The second half of the NBA season opens Wednesday night with a light schedule. There are only two games, but the four teams involved offer an interesting window into this year’s unique playoff race.
The new play-in tournament offers the ninth- and 10-place teams in each conference the opportunity to compete for the final two playoff seeds with the seventh- and eighth-place teams. And with the standings so tight, more teams than ever can plot a viable path to the postseason. Anyone can vault up the standings with one modest winning streak.
The Washington Wizards resume play Wednesday in 12th place in the East, but they’re just 1½ games out of 10th and four games out of fourth. Washington faces the Memphis Grizzlies, who are 10th in the West but only five games out of fourth place.
Just ahead of Memphis, the San Antonio Spurs (seventh) and Dallas Mavericks (eighth) open the second half against each other Wednesday with the same chance to make a move up the standings.
With that in mind, here are six teams that could make a big second-half surge ahead of the playoffs:
1. Mavericks: They’re getting healthy, and the offense is finding its rhythm after a slow start. Luka Doncic is the type of star who can carry the team.
2. Warriors: The same can be said of Steph Curry, who’s playing like an MVP again. Golden State, currently ninth in the West, could also be active at the trade deadline.
3. Spurs: Gregg Popovich has made a mix of promising young players and veterans work in his system. Depth will be key, with 40 games left, tied for most in the league.
4. Pacers: They’ve stumbled in the last two weeks, losing five of six, but Indiana expects Caris LeVert to make his debut later this month.
5. Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.’s return from knee surgery will be a huge boost, especially if he’s back to form quickly. The schedule will be brutal, with 40 games left.
6. Wizards: Bradley Beal has been sensational and leads the league in scoring. They endured a COVID-19 outbreak early in the season and won eight of 11 at the break.
Here are four more things to know today in the NBA as the second half of the season begins:
Embiid and Simmons out
After missing the All-Star Game due to contact tracing, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will remain out Thursday when the Philadelphia 76ers open the second half against the Chicago Bulls. Simmons will also miss Friday’s game against the Washington Wizards. As long as they continue to test negative for COVID-19, Embiid will be eligible to return Friday, and Simmons can return for Sunday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard fallout from slur
Miami Heat forward Meyers Leonard is away from the team while the NBA investigates his use of an anti-Semitic slur Monday during a video game stream on Twitch. Leonard posted an apology on social media Tuesday, but two sponsors have already ended partnerships with Leonard. He could also face punishment from the league. The NBA has issued fines for derogatory language in the past, including a $100,000 fine to Kobe Bryant for using a homophobic slur at a referee in 2011.
Lowry responds to rumors
As trade season begins to heat up, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry is a potential top target for contending teams. The Philadelphia native has been linked in rumors to the Sixers for weeks. After a report emerged that he expects to be traded, Lowry took to Instagram on Tuesday to try to quiet the noise, writing: “The lies people tell in the Media are amazing!! Don’t put thing out when they ain’t come from me!!” Lowry’s plea is likely to go unheeded as trade buzz only intensifies ahead of the March 25 deadline.
Booker knee injury ‘good’
Devin Booker also missed the All-Star Game, but Phoenix Suns general manager James Jones told The Arizona Republic on Tuesday that Booker’s sprained left knee is “good.” Jones said Booker could have played if Sunday were a playoff game. Booker remains day-to-day, and his status for Thursday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers is unclear. However, Jones’ update is good news for a Suns team that opens the second half in second place in the Western Conference.
Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.