The 2020-21 NBA season is winding down, but unlike previous years there’s no time to relax ahead of the playoffs. With a condensed schedule and the introduction of the play-in tournament, almost every single game matters down the stretch. That was certainly the case once again on Wednesday, as we got some more clarity on the playoff races in each conference.
Here’s a look at everything you need to know from that night that was in the NBA:
Knicks clinch first playoff berth since 2013
The Knicks didn’t have a game on Wednesday, but it was still a great night for them. With the Celtics’ loss to the Cavaliers, the Knicks are now guaranteed a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference and have officially clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2013.
At 38-31, the Knicks are currently in sixth place, but could easily still finish as high as fourth. With three games to play they have the same record as the fifth-place Heat and are only half a game behind the fourth-place Hawks. They have the tiebreaker against the Hawks, but do not have the tiebreaker against the Heat.
While simply getting into the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade is a massive step in the right direction, jumping up into fourth or fifth is crucial if they hope to actually win a series. Finishing in sixth would likely mean a first-round matchup with the Bucks, or possibly the Nets. Either way, that would likely end in defeat. A 4 vs. 5 series against the Hawks or Heat would be much more winnable.
Lakers unveil championship banner
The Lakers clinched the 2020 championship over seven months ago, but until Wednesday night they still hadn’t displayed a banner inside Staples Center. That’s because they were waiting for fans to be in attendance, but due to COVID-19 protocols that wasn’t allowed until recently.
A limited capacity crowd was in attendance for their game against the Houston Rockets, and though they didn’t get to see LeBron James (sprained ankle) or Anthony Davis (adductor tightness) in action, they did get to see the banner, which was unveiled during a pre-game ceremony.
“We had our ring night, we wanted you guys there, but we made sure we saved the banner for y’all,” LeBron said in a short speech. “We love you guys, and the road to back-to-back starts in about a week. Let’s get going.”
Harden returns, plays 25 minutes off the bench
After missing 18 straight games with a hamstring injury, James Harden declared that he was “very confident” he would return before the playoffs. And sure enough, there he was on Wednesday night, back in the lineup for the Nets’ matchup with the Spurs.
Due to his minutes restriction, and to help ease him back into the action, Harden came off the bench. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Nets use this strategy, as they also brought Kevin Durant off the bench when he was first coming back from an injury earlier this season. Still, it must have been a strange experience for Harden, considering the last time he didn’t start a game was in 2012 when he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But if Harden was feeling any different, it didn’t show on the court. There didn’t appear to be any rust as he got right back in the groove and finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists in 25 minutes. He also threw one of the best passes of the season, threading a long-range bounce pass through multiple defenders.
“Not to brag or anything, but I’m, like, really good at this game,” Harden said. “I study the game, very unselfish. I take the game and I play it the right way every single night. So, I don’t try to do anything I can’t do or doesn’t benefit my team. That mindset right there keeps me in a really good place.”
With Harden back, the Nets took care of the Spurs, 128-116, for their third straight win. They’re now 46-24 on the season, and have a 1.5-game lead on the Bucks for second place in the Eastern Conference. While they’re closing in on securing that No. 2 seed, they still have some work to do considering the Bucks hold the tiebreaker.
Hawks clinch with comeback win over Wizards
A few months ago, after a disappointing injury-filled start to the season, the Hawks were 14-20 and had just fired head coach Loyd Pierce. Now, they’re 39-31, have won five of their last six games and are officially heading back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. The last time they were in the postseason, they were eliminated by the Wizards in the first round, so it was fitting that they clinched their spot by beating Washington on Wednesday night.
After trailing by as much as 13 early in the fourth quarter, the Hawks closed the game on a 33-16 run. Trae Young went for 33 points, eight rebounds and nine assists to lead the way, while Bogdan Bogdanovic added 20 points, including nine in the fourth quarter to help power the comeback.
Since making the coaching change on March 1, the Hawks are 25-11 under Nate McMillan, which is the fourth-best record in the league in that span. Only the Nuggets, Suns and 76ers have been better.
Pelicans eliminated after loss to Mavericks
There were some positive moments for the Pelicans this season, namely Zion Williamson’s emergence as a borderline unstoppable offensive presence in the paint. In his first full campaign, he averaged 27 points — 10th in the league — 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game on 61.1 percent shooting, and showed exactly why he was the automatic No. 1 pick in 2020.
Unfortunately, he recently went down with a fractured finger, which was the final blow for a team that could never quite put everything together. Now, following their loss to the Mavericks on Wednesday night, the Pelicans have been eliminated from playoff contention for the third straight season.
Missing the postseason isn’t completely unexpected, and another shot at the lottery is probably for the best when you’re looking at the long-term future of a franchise that’s still in transition after losing Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in successive years. Still, it always hurts to actually be eliminated from contention, especially when you miss out by just a few games like the Pelicans did.