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NBA Playoff match-ups are set following wild final day of regular season

By Sam Joseph and Jacob Lev, CNN

(CNN) — The 2023-24 NBA regular season is officially in the books.

All 30 teams were in action on Sunday, with postseason permutations changing right up until the 82nd game of the year. Sixteen out of 20 playoff and play-in seeds were still up for grabs entering the final day of the campaign, including an unprecedented three-way battle for the top spot in the Western Conference.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets all began Sunday with a 56-25 record, marking the first time in league history that three teams, through 81 games, all had the same record and a chance to capture the No. 1 seed in their conference.

OKC eventually came out on top, demolishing a depleted Dallas Mavericks squad – playing without eight rotation players – by 49 points to seal top spot.

“We all know what got us to this point,” star point guard and MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said postgame. “Just doubling down on that and keeping our heads down and trusting the work. We got this far for a reason; just don’t veer off of it.”

The reigning champion Nuggets were also victorious on the final day, defeating the Memphis Grizzlies 126-111 on the road as eight players finished in double figures, but Denver has to settle for the No. 2 seed as the Thunder hold the tie-breaker based on the head-to-head record between the two teams this season.

The Timberwolves were the only one of the top-three seeds in the West to lose their last game, falling 125-106 to the Phoenix Suns in what ironically turned out to be a playoff series preview. The loss locked Minnesota into the third seed, meaning that the T-Wolves will battle the sixth-placed Suns in round one of the postseason.

Much attention will be on the series between No. 4 seed Los Angeles Clippers and the No. 5 Dallas Mavericks, which will pit Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and James Harden against the elite duo of Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving.

The Thunder and Nuggets’ first-round opponents are yet to be confirmed. The NBA Play-In tournament allows the four teams ranked seventh through 10th at the end of the regular season the opportunity to compete for the final two spots in each conference’s playoff bracket.

LeBron James and the eighth-placed LA Lakers will take on the New Orleans Pelicans on the road for the right to battle Denver in the playoffs – the loser of that game will then face the winner of the No. 9 and No. 10 matchup between the Sacramento Kings and the Golden State Warriors, with a shot at the No. 8 seed and a series versus OKC on the line.

Not so wild East

Meanwhile, things were slightly less complicated at the top of the East. The 64-18 Boston Celtics hold the NBA’s best record and finished 14 games ahead of their nearest challenger atop the conference. They sealed the No. 1 seed in March and await the outcome of the Play-In tournament.

There was still much postseason shuffling elsewhere in the East, however. Most notably, the New York Knicks secured a 50-win season and the No. 2 seed by beating the Chicago Bulls 120-119 in overtime. Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo incredibly played over 52 minutes in the marathon game at Madison Square Garden, while his backcourt teammate Jalen Brunson led all scorers with 40 on the night.

With the victory, New York secured its best record in 11 years, per the NBA.

“You don’t have to wind these guys up and that’s what I love about them,” said head coach Tom Thibodeau. “Sometimes, we’re not going to be perfect, we’ll make some mistakes, but they’re going to compete and I think that’s important.”

The Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers each entered the final day of the season with a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed. However, Milwaukee fell to the Orlando Magic while Cleveland was defeated by the struggling Charlotte Hornets, leaving them in third and fourth respectively.

The Bucks will face the No. 6 Indiana Pacers and the Cavs will play the No. 5 Magic – both Indiana and Orlando avoided the Play-In on the final day.

The Miami Heat, last year’s Finals runner-up, finished eighth in the standings and will visit the Philadelphia 76ers for the chance to take on the Knicks in round one. Miami, led by prolific playoff performer Jimmy Butler, was forced to come through the Play-In last year en route to the Finals as the eighth seed and will be hoping that this season’s team can replicate those heroics.

The loser of that game will face the winner of the Bulls and Atlanta Hawks matchup for the final spot in the East and a series against the Celtics.

The NBA Play-In tournament runs through April 19 with the first round tipping off on April 20 and 21. The NBA Finals are scheduled to begin on June 6.

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