NBA

What are the biggest storylines heading into the final week of the 2020-21 NBA season?

Where has the time gone?

With just one week remaining in the 2020-21 NBA regular season, there are still plenty of scenarios to play out in deciding the playoff picture and Play-In Tournament.

Take a look at some of the biggest storylines heading into the final week of the season.

The defending champion Lakers... a Play-In team?

Just as we all expected, the Los Angeles Lakers are sitting on the outside looking in on a solidified playoff spot as the final week of the season approaches.

The Lakers currently own a 38-30 record, good for seventh place in the Western Conference as the Play-In Tournament becomes a legitimate destination for the defending champions. Trailing the Portland Trail Blazers by one game for the No. 6 seed in the West, Los Angeles has its work cut out for itself as the Blazers own the tiebreaker in the season series.

But help is reportedly on the way for the Lakers, as LeBron James is expected to return to action for either of the team's first two games of the week after missing 24 of the last 26 games with a high ankle sprain.

Chasing the No. 6-seed Blazers and No. 5-seed Dallas Mavericks, take a look at how the remaining schedule shapes up for each of these teams.

Remaining 2020-21 regular season schedule
Lakers Trail Blazers Mavericks
vs. Knicks vs. Rockets at Grizzlies
vs. Rockets at Jazz vs. Pelicans
at Pacers at Suns vs. Raptors
at Pelicans vs. Nuggets at Timberwolves

As you can see, Portland has the toughest remaining schedule of the three teams by far. Despite that, FiveThirtyEight's NBA predictions model still projects the Mavericks to finish fifth, with the Lakers and Blazers closing with the same record (41-31), giving Portland the edge by way of tiebreaker, sending Los Angeles to the Play-In Tournament.

Will the return of James and the recent emergence of Anthony Davis looking like his healthy self be enough to get the Lakers a top-six seed?

Ironing out the middle of the Eastern Conference

The middle of the Eastern Conference standings has been a log jam all season, so it's safe to this was expected coming into the final week.

Only three games separate the No. 4 seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs from the first team in the Play-In Tournament. With that being said, there are only four games remaining in the season, so the No. 4-seeded New York Knicks have all but guaranteed themselves a solidified spot in the playoffs.

That leaves us with the No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks and No. 6 seed Miami Heat, who are currently tied by record but the Hawks own the season-series tiebreaker, and the No. 7 seed Boston Celtics, who are two games back from the two teams ahead of them.

The Heat and Celtics face off in a rematch of Sunday's contest, where a win from Miami would almost certainly have Boston destined for the Play-In Tournament. If the Celtics can pull off a win, that's where things get interesting, because their remaining schedule is much easier than the Heat's.

Remaining 2020-21 regular season schedule
Knicks Hawks Heat Celtics
at Lakers vs. Wizards at Celtics vs. Heat
vs. Spurs vs. Wizards vs. 76ers at Cavaliers
vs. Hornets vs. Magic at Bucks at Timberwolves
vs. Celtics vs. Rockets at Pistons at Knicks

Again, using FiveThirtyEight's NBA predictions model, the Hawks are actually expected to jump the Knicks and take the No. 4 seed (via tiebreaker). From there, it goes New York at No. 5, Miami at No. 6 and then Boston as the No. 7 seed in the Play-In Tournament.

Race for third place in the West

The race for third place in the West has the potential to be a damning result depending on how things shake out between the seeds below.

Typically, the reward for landing in third place means two things - home court advantage in the first round and avoiding the No. 1 seed in the second round. This year, it could mean an unexpected first-round matchup against LeBron and the Lakers, if Los Angeles claims the No. 6 seed.

And even if the Lakers don't claim the No. 6 seed and fall into the Play-In Tournament, the No. 3 seed may still have to cross the defending champions if they land in seventh, win their Play-In Game and first-round series.

That's a lot of if's, and's or but's, but the fact of the matter is this - history shows that you want to wait as long as possible to see a LeBron James-led team in the playoffs.

With that being said, the Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers aren't going to let that affect their pursuit of a top seed. The Clippers currently own a one-game lead over the Nuggets, but Denver holds the tiebreaker if both teams finish with the same record.

The Clippers have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league, facing off against three teams that are out of the playoff picture with the fourth being the Charlotte Hornets. The Nuggets schedule isn't all that tough either, but they do close the season against the Blazers, who will almost certainly still be fighting for seeding in that final game.

This race will be fun to monitor alongside the three-team race between the Lakers, Mavericks and Blazers.

Reported NFL RedZone-like NBA Sunday

According to The Athletic's Shams Charania, the NBA is planning to have an NFL Sunday-esque conclusion to the regular season on Sunday, May 16.

The reported plan is to have all 30 teams in action - 15 games total - all in between the times of noon and 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time. With all of the aforementioned storylines and then some, this should shape up to be a hectic day that should be reminiscent of a traditional NFL Sunday 1 o'clock kick-off.

With every team in the league on the slate, just about every game will hold some sort of meaning toward the playoff and Play-In picture, but these head-to-head matchups, in particular, will have a playoff-like atmosphere to them.

All game times are still to be determined, but it will certainly be a banner day for all NBA League Pass owners, giving off the whip-around feeling of NFL RedZone.

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