Drama on the final day of the N.B.A.’s regular season took the form of the Boston Celtics clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a whole bunch of other teams resting their best players.
The Celtics entered Wednesday night a game ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference standings. With the Celtics’ 112-94 victory over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks and the Cavaliers’ 98-83 loss at home to the Toronto Raptors, the Celtics finished with the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage for a potential conference finals clash with Cleveland. The playoffs are scheduled to start Saturday.
The Celtics (53-29) will face the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls (41-41) in the first round while the Cavaliers (51-31) will play the Indiana Pacers (42-40).
At the start of the night, three teams — the Pacers, the Bulls and the Miami Heat — were vying for the final two playoff spots in the East. The Bulls caught a huge break when the Nets, who had the worst record in the league, chose to rest their top three players: Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker. The Bulls proceeded to drub the Nets, 112-73.
Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters before the game that he wanted to ensure that his team went into the off-season healthy. Still, it looked absurd. The Bulls were not complaining.
The Pacers benefited from similar good fortune in their game against the Atlanta Hawks (43-39), who rested most of their top players ahead of their first-round series against the Washington Wizards (49-33). The Pacers defeated the Hawks, 104-86, to earn the seventh seed in the East.
That left the Heat — a scrappy team that overachieved under Coach Erik Spoelstra — on the outside looking in. At one point this season, the Heat were 11-30. On Wednesday, they defeated the Wizards, 110-102, to finish with a 41-41 record, an extraordinary accomplishment in itself. But they fell just short of qualifying for the playoffs, no thanks to the Nets and the Hawks.
The third-seeded Raptors (51-31) will play the sixth-seeded Bucks (42-40) in the first round.
The Cavaliers, the defending champions, are limping into the playoffs. After clobbering Boston on April 5, Cleveland lost its final four games of the regular season — the last two without LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Kevin Love joined them on the bench for Wednesday’s loss. If nothing else, the Cavaliers should be well rested.
In the Western Conference, the top-seeded Golden State Warriors will open their postseason schedule against the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, a team that has surged in recent weeks behind Damian Lillard, a familiar adversary for the Warriors. Last season, Golden State needed just five games to defeat Portland in the conference semifinals — but nearly every game was closely contested. It is worth noting, however, that the Warriors’ Stephen Curry missed the first three games of that series with a knee injury.
This season, the Warriors closed out the regular season with their full assemblage of stars, including Kevin Durant, who returned to the rotation last week after injuring his left knee in late February.
Quietly, the San Antonio Spurs finished the regular season with the second-best record in the league. They will meet the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.
The best first-round matchup, on paper, goes to James Harden (and the third-seeded Houston Rockets) versus Russell Westbrook (and the sixth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder). The N.B.A. will not announce the winner of the Most Valuable Player Award until June, but both are deserving. Westbrook became the second player in N.B.A. history to average a triple-double for a season, after Oscar Robertson, who attended the Thunder’s regular-season finale on Wednesday and endorsed Westbrook’s M.V.P. candidacy. Behind Harden, the Rockets set the league record for most 3-pointers in a season.
The first-round series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Utah Jazz could be just as intriguing. Is this the last run for the Clippers as we know them? Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are eligible for free agency after the season, and an early-round flop could mean big changes over the summer. The Jazz, meanwhile, are a young team on the rise. They are making their first playoff appearance since 2012.