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NBA Daily: Playoff Implications In Week One

Douglas Farmer takes a quick look at a few matchups this NBA opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.

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When the Los Angeles Clippers lost to the New Orleans Pelicans in last season’s first week, they had no way of knowing how costly the defeat would be. Flipping that 116-109 defeat, or any single one of the Clippers’ other 33 losses, would have kept Los Angeles from the buzzsaw of the Golden State Warriors in last spring’s first round.

That seems obvious now when every game feels important because it has been so long since any game has happened. But in no time, this week’s games will be diminished with “early season” qualifiers. They should not be. An October win has the same worth as an April victory. Losing before Halloween is as costly as falling after St. Patrick’s Day.

Some nights heighten those stakes even further. Facing the closest competition in the standings can have double the effect. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at a few matchups this opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.

Tuesday: Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – TNT.

To err on the side of obvious, as this is arguably the most-hyped game of the week, more than inane home-court advantage could be on the line in the second game of the league year. Neither Los Angeles team will have its full arsenal at its disposal, but that is part of the importance to the game: Both the Lakers and the Clippers have distinct hopes of managing their workloads this season. Getting off to a strong start is crucial to those intentions.

Consider last year’s Houston Rockets: If they had not struggled so mightily in October and November (not getting above .500 until Dec. 17), they would not have had to go pedal to the metal throughout the spring just to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Better seeding or fresher legs may have spelled better postseason fortune.

Wednesday: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers – 7:30 ET p.m. – ESPN.

The Eastern Conference pecking order is expected to separate these two, the Celtics among the also-rans while the 76ers chase the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 seed. For both, though, each game will matter. Boston will have the Toronto Raptors, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat all looking to slip by it, while the Bucks will inevitably rattle off enough wins to make Philadelphia’s pursuit a difficult one.

On top of that, studying how the wings of the Celtics fare against the size of the 76ers could be informative for both seasons.

Wednesday: Denver Nuggets at Portland Blazers, 10 p.m. ET – ESPN.

Perhaps only out of deference to continuity, both the Nuggets and the Blazers are trendy picks to finish among the top-four of the West. A year ago, they finished a game apart, only one game separating second-seeded Denver from falling to fourth in place of Houston.

Putting too much emphasis on one game the second night of the season may sound absurd, but the head-to-head matchups in this series will very likely determine playoff seeding among the league’s best. That is as true on Oct. 23 as it is on April 9.

Friday: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics – 7 p.m. ET.

Activate your League Pass subscription. While the defending champions may have lost a lot this summer, they still have playoff aspirations. By no means do those expectations equate to slipping in among the Eastern Conference’s barely-competent middle class. The Raptors anticipate fighting for home-court advantage. The Celtics hung on to such by one game last season. There is no reason to expect that gap to be bigger this year.

Friday: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans, 8 p.m. ET – ESPN.

The legitimacy of these playoff hopes may as much hinge on fall-off elsewhere in the West as the progress of these upstarts, but the odds of both the Mavericks and the Pelicans reaching the playoffs are slim. With or without Zion Williamson this week – and it’ll be without – New Orleans will need to boost its record while knocking Dallas’ early if it wants to find the postseason at the dawn of the Zion Era.

The Mavericks, meanwhile, are looking to prove the viability of the Luka Dončić and Kirstaps Porzingis pairing. Floundering into the draft lottery will not do much in the eyes of prospective free agents.

Friday: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – ESPN.

Much akin to the Nuggets and Blazers, the Jazz have stayed in the contention conversation because of continuity more than anything else, while the Clippers jumped into it via their active offseason. At some point, some of these teams have to end up in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoffs. That’s just math.

Last season, two games separated the fifth seed from the eighth. Los Angeles may be without Paul George right now, but how it does without him will thus directly impact what awaits George in the spring.

When the Clippers lost to the Pelicans 12 months ago, their leading scorer was Tobias Harris, who tallied 26 points yet was still a minus-3 while on the court. By the playoffs, Harris was working for the 76ers, but his showing in October still altered Los Angeles’ spring.

The same can be said of many games this week, early season or not.

Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer

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