records as the curtain goes up tonight; Denver has the tiebreaker. The Blazers, if they avoid the "play-in," would have their first round against whichever of those two ends up on top.

Except for today's contest between San Francisco and Memphis, which starts at 12:30 our time, all the games of interest in the Western Conference start at 6:00 our time. So in all the scoreboard-watching, nobody wll get a head start.

It would be nice for the Blazers to avoid the "play-in" business, but it wouldn't be the end of the world if thay had to deal with that. If they can't win one game out of two against San Francisco, Memphis, and San Antonio, maybe it isn't the Blazers' year. And emerging from the "play-in" would mean a first-round real-playoff matchup with Utah or Phoenix, both of whom Portland can beat, particularly Utah. To take four from the Clippers or Denver in the first round could actually be harder.

There is a slight possibility that the Blazers could still make it to the fifth seed in the West. If Dallas loses to Minnesota, the Lakers lose to New Orleans, and the Blazers win, the Blazers wind up the fifth seed and get Denver or the Clippers in the first round.

You can see every possible scenario here, including a handy-dandy pair of tables.

Then there is the Eastern Conference, but that's for another day. Right now, go Blazers!

Before leaving this topic, here's something really silly: my predictions! This is coming from a guy with $1.24 left his Scoreboard account, so take it for what it's worth:

Today's winners: Warriors over Grizzlies, Lakers over Pelicans, Nuggets over Blazers, Clippers over Thunder, Mavericks over Timberwolves, Suns over Spurs, Jazz over Kings. Final standings: Jazz 1, Suns 2, Nuggets 3, Clippers 4, Mavericks 5, Lakers 6, Blazers 7, Warriors 8, Grizzlies 9, Spurs 10.

First play-in games: Blazers over Warriors; Blazers 7th seed, to play Suns. Grizzlies over Spurs, Spurs eliminated.

Second play-in game: Warriors over Grizzlies; Warriors 8th seed, to play Jazz.