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When the abbreviated 2020-2021 NBA season began, some believed there was a strong chance the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics could meet in the NBA Finals for a record 13th time, a series that would break a tie for the most all-time championships.

The Lakers tied the Celtics at the top of the list by winning their 17th championship last October in the Orlando bubble but Boston was right there contending for title number 18 before losing to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Sure, the Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to the Charlotte Hornets during the brief offseason but were still seen as contenders in the East when the new season began in late December. And the Lakers were obviously seen as one of the favorites in the West as LeBron James and Anthony Davis were given even more weapons with additions such as Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol.

But this season certainly hasn’t gone as either team had planned as injuries have hit both franchises extremely hard. And while a 13th NBA Finals meeting is still technically possible, both franchises are on the verge of making a different kind of history as each seems destined to be included in the first batch of teams to participate in the new NBA play-in tournament.

Both the Lakers and Celtics would be included in the NBA play-in tournament if it started today

Jayson Tatum and LeBron James battle during a Lakers vs. Celtics matchup in January 2021
Jayson Tatum and LeBron James battle during a Lakers vs. Celtics matchup in January 2021 | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Heading into the final week of the regular season, both the Lakers and Celtics would be included in the NBA play-in tournament if it started today as both are currently have the seventh-best record in their respective conference. Here’s how the NBA playoff picture stands at the moment.

Eastern Conference

  • (1) Philadelphia 76ers
  • (2) Brooklyn Nets
  • (3) Milwaukee Bucks
  • (4) New York Knicks
  • (5) Atlanta Hawks
  • (6) Miami Heat
  • (10) Indiana Pacers at (7) Boston Celtics
  • (9) Washington Wizards at (8) Charlotte Hornets

Western Conference

  • (1) Utah Jazz
  • (2) Phoenix Suns
  • (3) LA Clippers
  • (4) Denver Nuggets
  • (5) Dallas Mavericks
  • (6) Portland Trail Blazers
  • (10) San Antonio Spurs at (7) LA Lakers
  • (9) Memphis Grizzlies at (8) Golden State Warriors

The Lakers need to pass the Blazers and do have the easier schedule

The Lakers enter the final week of the regular season with a 38-30 record after scoring a big win over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday as Anthony Davis put on a phenomenal performance, scoring 42 points and pulling down a dozen rebounds in the 123-110 upset.

LA is currently one game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the sixth spot in the West and will have to finish ahead of them as the Blazers own the tiebreaker due to beating the Lakers in two of their three matchups this season. However, LA does have the easier schedule of the two with four games remaining.

  • Lakers: vs. New York, vs. Houston, at Indiana, at Orleans
  • Blazers: vs. Houston, at Utah, at Phoenix, vs. Denver

The big concern for the Lakers is obviously whether or not LeBron will be around for this final push as LA continues to be very cautious with his ankle as the team wants him as close to 100% as possible before he returns.

The Celtics could finish as high as fourth or as low as 10th in the East


NBA Playoffs: How Does the NBA Play-In Tournament Work?

While we don’t yet know how they’ll be seeded, the top three teams in the Eastern Conference bracket are already set with the Sixers, Nets, and Bucks. The Knicks currently sit in the No. 4 spot but are just three games up on the No. 7 Celtics at the moment. Boston, however, is just 3.5 games up on the No. 10 Pacers, who still have five games left to play, beginning with Monday night’s matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So the Celtics could technically still finish as high as fourth in the East and as low as 10th depending on how things play out. It certainly doesn’t seem likely that Boston gets into the top six as they’re currently two games back of the No. 5 Atlanta Hawks and the No. 6 Miami Heat, who are tied with the same 37-31 record after Miami defeated Boston on Sunday. But the Celtics do have a Tuesday night rematch with the Heat in Beantown and the outcome of that game could go a long way in determining how things play out in the East.

The Celtics then finish out their season with three straight on the road as they visit the Cavs on Wednesday, the Timberwolves on Saturday, and the Knicks on Sunday.

Again, there’s certainly still a chance that the Lakers and Celtics could match up in the NBA Finals but that chance is certainly much, much smaller than it was a few months ago. But just think, if LA and Boston were both to participate in the NBA play-in tournament and still find their way to one another, it would be quite an amazing chapter in their storied rivalry.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference