MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers have all but guaranteed themselves the top two playoff seeds and face a balancing act when the NBA returns to action.
While other teams will be fighting for a postseason berth or playoff seedings when they play the final eight regular season games in Florida, the Lakers and Bucks will be looking to shake off the rust after a 4½-month hiatus wile also staying healthy.
“At least from a player’s aspect, you can expect us to go out there and play as best as we can and as hard as we can during this situation,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “That’s the only thing we can control, really.”
With the league playing the remainder of the regular season and the entire playoffs at Walt Disney World as a safety precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic, owning a No. 1 seed may not matter as much as usual. But the Bucks and Lakers are virtually assured of having the top seeds in their respective conferences regardless.
Milwaukee owned the NBA’s best record at 53-12 and the Lakers were next at 49-14 when the pandemic caused a suspension of play in mid-March.
The Lakers will arrive at Disney World with a magic number of three in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. That number could get trimmed to one on re-opening night if they beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the second game of the July 30 doubleheader.
Milwaukee’s magic number for the East’s No. 1 seed is two. The Bucks can’t drop below the No. 2 spot in the East, no matter what happens, and they could lock up the top spot on their half of the bracket as early as Aug. 2.
The race for the NBA’s best overall record still could be in doubt at that point. But with no home-court advantage to play for in these playoffs, the only thing left to decide would be which team is assured of wearing white uniforms for Game 1 of the NBA Finals if the title series is a Bucks-Lakers matchup.
“Like we always would if this were the regular season or if these were the last eight games of the regular season, we would compete to win,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s how your habits are built the best. Every time we take the floor, we’re going to go out there and try to win a game.”
When teams are locked into a particular playoff seed, they often spend the final few games of the regular season resting key players to avoid the risk of injury. That won’t necessarily be the case this season after such a long hiatus.
Middleton said Friday he was “probably not able to touch a basketball for maybe two or three months” during the pandemic. Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo said his inability to use the Bucks’ training facility for much of the hiatus caused him to focus on conditioning and said that “it kind of took me back to being a little kid again, dribbling the ball inside, doing those little moves on the sidewalk and stuff like that.’’
That means even the teams without much at stake may need to spend these last eight regular-season games trying to regain the momentum that was lost these last few months.
“I don’t expect the first game or second game or third game, guys are going to be at 100%,” Bucks forward and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “Guys are going to be rusty. We’ll see a lot of balls, people throwing the ball through the stands, turnovers. You’re going to see that. But I think as we move forward and guys get more comfortable, the level of basketball is going to get better each game.’’
An early top-seed clinching also could see Lakers forward LeBron James breaking his routine. Typically, once James’ team is locked into a playoff seed, he shuts it down and begins preparing for the postseason. But because of the layoff, it could be argued that James might want to get a bit more game action even after the Lakers clinch the No. 1 spot.
“Does that mean you want to play certain guys 47 minutes? Obviously, no,” Vogel said. “We’ll be intelligent with the whole process.”
AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.
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