The Western Conference playoff race is on fire right now, with 10 teams battling for eight playoffs spots. The eight teams that will qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs are likely set, with a 6.5-game gap between the eighth and ninth seeds, but out West all is chaos. As such, the West playoff race is driving the NBA because those teams are playing at an ultra-high level, setting the tone for how well an opponent must play to have a chance to defeat them.
This played out on Sunday, as all four games on the schedule featured at least one team battling for the West playoffs. All told, six of the eight teams to play on Sunday are in that West playoff race, and the other two teams were the top two seeds in the East playoff race. Let's take a quick twirl around the league to see how it played out:
The Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the teams that is only three losses ahead of the 10th seed out West, went into Toronto and manhandled the by-far top seed from the Eastern Conference, 132-125. This was the highest-scoring game of the day, as the Raptors and Thunder both played at a very high level on offense, but ultimately the Thunder needed that win more and pulled it out.
The top seed in the West also played, as the Houston Rockets went to Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves. This was another offensive explosion, with the Rockets taking out the Timberwolves 129-120. This score was a bit misleading, though, as the Rockets were up 21 at the half and seemingly had the game in hand before the Timberwolves put together a late rally. The result of the high score and the rally was that both teams had at least six players score in double figures, including at least two players off the bench for each team.
The Portland Trail Blazers won their 13th straight game, the best active streak in the league, by going into Los Angeles and thumping the Clippers. This was another game where the final score was a bit closer than the game was, due to a late game comeback by the Clippers. And this was another game in which both teams scored at least 109 points.
The lowest scoring game of the day was the New Orleans Pelicans, currently the sixth seed in the West, dominating the injury-depleted Boston Celtics 108-89. While the Celtics are dealing with injuries, they are also the No. 2 seed in the East, but they just couldn't stay on the floor with a Pelicans squad that is fighting for their playoff lives out West.
In terms of fantasy, Sunday's action supported a drum I've been beating for a while now: motivated players make for the best fantasy production. All six of the teams in that Western Conference playoff hunt scored at least 108 points on the day, and they averaged 120 points. The production was independent of defense quality, as both the Raptors and the Celtics sport good defensive squads and they couldn't slow things down.
When setting lineups for this fantasy playoff week, or putting your DFS lineups together, I stress that when in doubt, go with the player(s) that are most motivated to produce at this time when some already have one foot poised to step into the offseason.
• Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: 37 points (15-22 FG, 6-8 FT), 14 assists, 13 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 3-pointer, 5 TO
• James Harden, Houston Rockets: 34 points (9-18 FG, 14-14 FT), 12 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 3-pointers, 1 block, 4 TO
• Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: 34 points (14-24 FG, 6-8 FT), 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 TO
• Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans: 7 points (2-5 FG, 3-3 FT), 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 TO
• Al Horford, Boston Celtics: 6 points (3-11 FG), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block, 1 TO
• The Rockets won again on Sunday, defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves by nine points. Harden led the way as usual, but seven Rockets scored in double figures on the day. Perhaps the most important play of the day didn't show in the box scores, though, and is usually considered a negative. Chris Paul was shoved to the floor by Gorgui Dieng, then in response Gerald Green came and shoved Dieng into the first row of the stands. The reason this play is important is because Green was seen to be standing up for his smaller teammate in a huge way, and the Rockets and their fan base love it. Paul said that he would pay whatever fine Green incurs, and Rockets fans have run out of superlatives for Green on Twitter. With everyone healthy, Green is just a role player on the Rockets, but this type of play may just get him on the court a bit more as the team finalizes the regular season and starts prepping for the battles of the postseason.
• Meanwhile, the Timberwolves put together a very balanced effort against the Rockets with four players scoring at least 20 points and six players with at least 14. Karl-Anthony Towns led the way with 20 points and 18 rebounds, and Jeff Teague joined him in the double-double category with 23 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 3-pointers and 2 steals. Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points without much else, and Jamal Crawford did the same with his 20-point effort. Derrick Rose's 14 points were interesting due to name recognition, but Nemanja Bjelica (59.4 percent available) out-produced him on the day with 15 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 3-pointers and is also the safer play down the stretch.
• The Trail Blazers were another balanced squad, with all five of their starters scoring between 16 and 23 points. Lillard led the way with 23 points, but with the game in hand he hardly played down the stretch and didn't have to put up big numbers. Jusuf Nurkic had the best fantasy day with 17 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks but Al Farouq Aminu (83 percent available) was balanced early and scored more late on his way to 16 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 3-pointers and 3 steals.
• The Clippers' starters were run off the court on Sunday, with four of the five posting plus-minus scores of minus-24 or worse on the day. However, Ramona Shelburne pointed out one of the keys to the Clippers' successes of late:
- Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) March 19, 2018
And sure enough, Williams led them back into the game off the bench with 30 points, 4 assists and 3 3-pointers. Fantasy-wise, the more important line was from Montrezl Harrell because he's still available in 79.9 percent of leagues, and he put together 24 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 combined blocks/steals in 20 minutes off the bench on Sunday.
Injuries of note
• Kyrie Irving (knee) missed his third straight game on Sunday, and is game-to-game moving forward. Jaylen Brown also sat again with a concussion, but it's already been announced that he is unlikely to be available for Tuesday's game, either.
• Devin Booker missed Saturday's game with a hand injury that he had suffered on Wednesday, but played through for 34 minutes on Thursday. He is day-to-day moving forward. Meanwhile, T.J. Warren left Saturday's game with a sprained left knee and is also considered day-to-day until more information is released.
• Zach Lavine (knee), Kris Dunn (toe) and Lauri Markkanen (back) are all scheduled to miss Monday's game. This means that Bobby Portis, Noah Vonleh (Q, toe) and Paul Zipser are expected to see more time in the frontcourt while Cameron Payne, Justin Holiday, Antonio Blakeney and Jerian Grant should see more time in the backcourt.
Analytics advantage for Monday
The analytic of the day, as mentioned in the lede, is playoff motivation. There are three games on Monday where both teams are in the playoff race, which makes these three the most interesting matchups of the day.
And the injury-racked Golden State Warriors are at the San Antonio Spurs in a game that the Spurs need more, as they're fighting to get into the playoffs while the Warriors are just trying to get healthy as they settle securely into the second seed out West.
Top players to watch tonight
• Giannis Antetokounmpo gets another chance to square off with LeBron James on Monday, their last meeting of the regular season. This matchup between the present and the present-future will always be must-see TV for me.
• The Golden State Warriors beat the Phoenix Suns on Saturday with their three primary scorers injured, and they'll get the chance to see how they stack up on Monday against a San Antonio Spurs team fighting for their lives. Can Draymond Green and Quinn Cook repeat their big efforts of Saturday against a quality opponent, or are LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs up for an easy one at home?