Three teams. Two coveted playoff berths. And one spot that is about as desirable as a bad rash.
There is a remote chance that other teams could enter the picture, but with two regular-season weeks left, it increasingly appears that the Western Conference Nos. 5, 6 and 7 seeds will be decided among the Mavericks, Lakers and Trail Blazers.
Fifth and six places are guaranteed reservations in the playoffs, which begin on May 22. Seventh place means relegation to a play-in tournament with the eighth-, ninth- and 10th-place teams to determine the West’s seventh and eighth seeds.
As if the pressure isn’t mounting enough, triggering LeBron James to express irritation with the new format, now Luka Doncic must be on Boy Scout behavior toward referees, which is like asking a kid to tolerate nightly Brussels sprouts helpings.
With 15 technical fouls, Doncic is one away from incurring an automatic one-game suspension and $5,000 fine.
“No, I won’t get another one,” Doncic said after receiving Nos. 14 and 15 during Sunday night’s home loss to Sacramento. “Don’t worry.”
When he made that promise, he seemed to have optimism that one or both of Sunday’s technicals would be rescinded, as was the case when he was whistled for a technical against the Knicks on April 2 after yelling “and one.” On Monday, however, a league source said both technicals were upheld.
This means that, starting with Tuesday night’s game in Miami, Doncic will need to significantly tone down his animated reactions to called and what he believes are uncalled fouls.
As was reinforced Sunday night, when the Mavericks lost to 12th-place Sacramento for the third time in 15 days, Doncic can’t so much as say “Hell, no!” which is what earned him his second-quarter technical. Or toss the ball to the other end of the court instead of to the nearest official, as was the case on his technical with 31 seconds left.
“Unsportsmanlike” and “disrespectful” were words that lead official Rodney Mott used when describing Doncic’s infractions, while also saying coach Rick Carlisle’s second technical foul was for walking toward officials “in a disrespectful manner, using vulgarity.”
If tensions are high now, imagine how elevated they’ll be as the games tick down and realization hits the Mavericks, Lakers or Blazers that they are doomed to the play-in tournament, despite 20 weeks and 72 games of toiling.
After the Lakers fell Sunday night to Toronto, for their sixth defeat in seven games and at least briefly dropping them to seventh in the West, James referred to the play-in tournament as “the playoff or whatever that thing is,” adding “whoever came up with that [expletive] needs to be fired, but, whatever.”
It was three weeks ago that Doncic when asked about the new format, blurted, “I don’t understand the idea of the play-in. You play 72 games to get in the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs.”
And Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who voted for the play-in tournament but now calls it “an enormous mistake,” added: “The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule. Rather than resting for a playoff spot and being able to rest players as the standings become clearer, teams have to approach every game as a playoff game.”
The Mavericks played the Kings without Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis. And while Hardaway is expected back for the Miami game, Porzingis is listed as doubtful, meaning he’ll likely miss his third straight game, sixth in the last seven and 25th of the season.
Maxi Kleber is listed as questionable with right Achilles soreness.
It’s that time of the season when teams often have injured players, but this year the lengthy injured lists seem exacerbated by the glut of games.
But for a team such as Philadelphia, atop the Eastern Conference, the stress level isn’t as great when a player such as Joel Embiid needs a night off.
“I can’t believe the NBA hastily implemented a change that makes games more interesting and meaningful,” Sixers president Daryl Morey sarcastically tweeted amid growing gripes about the play-in format.
Easy for him to say. As for Doncic’s no-more-technicals pledge, well, that’s easier said than done.
Tiebreaker scenarios for the Mavericks, Blazers and Lakers:
-Mavs-Blazers two-way tie: Portland has tiebreaker by virtue of 2-1 record in season series.
-Mavs-Lakers two-way tie: Dallas has tiebreaker by virtue of 2-1 record in season series.
-Lakers-Blazers two-way tie: Winner of Friday’s head-to-head matchup claims tiebreaker.
-Three-way tie: Division title is first tiebreaker. Dallas leads Southwest Division, while LA and Portland have been mathematically eliminated in their divisions.
May 4: @ MIA
May 6: BKN
May 7: CLE
May 9: @ CLE
May 11: @ MEM
May 12: NO
May 14: TOR
May 16: @ MIN
May 5: @ CLE
May 7: LAL
May 8: SA
May 10: HOU
May 12: @ UTA
May 13: @ PHX
May 16: DEN
May 6: @ LAC
May 7: @ POR
May 9: PHX
May 11: NYN
May 12: HOU
May 15: @ IND
May 16: @ NO